E Pluribus Unum & The Cult of Ethnicity. E Pluribus Unum & The Cult of Ethnicity
In 1991, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Acknowledging that America has always been a diverse, multicultural society, he asks, “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographic locality and live under the same political sovereignty?” His answer: “Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart.”
Undoubtably, the United States is one of the most diverse, multiethnic civilizations in human history, yet the nation has been able to remain united for more than two centuries. The traditional motto of the United States has long been E Pluribus Unum—“Out of many, one.” Schlesinger points out that many other multicultural societies have failed due to ethnic tensions, yet the United States has remained relatively stable. Schlesinger asks, “What is it then that, in the absence of a common ethnic origin, has held Americans together over two turbulent centuries?” His answer is the theory of the Melting Pot. The Melting Pot is a long-held idea that over time, Americans have forged a national identity that binds them together into a “‘new race of man’” and that ultimately supplants their ancestral allegiances and their “‘ancient prejudices and manners.’” Again, it is the dictum of E Pluribus Unum. According to Schlesinger, this “vision of America as melted into one people prevailed through most of the two centuries of the history of the United States,” but he contends that “the twentieth century has brought forth a new and opposing vision.” He writes that “a cult of ethnicity has arisen . . . to denounce the idea of a melting pot, to challenge the concept of ‘one people,’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethic and racial communities.”
While Schlesinger points out that there have been both positive and negative consequences related to the “eruption of ethnicity,” his primary concern is that the more militant advocates of ethnicity “contend that the main objective of public education should be the protection, strengthening, celebration, and perpetuation of ethnic origins and identities. Separatism, however, nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences, and stirs antagonisms.” Given these trends and noting the collapse of other nations due to ethnic tensions, Schlesinger wonders, “Will the center hold? Or, will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel and balkanization?” And he concludes, “If separatist tendencies go on unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”
Your extra-credit assignment is to reflect upon what you have just read and to write a 500-800 word essay on the topic of “E Pluribus Unum & The Cult of Ethnicity.” Your essay should address the following questions: What are the merits and flaws of the theory of the Melting Pot? What are the merits and flaws of the Cult of Ethnicity? Is there anything that, “in the absence of a common ethnic origin,” still binds Americans together? Or is the nation doomed to “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization”? If something still binds Americans together, what is it? And, if America is doomed to collapse due to increasing ethnic tensions, why? Given the political and cultural turmoil in modern America and given that Schlesinger wrote this book thirty years ago, do you think he got it right? Is he wrong? And, is there hope that Americans will remain united (or reunite) as one people with a common purpose.