The Pursuit of a Common American Past and a Democratic Destiny

I belong to an intellectual tradition that believes that America is possible. My late adviser, Carl Degler, wrote a textbook entitled, Out of Our Past, and I have the honor of being the president of an association, whose founder, Carter G. Woodson, wrote a textbook on black history entitled, The Negro in Our History. Both believed history had to speak to the living–to provide us with self-knowledge–so that we can make and share a true and better democracy.

However contested the American past, the biggest error we can make is to abandon the project of finding a common past and future. However much I might differ with historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood over developments that they have seen as balkanization created by identity history, we run the risk dismantling without any intention of rebuilding, believing that something better will arise on its own. In ways that Bailyn and Wood seem unaware, there are those among professional scholars who see all histories organized around nation-states as being as problematic as “identity history.” Others would have us write histories about global trends that serve policy makers, the ultimate expression of serving power under the guise of speaking truth to it.

If we do not somehow get our neighbors and those who live in other valleys to share in our collective struggle to rebuild our nation, we will continue to be disempowered. If we cannot demonstrate to poor white men that they, too, had to fight for the right to vote, they will not understand that their political incorporation can be taken away, too. If we cannot convince other Americans that we collective responded to the Great Depression in a better way than we have to the Great Recession, the net result of the next economic downturn will be worse than the last. If we cannot convince other Americans that #blacklivesmatter, then should we not be seeking another land? The very debate suggests that a desire to convince other Americans and make ours a better country. And if we do not agree over what happened and how we got here, the more important thing is that we still care enough to debate it.

Of course, many of my Facebook and face-to-face friends will take issue with this love affair I have with American national identity. As I have always said, I consider myself an American patriot (as much as I differ with most of them). Those whose imagined community is the African diaspora live in the stateless world that I fear. Those who long for some new order beyond the nation-state are witnessing its rise and consolidation in the form of global capitalism, and it is not the promised world, to say the least. Yet somehow they believe that they can fight what they call neo-liberalism through global movements of strangers. Not possible. We must find a way to make common cause with the people in the next valley. Is this not the most fundamental lesson of human history?

The Challenges of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in 21st Century America

On February 9th, 2015, I gave an address before the American Federation of Government Workers. One of their members fell ill before my introduction, and suddenly my prepared talk did not seem adequate. I decided to talk about my thoughts of late about working people and rights in America. Had I tried to write the speech, it would not have come out as well. It’s roughly 28:30 long, so if you have the time, check it out.

Holding Up February for American History

“Do you remember when February used to be American History Month? This ‘Black History Month’ stuff is just terrible.”
from The Gods Are Bored, 2007

Yes, it’s true. Before February became the province of Black history, the turf belonged to the proponents of “American history.” The heart of winter was chosen because two of America’s greatest leaders—Washington and Lincoln—were born during the month. And if the movement had succeeded, its advocates would point out that Ronald Reagan, popularly known as one of the greatest American presidents of all times, was also born in February.

For Americans who prefer their history lily white, February was beautiful. During the 1950s and 1960s, our nation’s history was celebrated across the land, in hamlets, towns, and smaller cities. Led by women, the movement focused on patriotism: Washington and Lincoln, the glorious American Revolution, the triumph over sectionalism, and America’s preservation of freedom in Europe were the stuff of February. Businesses showered funds on America’s true history, and governors, including Nixon and Reagan, signed proclamations. America’s small newspapers were adorned their pages with the beaming, young faces of the winners of essay contests. American history lived through our youth.

In 1967 and 1968, the movement reached its height. Under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly, the proponents of American History Month succeeded in getting Congress and President Lyndon Baines Johnson to issue an official proclamation. In 1968, in the midst of setbacks in Viet Nam, the New York Times reported that the President’s proclamation “noted that understanding the past can give the nation wisdom and courage to meet its present challenges.”

Then, as quickly as it came, American History Month waned, fading from view almost completely by the mid-1970s. Indeed, by 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford joined with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History to pronounce February Black History Month, it appears that neither he nor they seemed aware that February was already American History Month.

How could America so easily forget? How had February gone from white to black? The transformation of history in February is a story of race and nation, of pride and patriotism, and of progress and American identity.

