A correspondent raised the issue of the historic identity of the American people, and whether it depended on the exclusion of nonwhites and in particular blacks. He suggested (a bit modishly, I thought) that to the extent concrete ethnicity became less important during the course of our history a sort of constructed pseudo-ethnicity based on the exclusion of the nonwhite Other grew in importance, and also claimed that Westward expansion was racist in the sense that Indians as Indians had to be defined as unworthy for it to seem legitimate to occupy their land.
“Identity” is normally, I suppose, some mixture of the evolved and the constructed, with less of the constructed in earlier times since the possibilities or maybe fantasies of social engineering were less developed. Social order had less to do with formal structures and more to do with elective affinities and local habits, attitudes and informal connections.
Anyway, it seems to me that American society has mostly been a congeries of local societies and arrangements, very predominantly British in origin but with local developments and modifications, rather than something that was conjured into existence by drawing a line that excluded the black Other. Blacks and other nonwhite others were excluded in various connections, as were various white others in some settings, but I don’t think those exclusions constituted a sort of artificial glue holding American society together, as you suggest. Rather they were mostly a consequence of the nature of the glue that was already doing the job—existing informal and largely inherited principles of cohesion. The exclusions reflected a recognition that blacks and others were different people with different habits, attitudes, loyalties, memories and other qualities, and they didn’t fit in an easy, informal and productive way into much of the network of mutual recognition and dealings that constituted the local version of American society. Like they say, “diversity is a challenge,” and rather than remodel everything from above to meet that challenge people did what came naturally and networked with people with whom they felt a connection.
Later on, when identity constructed from above did become more important, it was constructed mostly on the basis of an American public philosophy that tended toward the individualistic and universalistic and so had increasing difficulty justifying a color line that in earlier times and settled rural regions wasn’t seen as needing any particular justification but was simply an aspect of how people naturally and habitually acted. That constructed identity, which eventually turned radically antiracist, corresponded to more formalized, urban and industrial forms of social organization.
I think it’s true that in earlier days “white” was part of being “American.” Nonetheless, it seems to me it was Protestant British identity that played the most important role in defining what’s needed really to be an American. There were regional identities that mattered as well. In 1861 they trumped American identity for many people. The view that the color line substituted for more complex and historically-based understandings of identity suggests that as the latter declined with industrialization and immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews, Catholics and so on the color line would have become more strict. In fact, though, the color line wasn’t as strict in the Northeast, where there were big cities and lots of industry and immigrants and so apparently more need for a constructed identity, as in the rural South, where things were more settled. Also, there were parts of the country and indeed whole states where there wasn’t much racial diversity so racism couldn’t have had much to do with the way things worked in those places. So it seems that while there were racial distinctions they weren’t the glue that held things together.
As to the Indians: suppose the whole of the U.S. West of the Appalachians had been inhabited by a few hundred thousand white hunters, trappers, fishermen and wandering slash-and-burn farmers without deeds to the land but some sort of traditional rights of use. Would they have ended up owners of vast estates? Getting lots of uncultivated and almost-empty land for free or nearly so has its own appeal and didn’t need racial feeling to explain it. If I don’t have much, and someone has customary hunting and fishing rights in an unsettled area that will become useless if enough people farm it, I probably won’t feel the need for any particular excuse for moving in and farming the land. The fact that from my point of view the land is basically unused will be enough. Then when enough people move in and the hunters and fishers get annoyed and kill some of them I’ll probably feel very annoyed myself—“we built up this area”—and demand protection. Then since there are many more of us and there isn’t any more game the hunters and fishers will move away, drink themselves to death, try to eke out a living among the farmers and not do it very well, and so on. Tocqueville’s account of how white occupation of new lands for the most part took place is very much like that.
So I don’t think the claim that “whiteness” is a constructed identity based on the “exclusion of the Other” really explains much. Race and American identity are indeed an issue but I don’t think that claim illuminates it. To my mind culture and identity mostly spring out of positive things—the common memories, habits and understandings that facilitate social cooperation, for example. They do involve exclusion, but the exclusion is not primary. It’s something that establishes boundaries within which more positive things can exist, and so is a necessary part of human life. The way to deal with the American problem of multiple peoples occupying the same space, it seems to me, is not to abolish existing cultures and identities and construct something new and universally compulsory by force, which is the approach absolutely everybody remotely mainstream now takes, but to emphasize traditions like federalism, private property and local voluntary self-organization that allow people to form productive connections where they think they can do so and so are much more likely to allow a hundred flowers truly to bloom.
An intense Catholic then raised the issue whether Catholics should care about American culture and identity, given its strong Protestant background. Why not bring in all the Latin Americans for the sake of a new and more Catholic national identity? My response:
“American culture” is not an ideology but the culture of a particular people—a complex people, with variations, components and additions, but a particular people for all that. If that’s right, it seems to me that what a Catholic would want is to convert that culture (meaning that particular people) to Catholicism rather than dissolve it and them and put something else there instead.
A lot of what’s characteristic and good in Anglo-American tradition—e.g., the common law, constitutional and distributed government, popular self-respect—existed before Henry’s marital problems. I don’t see that such things are anti-Catholic. So it seems that what’s good in Anglo-American culture should be able to find a home in Catholicism. Protestantism, after all, is a fragment of Catholicism.
Since American society exists, and provides the standards, loyalties, memories, associations and so on that actually order the lives of millions, it seems that Catholics should prefer it to maintain itself as a going system, although one that can change if its members are persuaded that something better is possible, than dissolve with the aid of continuing mass immigration of people with little historical affinity to the existing society, combined with multiculturalist abolition of the authority of established local standards and ways.
Since man is social, almost any assemblage of traditional social standards that allows people to run their lives in a way they mostly find good is better than none. Once you have people living in a generally functional setting in which informal social standards are coherent enough for them to be rational and effective moral agents you can talk to them about whether better things are possible. Mass immigration and multiculturalism strike me as more likely to promote a situation in which the only social authorities are the market (a.k.a. money) and an all-pervading bureaucracy that asserts legitimacy on account of a claimed neutrality that can’t be distinguished from nihilism. That latter situation strikes me as a greater danger to humanity and therefore Catholicism than Protestantism so I’d try to avoid it.
One might of course ask about the extent to which “America” as a distinctive and healthily functioning society and culture still exists. I suppose it’s a matter of degree, so I still prefer preservation to destruction. If America has problems, abolishing what it’s been in favor of compulsory liberal universalism, which is the concrete prospect actually before us, won’t solve them.