Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once observed that being a minority in 19th-century Europe was like living in someone else’s country home. The aristocrat owned the house. Other people got to stay there but as guests. They did not get to set the rules, run the institutions or dominate the culture.
Something similar can be said of America in the 1950s. But over the ensuing decades, the Protestant establishment crumbled and America became more marvelously diverse. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a member of a minority group — or several. Maybe you’re Black or Jewish or Muslim. Maybe you’re gay, trans, Hispanic, Asian American, socialist, libertarian or Swedenborgian.
Even the former country house owners have come to feel like minority members. The formerly mighty mainline Protestant denominations, like the Episcopalians and Methodists, have shrunk and lost influence. Even some of the people who used to regard themselves as part of the majority have come to feel like minorities. White evangelical Protestants are down to about 15% of the country. They vote for people like Donald Trump in part because they feel like strangers in their own land, oppressed minorities fighting for survival.
We live in an age of minorities. People assert their minority identities with justified pride. It might be most accurate to say that America is now a place of jostling minorities. The crucial questions become: How do people think about their minority group identity and how do they regard the relationships between minorities?
Historically, to riff on another Sacks observation, there have been at least four different minority mindsets:
First, assimilation. The assimilationists feel constricted by their minority identity. They want to be seen as individuals, not as a member of some outsider category. They shed the traits that might identify themselves as Jews or Mexicans or what have you.
Second, separatism. The separatists want to preserve the authenticity of their own culture. They send their kids to schools with their own kind, socialize mostly with their own kind. They derive meaning from having a strong cohesive identity and don’t want it watered down.
Third, combat. People who take this approach see life as essentially a struggle between oppressor and oppressed groups. Bigotry is so baked in that there’s no realistic hope of integration. The battle must be fought against the groups that despise us and whose values are alien to us. In fact, this battle gives life purpose.
Fourth, integration without assimilation. People who take this approach cherish their group for the way it contributes to the national whole. E pluribus unum. Members of this group celebrate pluralistic, hyphenated identities and the fluid mixing of groups that each contribute to an American identity.
Our politics is so nasty now because many people find the third mindset most compelling. Americans are a deeply religious people, especially when they think they are not being religious. And these days what I would call the religion of minoritarianism has seized many hearts. This is the belief that history is inevitably the heroic struggle by minorities to free themselves from the yoke of majority domination. It is the belief that sin resides in the social structures imposed by majorities and that virtue and the true consciousness reside with the oppressed groups.
At a recent Faith Angle Forum in France, British political scientist Matthew Goodwin defined wokeness as a belief system organized around “the sacralization of racial, gender and sexual minorities.” I’d add that right-wing populism is organized around the sacralization of the white working class and the belief that left-wing minority groups have now become the dominant oppressive majority.
Right and left warriors disagree completely about who the dominant majority is, but they agree that “we” are an oppressed minority, that those with power despise “us,” and that the war must be won.
There’s some truth in their diagnoses. There really is a lot of oppression out there. But this mindset is based on a dangerous falsehood — that the line between good and evil runs between groups, the good over here, the oppressive over there.
Once you accept the truth that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, then you begin to see not just groups, but also the struggles of diverse individuals within groups. You begin to see that each person, embedded within the richness of a particular culture, is trying to tackle the common human problems — to live a life with dignity and meaning, to have some positive impact on the world.
Integration without assimilation is the only way forward. It is, as the prophet Jeremiah suggested, to transmit the richness of your own cultures while seeking the peace and prosperity of the city to which you have been carried.
It is hard. It means socializing with diverse and sometimes antagonistic groups rather than resting in the one that feels most at home. It means recognizing and embracing the fact that, as an American, you contain multiple identities and cultures. You wear different uniforms and are sometimes not sure which one you ultimately belong to.
But this is the most creative way to live. It’s the clashing of different viewpoints, histories and identities within a single people and even within a single human mind. Integration without assimilation is the nuclear reactor of American dynamism.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend!
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.