Reviving Liberal Republicanism in America

Identity stories

Sharing stories that rebut the argument that identities are immutable, or even well understood

Some personal stories, which I imagine most of us have, help illustrate why identity politics and collective rights are unlikely to successfully serve as an organizing principle for American political life.  In contrast to America’s founding creed of respecting each of us as individuals, categories of identity are too fluid–in part because E Pluribus Unum does continually wrap more Americans in its embrace–and also because there is little consensus on what those categories should be.


I share the personal stories below in the hopes that people reading them will post their own in the comment section below. The stories I am looking for–and they are stories I certainly don’t see very often in the media–are stories of both the fluidness of identity and how often even well-meaning people mischaracterize others or conflate identities that are clearly regarded as separate by people who have such identities.

1. Jews. “I’m a Stern.” These were pretty much the first words my Dad’s Mom said to my Mom. Not “hello”, or words introducing herself. My Dad’s family were Jews from Germany. My Mom’s family were Jews from Eastern Europe. While most non-Jews would draw no distinctions based on this difference, Jews of my grandparents’ generation certainly did. Big time. German Jews by and large arrived in America earlier, and they came from German lands where, since the Napoleonic Wars, they had been citizens of the countries where they lived. (In lands Napoleon conquered, he didn’t care what a person’s religion was as long as he or she was loyal to the state.) Many German Jews were successful businesspersons or professionals. ‎Many came to America with some education and money in their pockets.

In contrast, East European Jews were not citizens of the places where they lived, but strangers living there at the whim of the governing authorities (usually a czar or prince). They were by and large peasants (and later factory workers), with little education or money in their pockets when they came to America.

In Chicago during my youth there were city clubs that were exclusively for German Jews, and country clubs in the fancier suburbs too. Today this distinction is mostly lost on young Jews, and on non-Jews of all ages. But ask older American Jews if they remember, and they almost all will. (They will also remember when Jews were subject to quotas at universities and barred from being hired as doctors at leading hospitals, as lawyers at leading law firms, as accountants at leading accounting firms, and at big U.S. corporations in general.)

2. Catholics.‎ When I first started working at the large law firm where I began my career, twenty-four of the twenty-seven young people who started together were either Catholic or Jewish. Those of us who were Jewish tended to view Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, as one group. The young Catholic lawyers, however, did not. And they were right. They pointed out to us that the firm was run by a management committee of five persons, two of whom were Jewish, three of whom were Protestant and none of whom were Catholic. And that the oldest partner practicing in my practice group, a Protestant, had married a Catholic woman about thirty years before, after World War II, and offered to resign from the partnership for having done so. And this was at a firm that was progressive for the time–there was more than one female partner at the firm and an African-American partner too, both of which were unfortunately unusual. [9]‎

3. Americans of African Ancestry.‎ When I was growing up in Chicago, no matter how “color blind” a person purported to be (the term itself is problematic today), everyone I knew treated people of African ancestry differently than others. Sometimes it was out of unfamiliarity, sometimes out of fear of saying the wrong thing, but generally it was for less benign reasons. And no distinction was generally drawn between the heritage of different people of African ancestry, as African-Americans, or African immigrants, or immigrants from the Caribbean. People of European heritage were not so treated–their heritage was recognized in a more nuanced way.

Fast forward to my kids’ generation, at least in a town like where they grew up, and things have changed a lot. Not that there isn’t still prejudice–there is, and unfortunately I think there is more now than there was ten years ago, as a certain civility that followed the Civil Rights Movement successes has receded in American life. But for my kids’ generation, at least in certain American communities, ‎the friendships growing up, the civility shown each other, and the recognition of the diversity of people of African heritage, is stunningly different than when I was in school. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a lot of prejudice based simply on skin color–because there is–but that group identities change over time.‎

Like German Jews and East European Jews in another era being lumped together by non-Jews, or all Catholics by non-Catholics, or Hispanic people as varied as Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Argentines, attempts to lump together people of African ancestry is bound to draw lines in offensive and ineffective ways (as it will with other categories of identity). When President Barack Obama first ran for the Presidency, and shortly after he was elected, there was lots of press about whether he was a true “black” candidate, since he is biracial and has no slave heritage in his ancestry. (His father’s family was from Kenya, not from the American‎ South, and his mother was of European heritage, though interestingly it turned out that President Obama’s mother was likely related to one of the first African slaves in America, a Virginian named John Punch, and President Obama is also a distant cousin of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Harry Truman.) [10]

As another example of the dangers (and ridiculousness) of conflating all Americans of African (or any other) ancestry, did you know that a higher percentage of American immigrants from Nigeria have advanced university degrees than American immigrants from Asia (who hold advanced degrees in much higher percentages than native-born Americans)?

4. Asians.‎ One last story, though of course this leaves a lot of groups unaccounted for. [Hopefully readers will add their stories to this website here]. For a very long time one of my clients was a large American stock brokerage firm. Among other roles, we supported a lot of their private client professionals with respect to international matters. Twice successful teams, one a New York team of Irish Catholic ancestry, another a Beverly Hills team of predominantly Jewish professionals, asked about our helping them to identify an Indian private client professional to join their teams. When I pointed this out to Americans of South Asian ancestry who I knew, they commented that for these purposes being Indian would be less meaningful than being Bengali, or Gujerati, or Sindi, or of another particular South Asian heritage, and that a team whose clients were mostly in the tech business, or in finance, were most likely dealing with South Asian clients or prospects prodominantly of a particular South Asian heritage. These Americans of South Asian ancestry and other South Asians told me that for such teams to simply hire “an Indian” would more evidence the team’s ignorance than result in a successful attempt to reach the groups they hoped to reach.‎