The popular effort to define February began in 1926. The protagonist was Carter G. Woodson. The son of slaves, Woodson took a doctorate from Harvard and dedicated his life to using history as a weapon. He combated the idea that blacks constituted an inferior race that had contributed nothing of worth to civilization. Well aware that quite a few black Americans also needed convincing, Woodson decided to popularize the scholarly findings being uncovered by his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He conceived of Negro History Week as a means of getting the word out to the public.

Woodson selected a week in February for the celebration. A practical man, he was well aware that black Americans were already celebrating September 12th and 14th, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ respective birthdays. Republicans, black and white, had been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday since the Civil War, and the entire nation had begun to honor it as a holiday in 1909, the centennial of his birth. Not long after Douglass’ death in 1895, the black community began celebrating his life on the day he had chosen to mark his birth (for slavery had deprived him of the actual date). It began as an effort of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to save Douglass’ home, Cedar Hill. By building on the existing history days, Woodson increased the likelihood that Negro History Week would be a success.

The week also reflected Woodson’s racial and national aspirations for America. Woodson believed in racial harmony and embraced America as his nation, laboring for the day when racial democracy would be realized. Revealingly, his history of black Americans was entitled, The Negro in Our History. In 1933, he would write, “We would not learn less of George Washington, ‘First in War, First in Peace and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen’; but we would learn something also of the three thousand Negro soldiers of the American Revolution who helped to make this ‘Father of our Country’ possible.” Woodson’s vision was inclusive, not divisive.

Built around two figures admired by African Americans, Negro history week spread like wildfire. Throughout the South and the North, African Americans expanded their celebrations, and segregated black schools wrote Woodson clamoring for material to teach the children. In the heart of the Depression, Woodson’s movement grew. Branches of the Association, as it became known, sprouted up around the country, and Negro History Week became a national celebration that drew the attention of white newspapers and politicians. As blacks moved North, proclamations from mayors and governors followed. Preachers became historians of sort, and white publishers discovered black authors. So successful was Negro History Week that Woodson began to complain about quality control and commercialization. In short, it was an American success story.

When he died in 1950, Woodson would become known as the Father of Negro History. In his vision, black history was American history, and the future would be one that recognized it as such. As whites joined the movement and asked for materials to teach white children, he could sometimes make too much of it. He used to speak of a day when Negro History Week would fade away. He never, however, thought that the collective experience of black Americans would become disaggregated—groups made and had histories. In high schools and colleges, special courses would exist as they did for other groups. And in daily life, the historian dreamt a historian’s dream–Negro history week would become Negro history year.

Two years after Woodson passed away, in a small hamlet in Kentucky, one of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) put herself forth as the mother of American History Month. Charged with heading a committee on Americanism, Mrs. William H. Noel promoted the idea of buttressing American patriotism by parlaying Washington and Lincoln’s birth month into a state-wide celebration. At the heart of the effort was the Cold War, and Governor Lawrence Wetherby embraced the project. In his proclamation, he wrote, “existing trends toward Communism and Socialism called for a return to fundamentals” and “knowledge of American history is the best counter-offensive to the various ‘isms’ seeking a foothold in our country.” American History Month, he believed, would result in children who entered into civic life as “Pro-Americans.”

In subsequent years, the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored American History Month. With its national base and cadre of well-placed, patriotic mothers in virtually every locale, the DAR had no problem garnering proclamations and receiving support from local groups. Their identification with patriotism made them especially suited to promote history as a means of inoculating the public against foreign ideologies. Moreover, the Cold War itself, which placed America traditional and ideology against in competition with communism, had an appeal that attracted the support of many Americans.

In Phyllis Schlafly the movement had a figure whose star was just beginning to rise. In the heart of America’s most liberal decade, Schlafly mobilized support to have Congress and the President provide official recognition to February as American History Month. In November of 1966, she succeeded in getting Congress to adopt a measure for her movement. And in 1967, American History Month had a Presidential Proclamation.

