Diversity and the Future of American Democracy

“We are large, containing multitudes.”
—Walt Whitman

“We are polyglot, a stew.”
—Barack Obama 

Diversity is hardly a new term in the lexicon of contemporary thinking about democracy, but recent events, including the astonishing 2016 presidential election campaign and outcome, remind us of its central importance. Indeed, American democracy is at an inflection point. How—and how well—we cope with the shifting meanings and demands of diversity in our politics and daily lives will shape our country’s future in ways we are only beginning to grasp.

We are awash in both hopeful and worrisome reminders of this basic truth.

Last fall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to great fanfare and acclaim at its stunning site on the National Mall, a few paces from the Washington Monument. In the opening ceremony, standing at the symbolic heart of the country, our first African American president addressed an enormous crowd. He did not mince words regarding the significance of the event. “The very fact of this day,” he said, “does not prove that America is perfect, but it does validate the ideas of our founding, that this country born of change, this country born of revolution, this country of we, the people, this country can get better” (2016).

The “arc of progress” that President Obama summoned in his remarks was symbolized by the presence and words of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, icon of the civil rights movement and witness to the long journey since. “As these doors open,” Lewis said, “it is my hope that each and every person who visits this museum will be deeply inspired and filled with a greater respect for the worth and dignity of every human being and a stronger commitment to justice, equality, and true democracy” (2016). The opening ceremony and early reports of visitors’ experiences give me cause to hope that Lewis’s vision could come to pass.

A week before that opening in Washington, the University of Virginia concluded a three-day celebration of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ fiftieth anniversary with a summit, “Memory, Mourning and Mobilization: The Legacy of Slavery and Freedom in America,” at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The audience was large, some two thousand people, and impressively diverse, including dozens of descendants of Monticello’s slaves. The summit program—including music, dramatic performances, and remarks from historians and activists—suggested that this iconic place in American history is owning the legacy of slavery in a new and powerful way—not as a sideshow, or history at the margins, but at the very core of its identity and legacy.

“The Great Force of History”

The continuing evolution of the founding narrative at Monticello and the opening of the new museum in Washington signify something profoundly important about our democracy and its relationship to diversity. If one of the great tests of American democracy is the progressively fuller recognition and inclusion of the African American experience in the nation’s story, then it is not at all fanciful to suggest, and to feel, that something important and hopeful is happening in the country, that our democracy is becoming fuller and truer: “I, too, am America.”

But at the very moment the “arc of progress” seemed to rise in Washington and Virginia, something else entirely was taking place in Charlotte and Tulsa, where two more African American men were shot and killed by police. And we can now add to the list of troubled cities San Diego and Los Angeles, where similar incidents have more recently occurred. How do we square the evidence of progress with these reminders that in cities across the country, equality before the law remains fugitive? Nearly as worrisome as the events themselves are the wildly discordant public reactions that have materialized in their wake. The cry of “black lives matter” has been met by the defensive retorts “all lives matter” and “law and order,” underscoring the deep divisions in how Americans are reading the troubled state of race relations in the country as a whole.    

Complicating the mood in the wake of Tulsa, Charlotte, San Diego, and Los Angeles was the unprecedented spectacle of the presidential election campaign, in which diversity figured so prominently in the form of arguments, especially, about immigration. Here, too, we find stubborn divisions in the ways Americans perceive and respond to the shifting demography of our country.   

The virulence of the xenophobic energy released in the presidential campaign, and the swiftness with which chants such as “build that wall” swept across the political landscape, confounded many people. After all, just a few years ago it seemed likely that Congress would agree to comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the millions of people residing illegally in the United States.

But should we have been surprised? Shortly after the opening of the new museum, I visited the Textile Museum at George Washington University, which was hosting an exhibition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century presidential campaign flags. A flag from the election of 1844 caught my eye. Using the nativist language of the day, it read, “21 Years to Naturalization: Native Americans on to Victory,” promoting the idea that a “not so fast” approach to citizenship for immigrants was deeply American. The role of the Know Nothing Party in the elections of the 1840s and 1850s reminds us that nativism has a long history in the United States, as old as the republic itself. Combined with the deep economic changes occurring in the country, especially those affecting traditional manufacturing communities in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New England, and the escalation of terrorist attacks worldwide, it’s really not so surprising after all that the old nativist strain is loosed anew in a country still reeling from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In a similar way, the eruption of racial tensions around law enforcement practices in African American neighborhoods in St. Louis, New York, and Baltimore forces us to reconsider the long, persistent toll of segregation and the powerful economic, educational, and housing disparities that have shaped African American communities in most of our cities since shortly after the Civil War. President Obama put it well in his address at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum reminds us, he said, “that routine discrimination and Jim Crow aren’t ancient history, it’s just a blink in the eye of history. It was just yesterday. And so, we should not be surprised that not all the healing is done” (2016).

