Herman Melville exaggerated 160 years ago when he wrote, “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the world.” However, the results of the 2000 Census show that his words accurately describe the United States of today. Two decades of intensive immigration are rapidly remaking our racial and ethnic mix. The American mosaic—which has always been complex—is becoming even more intricate. If diversity is a blessing, America has it in abundance.
But is diversity a blessing? In many parts of the world the answer has been no. Ethnic, racial, and religious differences often produce violence—witness the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the civil war in Sudan, and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Against this background the United States has been a remarkable exception. This is not to say it is innocent of racism, bigotry, or unequal treatment—the slaughter of American Indians, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the continuing gap between whites and blacks on many socioeconomic indicators make clear otherwise. However, to a degree unparalleled anywhere else, America has knitted disparate peoples into one nation. The success of that effort is visible not just in America’s tremendous prosperity, but also in the patriotism that Americans, regardless of their skin color, ancestral homeland, or place of worship, feel for their country.
America has managed to build one nation out of many people for several reasons. Incorporating newcomers from diverse origins has been part of its experience from the earliest colonial days—and is ingrained in the American culture. The fact that divisions between Congregationalists and Methodists or between people of English and Irish ancestry do not animate our politics today attests not to homogeneity but to success—often hard earned—in bridging and tolerating differences. America’s embrace of “liberty and justice for all” has been the backdrop that has promoted unity. The commitment to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence gave those denied their rights a moral claim on the conscience of the majority—a claim redeemed most memorably by the civil rights movement. America’s two-party system has fostered unity by encouraging ethnic and religious groups to join forces rather than build sectarian parties that would perpetuate demographic divides. Furthermore, economic mobility has created bridges across ethnic, religious, and racial lines, thereby blurring their overlap with class divisions and diminishing their power to fuel conflict.
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More on the forthcoming book, Agenda for the Nation.