Despite this–actually, because of all this, American History Month fizzled. The brand of American history promoted by the Daughters of the American Revolution was becoming increasingly passé. Postwar America no longer represented country led by people who traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower and the America Revolution. The vision of America as an Anglo-Saxon nation was being replaced by the view of America as a nation of immigrants. In 1952, during the same year the movement started, the Jewish scholar Oscar Handlin won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on immigration. American history, he wrote, is immigrant history. This was the view promoted by John F. Kennedy and in 1960 he would win the White House.

Worse still, before America began to see itself as a nation of immigrants, it already was a nation with millions of black citizens. Rather than building on Negro History Week and extending an olive branch to their fellow citizens who were celebrating the legacy of Lincoln, the Daughters of the American history attempted to co-opt the entire month and pretended that Frederick Douglass had never lived. Woodson had adopted a proven formula of promoting racial harmony by coupling the president with the great abolitionist and the DAR could not have missed it altogether. Negro History Week was often discussed in majority white papers across the nation.

Had the DAR desired to reach across the color line, it would have taken some effort. Not many African Americans would have forgotten how in 1939 the DAR had barred Marian Anderson, the famous opera singer, from performing in their Constitutional Hall. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt, the stalwart champion of black equality, resigned from the DAR in protest of their racism. The DAR had baggage.

An outreach to blacks would have been imperative because the rising liberal establishment was hardly interested in promoting American history. In the 1950s and early 1960s, leading liberal intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter associated Americanism with radical conservatism and anti-intellectualism. The large urban newspapers greeted the arrival of American History Month with great indifference, if not disdain. The New York Times mentioned the celebration only four times in its history—two of them brief mentions of the presidential proclamations. The Washington Post covered the movement as a women’s event, reporting on it in the women’s section of the paper. Large papers reported on American History Month, they never promoted it with special sections. Indeed, the liberal media was in full effect.

It virtually goes without saying that the anti-Americanism that accompanied the rise of sixties radicalism did nothing to extend the reach or life of the movement. The anti-Viet Nam War movement signaled a break with American history and a distrust of American institutions. Radical historians scoured the past looking to debunk proclaimed American ideals and celebrated all departures, however slight, from the mainstream capitalist creed. Even in its mildest form, the Black Power movement called into question the promise of American history and savaged the Founding Fathers as slaveholders and racists. Woodson’s beloved Lincoln was no longer a liberator—he was a white supremacist. The DAR and its figurehead, Phyllis Schlafly, now famous for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, would become the symbol of anti-feminism, and it would take years before feminist historians could make peace with the mothers of the American revolution.

What is remarkable is that between 1952 and the mid-1960s, the American History Movement never spilled beyond the Daughters of the American Revolution. Successful movements never remain the monopoly of their promoters. Why didn’t Americans who liked the message and not the messenger establish their own vehicles for celebrating American History Month? If the DAR was too elitist (and it was!), why didn’t other patriotic groups such as the Knights of Columbus or even local Parent Teachers Associations take up the cause?

The American History movement was up against more than liberalism’s distrust of patriotism and the newcomers’ dislike of the old elite’s claim to the Founding Fathers. It was trying to promote history to segments of the American population that had never cared much for the past. Looking forward, not backwards, has been the way of white folks in the American story. For native and foreign born whites alike, the pursuit of wealth has often meant uprooting oneself from people and places and seeking new opportunities.

Besides the traditionalism of the founding WASPs, the grand exception to the anti-historical impulse among whites had been among Southerners. Long ago William Faulkner noted that the defeat in the Civil War engendered in the Southern youth a sense of history in a land generally devoid of the same. The historian Eugene Genovese has emphasized that the South’s love of history was not born of defeat, but was rather an outgrowth of its agrarian traditionalism. Thanks to the New Deal and the Cold War, progress was bulldozing the South digging up the roots of Southern history. The Civil Rights movement led to the resurrection of rebel symbols, but Confederate nationalism lay buried in dozens of battlefields being transformed into middle class havens. The struggle that made modern America was in the way of progress and that was not a safe place.

