America’s ‘identity’ blind spot


As a nation and as individuals, we tend to view the world through the prism of our own experiences. Over the last few weeks, Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians have reminded us that ethnic nationalism and secessionism are on the rise around the globe. I worry that the American experience leaves the United States and its citizens unprepared to confront it.

Not long ago, I had dinner with a conservative media figure who seemed perplexed that I’m a student of “identity.” “What made you do that?” he asked. “I think the world would be better without it.”

I tried to explain that it wasn’t something I was either for or against but that exists and needs to be understood. And just because one may not want to “believe” in identities -- ethnic groups and ethno-religious groups -- that doesn’t mean that they somehow disappear from the world. Absurd as it sounds, we have a collective blind spot on the topic. And our refusal to take the issue of ethnic and ethno-religious identity seriously has helped to undermine our foreign policy initiatives.


Just look at Iraq. The Bush administration -- and all the “experts,” both Americans and exiled Iraqis, who guided its policy -- made a fundamental error by relying on the assumption that Iraqis were nonsectarian nationalists, more concerned with preserving a nationalism that had been imposed on them by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party than with the position and fate of their own tribes and mullahs. As plenty of critics have observed, even the faintest acknowledgment of the social cleavages on the ground could have helped the U.S. war effort.

Here in the U.S., we’ve reduced ethnicity to either an occasion for celebration or petty grievance. (As I write this, I received an e-mail from a Korean American civil rights group vociferously “condemning” the Ladies Professional Golf Assn.’s “xenophobic” and “aggressively threatening” decision to require all of its international golfers to speak proficient English.) For all our internecine battles and problems, ethnicity is not so much something to be fought over as something to be managed.

We pride ourselves on a successful history of incorporating immigrants and assume that other nations should or can do the same. Sure, we have our militias, white Christian identity movements, campus-based race warriors, ethnic and racial street gangs, but these groups generally exist on the margins and don’t play a significant role in national politics in the way that the “Basque question” does in Spain or the Kurdish, Tamil, Igbo, Palestinian, Kosovar or South Ossetian questions do elsewhere.

Our elites are so steeped in the melting-pot idea that they don’t even recognize that they see the world through the bias of the majority. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard an educated Anglo American disparaging “ethnic” -- read Jewish, Cuban or Armenian -- influence on U.S. foreign policy without acknowledging the implicit “ethnic” worldview of the Groton and Yale WASPS who ran U.S. foreign policy for so long. Americans who feel they’ve transcended group membership have a hard time understanding the power of blood, culture and belonging.

The same, of course, goes for elite attitudes toward religious identification. Pioneering sociologists half a century ago patently assumed that broad-scale socioeconomic mobility would undermine Americans’ attachment to religion. So for decades, mainstream academics largely ignored the subject. But not only has religion not disappeared in America, it has flourished throughout the world.

Still, although race has been our national Achilles’ heel (and even there a major political party just nominated an African American for president), the U.S. has by and large been successful at negotiating the divisions of religion and ethnicity. But perhaps we are the victims of our own success.


For too long, the march of modernity around the globe, and our own sense of great power hubris, led us to believe that the world would only become more like us over time. But the events of the last decade should convince us that this is clearly not the case. If for no other reason than to understand emerging threats, Americans will have to stop pretending that for most people around the globe, identity is something not just to celebrate -- once a year, at a street fair or during fill-in-the-blank history month -- but to die for.

This past spring, Catholic University of America historian Jerry Muller argued in an article in Foreign Affairs that ethno-nationalism “will continue to shape the world in the 21st century.” If he is right, and recent news bears him out, then it’s high time that we take the discussion of ethnic identity out of the realm of civic propaganda and marginalized academic programs and place at it at the center of our debates, our study and our understanding of the world.