"We can build a collective civic space large enough for all our separate identities, that we can be e pluribus unum -- out of one, many," then Vice President Gore said in 1994. Today, it seems all are touting their separate identities to the exclusion of the many: blacks, Hispanics, Asians -- and yes, whites -- with members of each group blaming those of the others for whatever ill befalls them or what challenges they face.
This year's election has poured gasoline on the flames of racial and ethnic mistrust. Hillary Clinton plays to her constituencies among minority voters and women, stirring fears that the Republican Party would turn back the clock to the Jim Crow era and deny equal pay for women. Donald Trump stokes resentment among whites that Mexicans and others are stealing their jobs and infesting their neighborhoods with crime. Bernie Sanders plays a Marxist version of the divide and conquer game, using class as the dividing wall.
Each narrative diminishes the individual. We become nothing more than the color of our skin, our ancestry and our sex. And even the latter is being sliced and diced into ever more exclusive identities based not on sex, but so-called gender: males, females, transgendered, cis-gendered, heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, questioning, etc. And the list will expand, no doubt, as some decide even species is a social construct.
But while it is easy enough to point to Black Lives Matter, feminists, gay rights activists or even the tiny Mexican irredentist movement as the source of the divisions, the infection has spread far beyond. Sure, liberal college campuses are rife with such divisions, promoted in curricula and by radical faculty, but so, too, are Donald Trump rallies and the right-wing media.
This deeply troubles me, as someone who believed that the whole point of the Civil Rights movement and our anti-discrimination laws was to make such differences meaningless. The point was to treat each person as an individual; to discriminate against no one on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or religion, or to grant any special preference on those factors either.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, people frequently asked me, "What are you?" I was puzzled by the question, but my parents taught me to say, "I'm an American." My answer often provoked more questions, and it was clear that being American didn't satisfy my interlocutors. People rarely ask me that directly today, preferring instead to make assumptions that I find amusing.
I get lumped in as "a minority," regularly referred to as "non-white," and assumed to be of Mexican immigrant roots. When pushed, I smile and point out that the only true immigrants in my family came from Ireland, mostly in the mid-19th Century, that my other ancestors came from England and Spain and were settlers in what is now the United States in the early 17th and 18th Centuries. When the show "Finding Your Roots" profiled me in 2012, they discovered that 97 percent of my DNA is European, 51 percent of it Northern European -- a fact that would probably shock those who've assumed otherwise, but which I consider utterly irrelevant to who I am: a writer, a mother, a wife and, yes, an American.
What has come to bother me about such questions and misconceptions is that whoever is doing the asking or categorizing isn't seeing me, but the box in which they think I fit. Today's politics are making matters much worse. It's "us" against "them," and it occurs on both sides of the aisle. The left blames "white privilege," while the right proclaims "America first," but isn't keen on having immigrants join "We, the people."
Until we get back to at least striving to become the one out of many that we once aspired to, we are likely to see greater animosity and divisions among the 320 million people who call America home. This is bad for individuals and even worse for our nation.