History appealed to black Americans precisely because it drove racial progress. Woodson had shown that the path through the future was through the past. Arthur A. Schomburg, his contemporary and fellow advocate of black history, put it best, “The American Negro must make his past in order to make his future.” History moved black people forward by showing the world what people of African descent had accomplished and the contributions that African Americans had made to the nation. It was in raising black self-esteem through examining the record and empowering one group of Americans to look at the other eye to eye. And it was a concept that had been understood by African Americans since their participation in World War I when they fought to free others and now looked to free themselves.

Not surprisingly, black history was part and parcel of the civil rights movement. It existed in the Freedom Schools in the South, and in the school boycotts in the North. Integrationists wanted Negro history in schools, so that black and white children would know the truth about blacks and their contributions to the nation. To be sure, black nationalists have ever made their case for separation by appeals to a litany of grievances, giving birth to one of the most vibrant debates about the American past. (To this day, slavery and Jim Crow live in black barbershops and beauty parlors.)

Given black history’s utility, African Americans never waited for Woodson’s Association to pave the way. To his credit, Woodson never tried to control the celebrations. He urged local communities to form committees and get on with the work. And so they did. By the time the Association named February Black History Month in 1976, it was largely a fait accompli. In places like Chicago, the House of Knowledge had begun celebrating “Negro” History Month as early as 1967. By 1969, “Black” History Month was being celebrated in many of the city’s public schools.

The white liberal establishment that ignored American History Month embraced the movement of the oppressed minority. Raising self-esteem and spreading sensitivity through black history was different from promoting unbridling and unblinking American nationalism. Big city newspapers that did nothing for American History Month ran special sections on black history.

Conservative America adopted Black History Month as well. Tending to their bottom lines, corporations commercialized black history. Firstly, they recognized that that history had a special appeal to black Americans—the ubiquitous celebrations told them so. Secondly, marketing surveys revealed that blacks were particularly brand loyal. As the incomes of blacks rose in the 1960s, corporations promoted black history. Black history was part and parcel of the cola wars between Pepsi and Coke. Among the first to develop promotional materials for the black consumer, Pepsi created spoken word albums during the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, Coke teamed with ASNLH to produce a Negro History Week Kit. In the mid-1970s, Budweiser, the King of Beers, celebrated black history by commissioning famous artists to salute African Kings.

Integration brought the movement into erstwhile white places. As black children entered predominately white primary and secondary schools, February became first Negro History Week and then Black History Month. It started before Black Power, but black militancy certainly did not hurt the cause. In higher education, Black Power ushered in Black History Month and Black Studies. In the workplace, black history entered as blacks became more than menials, and human relations specialists recognized its importance in workforce management. Black History Month again underwrote progress.

Increasingly we hear calls to end Black History Month. Black history, some black folks say, is American history and therefore should neither be segregated nor reduced to a month. Others would have American history be colorblind altogether. And some just think it’s horrible. (God, bless them, too.)

These groups mean well, but they know too little about American history. Woodson often looked askance at his creation, but understood that it was people driven. It is a popular movement with which leaders and corporations want to be identified. It thrived for fifty years without a presidential proclamation and would grow stronger were one denied. It’s that kind of creature. And who, even if they could, would really kill it? It’s the only American history compatible with our ideology of progress.

A Note on the Academy Changing before My Very Eyes

Stem Image

As the workings of global capitalism shrink the middle class here and grow it abroad, the institutions that serve the American middle class will be hollowed out, too. If you look past the myth that free trade brings prosperity to all and grasp the basic capitalist premise that markets seek efficiency, then globalism means opportunity will knock at the door of the less expensive worker.

For some reason many of us do not link global capitalism to the university save invoking one aspect of it–so-called privatization, which really means passing the cost on to the students and donors. More profound is the transformation of the education delivered to students. We hear about this mostly as “the adjunct” crisis, but that too is only part of the story. The trend includes the decline of the humanities, social sciences, libraries, and, more generally, research positions.

As a high school student in the 1970s, I marveled at America’s colleges and universities as I prepared to apply to college. Later I came to understand that the system was a product of the Cold War and the need to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and democracy over anti-democratic, anti-private property communism. Now that the competition is over and capital has won and gone global, there is little need to underwrite the democratic experiment which presumed non-STEM knowledge about history, culture, and public affairs. Democratic nationalism is barely more a force than communism, so the pressure for an educated citizenry hardly exists.