James Baldwin famously said that “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations” (1985, 410). Our current struggles with the shifting meanings and realities of diversity are painful reminders of the truth of Baldwin’s words. But understanding the “force of history” in immigration and race relations is not by itself sufficient. We also have to try to understand how history’s legacies—our “identities and aspirations”—are taking on new shapes right now, right before our eyes.

And in this respect, many, perhaps most, of our communities seem ill-equipped to cope. We have not made much of an effort to promote the kind of cultural literacy that would help us. As immigration pressures persist, and as the United States and other countries face urgent calls to respond to refugee crises around the world, we should be trying much harder to know more and teach more about the cultural complexity of the country and how it is changing. We also should be looking beyond our borders to the extraordinary migrations that are occurring around the globe and that ultimately will arrive at our doorstep in the form of new Americans.

It also seems clear that we do not know nearly enough about differences that should be much more familiar. Growing up in an African American neighborhood in Baltimore, a white suburb of Boston, a Hispanic neighborhood in north Denver, a coal town in Pennsylvania, or a border town in Arizona are every bit as much cultural as they are economic experiences, constitutive of those “identities and aspirations” to which Baldwin refers. But how much do we actually know about the stories that define these places? Even more important, how often do we have the chance to hear people from these places tell their stories? We like to talk about how connected the country is now thanks to the digital technology that envelopes us. But in terms of the concrete understanding of our cultural differences, we are often utterly disconnected from individuals and experiences fundamentally different from our own. If the presidential election proved anything at all, it is that we live more than ever in cultural enclaves in which our own assumptions and worldviews are constantly reinforced.

An Educational Agenda

The progress of American democracy depends on the inclusion of diverse populations and cultures at the crux of social opportunities and political power. So the current moment is especially fraught. Race relations are as charged as they have been at any time in the past several decades, and the exclusionary, xenophobic strains of the presidential election portend a further snapping shut of minds and hearts. Not surprisingly, that impulse has been fed by an authoritarian style of politics not seen on the national stage for a very long time. 

An educational agenda emerges from the conflicting impulses of the moment, and we must pursue it. The agenda involves revisiting the history of race relations in the United States as well as the effort to acquaint our young people fully with the shifting cultural topography of the country and the global forces that drive it. But the educational changes we need in our schools and colleges must also be accompanied by something at once more diffuse and difficult—meetings and conversations across the fault lines of difference. Orchestrating such conversations will be enormously difficult, but it’s hard to see a way through the current situation without them. We shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which students, and particularly students in higher education, are ready and willing to have such conversations. We need to harness and guide their energy, inside and outside the classroom.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in a new partnership between the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment. The Citizenship Under Siege initiative, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is bringing students, faculty, and members of the public together in conversations at participating community colleges about the questions embedded in the Preamble to the US Constitution: Who is the “We” of “We the People”? Who is included, and excluded, from our current concept and practice of citizenship? And what does citizenship currently mean? Engaging students in discussions of these issues seems especially important in light of the presidential election, where issues of inclusion and exclusion were so prominent and charged. 

An article appearing last fall in The New York Times (Pennington 2016) offered insight into what such conversations might look like in the world beyond college campuses and the classroom. In the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s dramatic refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem before San Francisco 49ers games, the New York Giants invited New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to attend a locker room conversation about race relations. The meeting lasted more than an hour and included roughly half of the team’s players and a good part of its coaching and front office staff. “There was conversation,” the story notes, “about differing backgrounds and childhood environments, with both African American and white players participating.”

One of those participating was Giants coach Ben McAdoo. McAdoo was born in Homer City, Pennsylvania, about sixty miles east of Pittsburgh, and he played football at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a few miles to the north. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Homer City’s economy was dependent on the nearby Lucerne coal mines and power plant. The power plant lives on, but the mines closed decades ago. Today, the median annual household income in Homer City is $45,590, about $10,100 less than Pennsylvania as a whole.

Running back Rashad Jennings was a key participant in the Giants’ locker room conversation. Jennings grew up in Forest, Virginia, and graduated from Liberty University. Following the locker room meeting, Jennings praised the Giants and McAdoo in particular for encouraging the players to pursue things outside of football. Jennings recalled another occasion on which his coach had mentioned diversity: “McAdoo stood up in front of us on the first day of training camp and told us that he will never know what it’s like to be a black man or woman. He said; ‘I’m a blue-collar man from Pennsylvania, and football is all I know.’”

I’m betting that McAdoo now knows something more about his African American players than just football. And I’m guessing that Jennings knows something more about McAdoo, too. It’s a small thing in many ways, but it’s a sign of what’s required if we hope to sustain the inclusive promise of democracy in America, from Forest to Homer City and all points beyond.

References

Baldwin, James. 1985. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lewis, John. 2016. “Remarks at the Dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Washington, DC, September 23.

Obama, Barack. 2016. “Opening Remarks by the President at the Dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Washington, DC, September 23.

Pennington, Bill. 2016. “Giants Host Senator Cory Booker at Internal Meeting on Race Relations.” New York Times, October 12.


William D. Adams is Chairman of the National  Endowment for the Humanities.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results