The US Supreme Court ruled recently that school systems may not use racial or ethnic quotas as a means of desegregation — a practice that began several decades ago, in an effort to counter the de facto segregation of local schools caused by housing patterns. It is easy (and perhaps correct) to see the decision as a sign that the court’s increasingly conservative majority will oppose government aid to disadvantaged minorities. But it also embodies a fundamental perplexity in American culture.
Democracy assumes a shared sense of community in which individual citizens share the decision-making power. When the mix of individuals changes (as it often has in the United States because of immigration or internal population shifts), the community will also change. But the same basic formula prevails: there is a single community, composed of individual voters.
American culture does not quite know what to do with the intermediate elements that are also essential to human beings. We are more than individuals and citizens; and much of what we are is determined by our families and by elements such as ethnic identity. As an American of largely British descent, I can sometimes forget this myself, since my ethnicity has been broadly merged into the larger national identity. For many others, the equation is less simple.
Native Americans have often seemed a problem from this perspective, since they also assert an identity bound up with membership of tribes. African-Americans were long defined as slaves rather than citizens. Asian-Americans have sometimes been defined as fundamentally “foreign”. Americans were long proud of being part of a melting-pot, in which people of many origins were turned into a single nationality. But some groups were not readily welcomed, and some have not wanted to disappear into the mix.
Every democracy, from Britain to Japan to Aotearoa/New Zealand, is having to deal with these issues, trying to strike some balance between national unity and ethnic diversity. The Supreme Court’s decision reasserts that, for the United States, only the nation and the individual citizen count — so much so that it effectively forbids any direct recognition of factors interfering with such a construct.
In practice, ethnic identities continue to exert great power over our lives, for good and ill. When they become the paramount determinant of community, they often prove profoundly destructive. On the other hand, without them, the world would be much blander and more sterile. If there is only the individual and the nation, much of what is most precious about humanity will be lost.
The United States has made progress in bringing its variety of ethnicities into a kind of reciprocal sense of community. It still has much further to go. Ethnic quotas are probably not the best tool for furthering this growth, since they emphasise what separates us. What we really need is a way to challenge all ethnic groups to recognise their shared stake in the peace of the larger whole, which implies a stake in the well-being of all.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.