It seems we no more need universities, especially research universities, for the masses than we need music, art, and history in our public schools. These topics used to belong to the rich and if current trends continue they will be their special preserve again. The poor must make themselves useful. STEM addresses that problem, though it is sold as the path to personal and national wealth. In recent years, STEM has become not simply about producing engineers and computer scientists, but also training non-union, lower-paid workers needed on the floors to operate the equipment in the returning factories. This is the STEM for the junior colleges and workforce developmentStem Image.

Except for the schools for the one-percenters, American higher education is becoming a place where our children become useful for those in need of their labor. The ideal of the educated worker is replacing that of the enlightened citizen. Parents have bought into this and so have many university professors and administrators. It is largely a done deal.

Some of my mentors who were advocates of higher education have placed so much of their attention on maintaining resources for the poor that they have hardly noticed that they are not sending them to places dedicated to empowering them as citizens. The transformation has largely escaped them and so they struggle unwittingly to make a new “college-educated” working class.

We Need a New Basis for Local Politics beyond People of Color

In fighting the #policepower, there is no substitute for building political majorities at the county level. That is where it resides in our structure of government, and it would take a veritable revolution and a new Constitution to change that. There are many counties and virtually entire states where we will never be able to build a majority coalition, but our loved ones get shot down even where we have large numbers and the potential for more political allies. We should focus there.

From the Rainbow Coalition of the last generation to the People of Color Politics of today, we have not excluded whites, but let us face the fact: We have not won over enough white people to make our lives as sacred as theirs, or anyone else’s. For a decidedly ethnic person like me, this is not an easy reality to accept, but I have reluctantly concluded that this reality met be grappled with to preserve black lives.

If you think the solution is simply protest, you are half wrong. If you think you can build the winning coalition while harping about white privilege, you are wrong. A common ground must be sought and found with white people and all others. We need white allies today as much as we did in the urban North in the twentieth century. We like to point out that urban protest brought about concessions from the state in the 1960s, but we do not like to acknowledge that the resulting #whitefear drove the politics of outsized policing and mass incarceration. We can take the position that white people’s fear is white people’s problem, but it is our children, not theirs, who are dying. Moreover we delude ourselves if we think the fear residing in whites is not shared by other groups. Our polls simply ignore everyone besides blacks and whites.

The urban politics that preceded the turmoil was nothing to write home about; the patronage politics from the 1920s to the 1960s was majoritarian politics that paid more national than local dividends. Yet the carnage was probably not nearly as high, but we do not have numbers to know.

The new urban coalitions I am talk about amounts to nothing radical, and for this reason it will not appeal to many who want national and perhaps even global change. Nothing said here precludes working nationally or globally. It merely says that local politics and coalitions are critical. Yet as one unwilling to wait for the restructuring of society, I believe we must reach out to others who are looking for local change, regardless of color. Influencing the prosecutor’s office is key and must become a central part of our electoral politics. Our local coalition politics must insist on this without preconditions that blame victims or exalt the police beyond the citizen.

This need for a new basis for politics becomes more important as the cities become gentrified and yet we must continue to work in them. In many cases, the grand juries will get increasingly non-black. And yes it is politically possible that people of color politics can give way to anti-black politics, especially since New York is not America.

No Special Right of Self-Defense for Police: The Evil This Time

Nothing shows the folly of using historical analogies to convince people of the evil right before their eyes than the case for justice for Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. For most people, moral sensibilities lag behind social change. For this reason, every generation has the burden of convincing the world that what it is facing is actually oppression. What appears normal and moral to most must be revealed for its inherent evil, not for its association with one already accepted. Analogies linking police killings to lynchings have failed to work on the average white American.

To most Americans, liberal and conservative, lynching is wrong. And it is wrong primarily because it is gone, and they have been taught in school and in church that lynchings are wrong. Before lynching died down and disappeared efforts to get an antilynching law failed because many Americans, mainly Southerners, saw nothing particularly wrong with lynchings—they were a defense of civilization against criminals, black beast rapists and other such horrors. Today lynching is not wrong because the accused was never convicted of a crime before being executed, but because the accused was executed before they were born. White Americans are always willing to cop a plea for past sins. Slavery was wrong only after the fact. Lynching was wrong after it disappeared.

