I never cared for the “melting pot” metaphor, in part because it treats a nation of immigrants like a stew with all the cultures cooked out of it. Nor was I a fan of “gorgeous mosaic,” which sounds fine coming from a kindergarten teacher but is flat as a political rallying cry.
I prefer “the American experiment.” It’s just as inartful, yet closer to the truth. The audacious idea that people from all races, ideologies and religious sects would check their hatreds at the door after becoming citizens is our sustaining narrative.
Within our borders, Protestants don’t fight Catholics, Sunnis don’t go after Shiites, Armenians share neighborhoods with Turks, and a family that can trace much of its ancestry to slavery occupied a White House built in part by slaves.
But that tenuous construct is breaking apart. We are retreating to our tribal, ethnic and primitively prejudicial quarters. Everything is about race and identity. We come from privilege, or oppression. We choose politicians based on whether they help our tribe or hurt People Like Us.
This is President Donald Trump’s legacy. He has shattered the idea, eloquently expressed by President Barack Obama, that we are not “irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” In the Trump era, we are neck-deep in that tragic past.
Stupidly, the left is playing its part in this crackup, perhaps ensuring that Trump will stay in office. When people shout, “Check your privilege” at a speaker at a public event, what they’re saying is, “Shut up, your opinion doesn’t matter because of the color of your skin.”
Trump is a master divider. He tweets against football players because he wants people to resent rich black athletes. Instead of sports being our last unifying diversion, it’s just another platform for hate.
He tweets about saying “Merry Christmas again,” because it puts people of other faiths on alert. As Newt Gingrich, a master demagogue himself, said, “He intuits how he can polarize.”
Trump opened the door to overt expressions of hatred. Investment adviser Marc Faber recently made this observation in his newsletter: “Thank God white people populated America, and not the blacks. Otherwise, the United States would look like Zimbabwe.” For good measure, he defended Confederate generals, “whose only crime was to defend what all societies had done for more than 5,000 years: keep a part of the population enslaved.”
Trump, of course, has never apologized for giving comfort to people who marched on behalf of a confederacy of slaveholders. And we all know that race would be an issue if a black occupant of the White House had fathered five children with three women, attacked grieving combat widows and exploited the office for personal gain.
But when people shame fellow citizens with the blunt edge of identity politics, they only encourage the backlash that gave us Trump.
White people who are not privileged — the poor, the uneducated, the struggling — feel belittled when elite whites scorn their “privilege.” What’s privileged about living paycheck to paycheck? About 8 million citizens voted for Obama — twice — and then flipped their vote for Trump. Most of them, surely, are not racist.
What they heard from Obama was the best American music. “In no other country is my story even possible,” he said in his 2008 speech on race. After noting that he won some of the whitest counties in the country, he criticized a view “that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above what we know is right with America.”
To dismiss white concern over busing or affirmative action as racist “only widens the racial divide and increases misunderstanding,” he said. Yet, that is exactly what many liberal whites and blacks are doing now. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his new book of essays, compares gentrification, which comes in many colors, to “a more pleasing name for white supremacy.”
He’s been getting pushback from African-Americans with a more expansive view. “Coates has convinced me that his particular brand of anti-racism does more political harm than good,” wrote Cedric Johnson, a professor of African-American studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, in an essay last year.
Certainly Steven Bannon knows that. He has repeatedly said that the more Democrats talk about identity and race, the more it helps his white nationalistic cause.
If all cultural appropriation is bad — extending even to, say, an Italian-American chef becoming expert in North African food — then we are doomed. If everyone is a racist, then no one can be saved from an awful destiny at birth.
Most Americans now feel their own group faces discrimination, according to a new NPR poll. A majority of whites say that discrimination exists against whites, even though a majority have not personally experienced it.
This is a tragic result of the retreat to tribal quarters, pushed by extremists on both sides. If it persists, the United States that Obama celebrated cannot hold. The breaking point is now.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.