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Wrestling with the Question of American Identity and Whether Consensus is Possible

On May 13, the John W. Kluge Center held a panel discussion on the changing interpretations of the nation’s founding principles, with the goal of illuminating a shared vision of the United States and its history for Americans across the spectrum of political beliefs. The full event is now available to view.

Kluge Prize Winner Danielle Allen, who moderated the discussion, began by laying out some objectives. The conversation gathered “three outstanding thinkers and doers, each of whom is wrestling with the question of American identity, the question of how to narrate the many identities that form” the United States, and the “hard problem” of “the relationship that citizens and residents of a healthy democratic society should have with one another.”

Key questions, for Allen, included: “How should we name a positive version of that relationship?” and, “what kinds of narratives of our histories do we need in order to anchor that kind of healthy relationship?” Allen emphasized that while agreeing to a single American story may not be possible, acceptance of “plural narratives” that provide different perspectives and understandings of history may be.

Natalia Molina, Distinguished Professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, began by talking about the idea of race as relational. Molina said that much of the attention focused on hate crimes against Asian Americans in early 2021 doesn’t acknowledge the underlying complex of racial relationships and bigotries.

Anti-Asian sentiment throughout the pandemic, Molina said, attempts to make Americans afraid of Central American refugees, and the “othering of immigrants and othering of anyone seen as non-white and therefore non-American” are pervasive. “They keep that hate alive, and they set the stage for the kinds of crimes we see today,” she said, pointing to the recent spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans. “Those stories shape one another.”

Cathy Park Hong, New Republic Poetry Editor and author of the award-winning “Minor Feelings,” said that as the year approaches when people of color form the majority of the US population, “I don’t think we have quite yet figured out how to talk about what the lexicon and narratives will be,” around race. In that light, Hong said she hopes “we will really reevaluate how we talk about who ‘us’ is.”

Previously, Hong said, the idea of “white innocence erased the long legacy of enslavement and genocide of indigenous people, but also, and this is where Asian Americans come in, managing of borders.” She compared the history of Asian Americans and Latino Americans, saying that both have been viewed as diseases to be kept out of the country, and are still subject to strict quotas even after some immigration restrictions were loosened. Hong expressed her hope that the term Asian American could hark back to its origins, when it was used to show solidarity with the Black Power movement and the anti-imperialist movement in the 1960s. She hopes that the term “Asian American is not just a label that flattens us,” but rather that it is used to show opposition to injustice for all oppressed groups, Hong said.

Samuel Goldman, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, began by describing the growing emphasis on finding a consensus vision of history that emerged in the late 20th century US as the nation made a shift from white political domination towards something resembling a multi-ethnic democracy. “That change required a new way of understanding consensus, that could include a wider range of citizens even if it did not immediately, or perhaps ever, include everyone on equal terms,” he said. But the idea of consensus has limitations, Goldman said, considering the wide variety of people across a large nation.

“At a level of extreme abstraction it’s not so difficult to find some degree of consensus. When you get more specific it gets a lot harder,” he said. Goldman was skeptical of the enterprise, though he did not think it should be abandoned entirely. Still, he advocated for a refocusing away from “the pursuit of consensus and towards the cultivation of more limited and maybe also more controversial forms of association and meaning.” Pursuing consensus results in hedging and “trying to split the difference,” Goldman said, rather than beginning from a statement of what one truly thinks. Instead, he said, bonds would be better cultivated among people who disagree through interacting and living together in person, rather than “relying on social media and grand pronouncements that are easily communicated” by mass media. It would be easier to seek consensus on small things, he said, at the local and community level, rather than trying to find a consensus on the idea of US history as a whole.

Watch the full event:

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