If whites believe that lynching was wrong because an “accused” man was found guilty without a trial, then they would be outraged that an unarmed black man was shot at 12 times or so and posed no threat to anyone and he had not been given a trial. Does anyone really believe that Office Darren Wilson needed to shoot so many times to secure his person from even a “hulk” of a man. At best Michael Brown was an unconvicted criminal who could have been charged with stealing cigars. Nonetheless everyone is okay that he was summarily killed by a cop without a trial because he was a criminal of an uncharged offense. Now think where we would be if he had been accused of rape by a naked white woman running down the street? Would we not be hearing that a criminal had been killed by an office as he sought to escape? And would whites be patting themselves on the back for it having been done by a cop rather than the mob? See, your Jim Crow analogies mean nothing when confronting the evil this time. The cop has replaced the mob and everything is neat and legal, especially since the cop invoked the notion that he was afraid for his life. Making an analogy between police killings and lynchings does not work because white Americans today are not willing to plead guilty to injustice that is before their eyes and no historical analogy will do.

We have the burden–even if we should not–of showing this evil for what it is today, in our time, on its own terms. We must show that the police cannot engage in summary executions because he or she sees apparitions dancing around in their heads preparing to strike them dead—even when unarmed. The I-was-afraid defense is a right unique to the police. A citizen cannot simply claim self-defense because they were afraid and use it to justify a continued use of force against an unarmed person—even with stand your ground laws or the normal castle doctrine. A citizen cannot claim to be afraid of the police and fire to preserve his or her own life. And how did the police get to claim a right that even soldiers in combat cannot claim against innocent civilians. If soldiers cannot claim this right in warzones, police should not have them at home. The professional policemen, no different from other armed professionals, should not be able to invoke fear to avoid a charge of murder. It is effectively a right to commit murder by confessing that one is an unprofessional coward.

This state-sanctioned policy that empowers police against citizens is more consistent with a police state than a liberal democracy. The police killing of our children–and all God’s children–is wrong unless there is a clear and present danger presented to a cop. A cop’s right to self-defense can be no greater than the citizen’s. When a cop has rights that a citizen lacks it will often be used against others citizens for whom it was not originally intended. Be clear, this antiblack policy is used predominately against African Americans with relative ease of credibility, but others also fall victim to it. As Booker T. Washington said, you cannot drag a man into the gutter without dragging yourself down, too.

Why Black Death by Cop Is Worse than Death by White Mob

When our study of lynching catches up to the reality that many who were murdered are not in any database, there will probably be about 5,000 names on the rolls. When we BEGIN our count of the number of black people murdered by cops, the list will likely be 10 times greater.

The higher numbers reflect the reality that black folks are a superfluous population to be incarcerated and killed by the liberal state as necessary, despite our status as citizens with claims on protection and service. In contrast, lynchings reflected the acts of those outside of the law who desired to control an indispensable labor force. In fact, the victims were often middle class blacks who lived independent of white landowners. Their violation of white supremacy was their relative escape from dependence on whites.

Because so few blacks were independent, the mob was more sparing of black lives yesterday than the state is today. We are oppressed by our servants. At least that is the technical arrangement in a democracy. Yet the police oppress us because they do the bidding of our fellow Americans who set them upon us because of their fears. Given this, it is understandable that juries of their peers exonerate them when they kill us because they share the same fears.

Under liberal democracy, death by state power is worse than death by mob, because there is no recourse. Because many Northerners knew Southern states were white supremacies rather than democracies, they joined black people in calling for national anti-lynching laws. Ultimately lynching died with the agricultural system that sustained it, but there is no such relief from Black Death by Cop. Today white democratic majorities condone the police killings as proper, leaving our only recourse beyond our national borders, unless you count federal civil rights violation a remedy for murder.

The heyday of lynching was from Radical Reconstruction to the collapse of cotton production. The heyday of Black Death by Cop commenced then and has continued ever since. We have it twisted.