America’s success in achieving E Pluribus Unum to date is clearly incomplete. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of Americans don’t aspire to it as an ideal for our country, and are proud of what has been accomplished in that regard to date.‎ If the majority of Americans cease to aspire to it as an ideal for our country, how does America keep from coming apart? [11]


1 For example, the University of California at Santa Cruz Office of Academic Affairs has published a chart, “Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send.” It is useful and worth reading. However, the inclusion on the chart of the microaggression, “America is a Melting Pot”‎ runs counter to the arguments Schlesinger is making. One of the purposes of this post is to argue that America is and should be a “melting pot”, and that doesn’t mean (and never has in fact) that everyone assimilates to a dominant “Anglo” culture. In fact, the way modern theorists often describe the process of Americans “coming together” is as a mosaic of different acculturating cultures, each with qualities that influence each other. “American identity has always been large–think New England colonists and Southern ones.” See Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to be American, T‎amar ‎Jacobs, 2004. This book is a testament to the ability to balance ethnicity and American identity.

Two of the core tenets of liberalism are a respect for people’s individual rights and tolerance. One of   the characteristics that most characterizes illiberal government, such as fascism and communism, is their equating social progress with the “progress of the nation, race or class, from the benefits of which those in the wrong nation, race or class are excluded.” See the review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in the bibliography with commentary section of this website. [here] ‎Identity politics, if widely embraced by Americans, runs the serious risk of rewiring the nation’s laws and politics in ways the Steve Bannons of the world would enthusiastically support.

2 But as an example of the fluidity of identity, Schlesinger states, “[F]rom the Adamses in the eighteenth century to the Lodges in the twentieth, [leading American WASP’s–White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] were always among the leading Anglophobes [people who are prejudiced against the English]. After the First World War, patriotic organizations, persuaded that Britain had tricked the United States into the struggle, hunted down [what they viewed as] pro-British propaganda in American textbooks–as 30 years later a new generation of superpatriots hunted down pro-Soviet propaganda.”

3 Benjamin Franklin stated “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

See‎, How The Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev.‎

5 And not without reason. See, “What Whiteness Means in the Trump Era, Nell Irvin Painter, New York Times, November 13, 2016, “Up to now…a fundamental dimension of white American identity has been individuality…it means being and living and experiencing the world as an individual and not having to think about your race.” Certainly this applies to Americans of German and Irish ancestry today. Just as certainly it does not apply to people of African ancestry in America today. A propos of Professor Painter’s op-ed characterizing a fundamental dimension of white identity as living and experiencing the world as an individual, see also, ‎Donald Glover/aka Childish Gambino on The Breakfast Club radio program, stating that he would like to be looked at as “a blank‎ slate” or “big and White…like Will Smith.” The Breakfast Club, [9/10/2014]

6 At our local high school, freshman English/history was Western Civilization. Sophomore English/history was (as an elective) Non-Western Civilization. The students read Things Fall Apart, The Joy Luck Club, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Kaffir Boy, Siddhartha and the Ramayana and watched many wonderful movies. At high schools and colleges across America, Western Civilization courses are disappearing (“Hey hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go.”) That is ridiculous, and has led to illiberalism in American government‎. [click here to read about Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, and here for Fawcett’s piece on Liberalism] But Non-Western Civilization was one of the two best courses my kids took in high school. Why we abolish Western Civ rather than require Western Civ AND Non-Western civ, or weave it all into a couple of years of world history and literature, is beyond me. See “Do We Still Want the West”, Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2017.

7 Schlesinger states that “more than Irish or Italians or Jews, black Americans, after generations of psychological and cultural evisceration, have every right to seek an affirmative definition of their past. Far more than white ethnics, they perceive themselves to be in a trap of cultural ‘hegemony’ in which they are flooded by white values and demeaning self-images…For blacks the American dream has been pretty much of a nightmare, and, far more than white ethnics, they are driven by a desperate need to vindicate their own identity.”

8 Schlesinger states “Let me make one exception to the general proposition–the case of the American Indians. For they are the inheritors and guardians of unique cultures of which they are sole possessors. If Italian-Americans, for example, lose connection with their ancestral culture, that does not mean the extinction of Italian culture. After all, Italy will still be there. But if Indians lose connection with their cultures, those cultures disappear forever, and humankind is thereby diminished.”

9‎ On a different note, being from Chicago, I was aware from a young age of how segregated racially Chicago is. But as a teenager on my first trip to Boston I was shocked to learn that the two ethnic groups with perhaps the greatest emnity for each other were both white and Catholic–Italians and Irish.

10 In 2008 there were many articles and opinion pieces written about then Presidential candidate Obama’s identity. Among other things, they evidence the increasing fluidity of how Americans categorize race. See also The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.

11 Appreciating the benefits of assimilation is not limited to Americans on the political right and deceased progressive historians like Schlesinger. The progressive commentator Peter Beinart wrote in “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration“, The Atlantic, July 2017 “Liberals Must [Take] Seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion. They must…convince more native-born white Americans that immigrants will not weaken the bonds of national identity. This means dusting off a concept many on the left currently hate: assimilation…it means celebrating America’s diversity less, and it’s unity more…We can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, and talking about, and applauding our sameness.” Schlesinger states “Todd Gitlin [the Progressive American sociologist]…deplores what he calls ‘the twilight of common dreams.'” See also Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: Houston, TV Episode 2016, and David Brooks’ op-ed piece “America: The Redeemer Nation,” New York Times, November 23, 2017, citing the spectacular Second Inaugural Address of the original Liberal Republican, President Abraham Lincoln. If every house of worship in America read this two-page speech together, it would be an excellent start to binding America back together.