Michael Lind: The Solution to Racial Divisions Is the American Melting Pot

Michael Lind writes in Politico on “How to Fix America’s Identity Crisis” by returning to an old idea – the American Melting Pot. Lind references the famous play of that name by Israel Zangwill, about which Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.” 

Roughly half of Latinos in the U.S. call themselves “white” but 100 percent are assigned by progressive pundits and Democratic strategists to the “nonwhite” population. In this way, the left promotes some racial labels rather than others for partisan advantage.

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So, what’s the alternative to white nativism on one hand and rigid, race-defined multiculturalism on the other? It’s the renewal of the ideal of the American melting pot, originally proposed generations ago as an alternative to Anglo-American Protestant nativism and “cultural pluralism,” an earlier form of multiculturalism which held that European ethnic groups in the U.S. would and should remain distinct forever.

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The “melting pot” ideal was given classic expression by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1876: “The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even—transforms the English, the German, the Irish immigrant into an American.” In his 1908 play The Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill has a character proclaim: “Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! … Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

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It’s time that this vision also became the work of politicians. A good beginning would be to scrap the absurd 1970s-vintage Census racial labels in favor of more specific ethnic or national ancestries: Chinese-American instead of “Asian and Pacific Islander,” Argentine-American instead of “Hispanic” or “Latino,” Italian-American instead of “non-Hispanic white.” This system of hundreds of ancestral ethnic terms reflects America’s actual diversity better than the system of five official “races.” Programs like affirmative action based on these arbitrarily-defined pseudo-communities should also be replaced by race-neutral policies to help all disadvantaged Americans—including the majority of America’s poor, who are white. This is perfectly compatible with combating contemporary racial discrimination, including the systemic discrimination by some police forces that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.

The American nation-state was founded 240 years ago, but the American nation is a work in progress. On this Independence Day, let us celebrate diversity, by all means. But let us also celebrate hybridity, and the new and more inclusive forms of community that it makes possible.

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