Liberal American Exceptionalism, Faux Multiculturalism, and Ethnoracial Communities in America

Oh, here we go again conflating all forms of segregation and treating them as inherently problematic, racist, and un-American. According to the Business Insider, “Racial segregation in America is lasting longer than anyone expected.” They are right in their observation because of the liberal variant of American exceptionalism, which says in America racial and ethnic differences can and should be eliminated. This view was not born with the founding fathers, for they had no confidence that all races could be assimilated. It was one of the more liberal products of the Progressive era that looked to sociology to create a vision of the future in which America would be first and foremost in embracing and absorbing ethnic and racial differences.

As a land based on white immigrants who lacked a history of ethnic strife and enjoyed a wealth of opportunity, America, sociologists believed, had an unprecedented ability to become a nation that could absorb newcomers. With the rise of modernity, the power of America assimilation was thought to be so great that even Africans and Asians could overcome their racial uniforms and become part of the vaulted American mainstream, moving from their enclaves as individuals. Mind you, this argument was intended to say that the enshrinement of segregation in Southern laws notwithstanding, blacks in the North and eventually the South, would become assimilated. The University of Chicago sociologist who propounded this theory was no arm-chair intellectual. He had been the personal secretary of Booker T. Washington, a leading light of the National Urban League, and a co-worker with Carter G. Woodson. Despite all he had seen first hand, he believed that the unique experience of America would result in the end of segregation and ethnoracial identities.

Later sociologists would reject the anti-statism and the naiveté on racism in the Chicago school’s thought and call for the use of state power to end segregation. But they were no less convinced that state intervention would allow America to rid itself of ethnoracial communities and the racism, thus redefining American exceptionalism as a product of the nation’s political will.

But what if America is not exceptional in its ability to assimilate all comers? What if all comers do not want to assimilate? What if blacks, born as an ethnic group here in America, will not melt in the land of their birth? And what if segregation–even when it does not have the major force of state power–persists with little assistance from racism? For most participants in this conversation, we need not sort out whether the segregation is a result of policy or preference, because in either case all that matters is the racism of whites. The ever-existing and analytically blinding obsession with whites–their privilege and their racism–precludes all other consideration of other actors, as if the will of whites is always the reality we see and experience.

Yet, if this were so easily the case, why are the people of color so separated in these cities? Why are they not entwined? Why are the out-marriage patterns among people of color, breaking down these ethnoracial enclaves? Why are middle class blacks, Asians, and Hispanics with the resources to keep the company of middle class whites forming ethnoracial suburban communities? These challenges bother scholars little. The assimilationist-integrationists who have dominated this discourse succeed because they have a moral righteousness about them. All who oppose them are considered racists and black nationalists, evil people all, who profit on separation and hate. People of good will believe that all institutions should be enthnoracially heterogeneous and multiculturalism is merely a bridge to a new composite America. The latter part of their ideology, of course, is not part of their objective social science.

Even in the age of multiculturalism their viewpoint continues to reign because the multiculturalists that they recruit move from the assumption that ethnoracial identities, including robust cultures, can exist in ethnoracially heterogeneous communities. To be sure, not all and perhaps not most multiculturalists believe this, but the ones highly placed in these conversations certainly move from the assumptions of liberal American exceptionalism. Some go so far as to believe that ethnoracial institutions are not necessary either and reflect segregation, invoking a reality resulting from white political will and policy.

How can a multiculturalist—and even many so-called ethnic nationalists—believe that ethnoracial communities persist as a reflection of coercion rather than choice? How can they believe that ethnoracial identities can remain vibrant without separate institutional and community space? It is because the folks who intellectually denounce victimhood and tout agency also find their blatant contradiction politically useful. Making the persistence of ethnoracial communities a product of institutional racism and willful white privilege affirms their solidarity with those assumed to be living wretched separate lives and reinforces the need for their continued presence in white spaces as a moral imperative. And then there is theory: In an age of discourse, institutions and geographical proximity are hardly necessary for community. Such reflexive intellectual moves allow them to denounce the conservative version of American exceptionalism as they manipulate the morality embedded in the liberal version and pretend it’s wholly consistent with their ethnoracial commitments. What a peculiar multiculturalism indeed. Perhaps it is the only exceptionalism here at play.