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Secession Crisis

ISSUE:  Spring 1998
One Nation Indivisible: How Ethnic Separatism Threatens America. By J. Harvie Wilkinson, III. Addison-Wesley. $24.00.

We know we’re not in Kansas anymore—at least not Dorothy’s Kansas of a century ago—when school teachers face polyglot pupils who speak Kurdish, Farsi, Urdu, Russian, Bengali, Khmer, and Spanish. We know we’re in California, which has recently accepted more permanent immigrants than any other nation (other than the United States itself). Nearly one Californian in four is foreign-born, and only one in two can be classified as Anglo. Or are we in Birmingham, Alabama, which now boasts of 60 Chinese restaurants—almost ten times the number of only a decade earlier? We know that we are in the America of the late 20th century, where sales of salsa outstrip ketchup, where the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is named Shalikashvili, where more high school students can identify Harriet Tubman than Sir Winston Churchill, where The Dictionary of Global Culture (1997) includes Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (but not Saul Bellow), and where the U.S. Senate permits no roll call votes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because too many Jewish solons (ten) would be absent.

But we are also in a nation that has allowed the respect for diversity to become an invitation to divisiveness, that has allowed an appreciation for the ancestry of ethnic and racial minorities to imperil the sense of common purpose, that has cut too much slack for pluribus at the expense of the very unum that has made the republic so attractive for millions of immigrants. At least that is the argument advanced in J. Harvie Wilkinson’s invaluable diagnosis, which reinforces the communal fears that other authors have earlier expressed. In amplifying the anxieties already coursing through books by Arthur M. Schlesinger, David A. Hollinger, Michael Lind, and Todd Gitlin inter alia, Wilkinson draws back from the full implications of multiculturalism, and invokes the need to recover a common culture that has been slipping through our fingers. Serving as Chief Judge of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the author is nothing if not judicious. But his warnings are perhaps even more pronounced than what other foes of ethnocentrism have voiced. He strikes an alarmist note at the beginning and at the conclusion of One Nation Indivisible, doubting that “the question of union” had been finally resolved at Appomattox Court House. Indeed Wilkinson believes that the “critical juncture in our race relations” can be compared to 1860, and does not discount as inconceivable the outbreak of a second civil war over the issue of race. It is inconceivable, however. If such carnage did not happen in the 1960’s (when ghetto—but not race—riots erupted), why fear such bloodshed when so much evidence has accumulated of genuine tolerance, of the extent of interracial friendships and marriages, and of such embourgeoisement that one black American in three is middle-class?

Wilkinson becomes a little less apocalyptic when he concedes the unlikelihood of secession; no state or group of states could become so homogeneous in its composition as to dare repeating the mistake of 1860—61. Though Wilkinson devotes some attention to separationist Quebecois, their hopes (“if at first you don’t secede, try, try again”) have no analogue even in New Mexico, the only state where Spanish has become an official language. Nor does Wilkinson notice how homogeneity is less characteristic of, say, Texas or Louisiana or his own Virginia than it distinguishes New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. If there is any relevant precedent to ethnic separatism, it is the Hartford Convention. He does profess to worry that the future might honor “the notion that America is not a unified republic, but a federation of ethnic states.” But the argument against that sort of political arrangement is as strong as the case against secession, which is that U.S. residential patterns are too inchoate to encourage such a federation. The trend seems to undercut the domination of any single ethnic or racial group; majorities increasingly consist of minorities, so that Maastricht is about as implausible the site for such a scenario as Montgomery had been. American civilization, a “Spanish-surnamed” philosopher named Santayana once observed, “is a great solvent”; and the centrifugal power of the common culture surely runs deeper than the impulses toward fragmentation.

But the seriousness of the problem that the author addresses cannot be impugned; and the passion behind this book may have been stirred in October 1995, a bad month for bringing us together. That was when the Million Man March was conducted in Washington, while on the other side of the continent O.J. Simpson was acquitted-—with four out of five blacks telling pollsters justice was served and two out of three whites disagreeing. “The threat to America need not necessarily come from an actual structural breakup,” Wilkinson warns, “as much from a long, slow, debilitating series of events that sap vitality from the national interest, clarity from the national voice, energy from the national will, and reduce us to the interminable competition of racial and ethnic interests, whereby the good of the faction transcends the welfare of the whole.” He is not a monoculturalist however, and exhibits no nostalgia for the 1950’s of his own upbringing; that ambience was “too homogeneous.” And while championing racial and ethnic integration, he carefully skirts a term like “assimilation” to specify what he would uphold as the ideal standard of group relations. While favoring “one nation indivisible,” his book is vague in envisioning what harm would result even if a federation were established. Nor does Wilkinson cite a single historical episode (after Lee’s surrender) in which the national interest was impaired because of too thin a definition of citizenship, or because particularistic allegiances were permitted to trump the will to crown thy good with brotherhood.

What makes this volume so compelling is not its adumbration of the dangers of disunion (an outlandish prospect) but rather its illumination of injustice. Wilkinson is very deft in his attacks on the privileging of what should be irrelevant, which is the color of one’s skin rather than the content of one’s character. What lured immigrants from the Old World—and what still brings them from the Third World—is the asymptotic ideal of equal opportunity, which is perverted when individual merit is subordinated to the ascriptions of ancestral groups.

In the name of maximizing the promise of an open society, affirmative action policies have produced new classes of victims, brandishing their own grievances that earlier remedies have inadvertently triggered. There are such advantages to victimization that almost everyone can invoke such a claim (and is encouraged to join in the game); the absurdity of such addictiveness was shown in 1985, when President Reagan justified his visit to a German military cemetery where S.S. killers were buried, since they too were “victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” In the name of authentic political representation, Wilkinson’s fellow jurists have gamboled in “the political thicket” by redrawing legislative district lines to accommodate racial residential patterns. In North Carolina one Congressional district was revised with such surreal ingenuity that the length was about 160 miles—most of which was no wider than the corridor along Interstate-85. The consequence was to prevent politicians from having to transcend the racial divide, discouraging them from building the coalitions that might validate the ideal of integration. In the name of roots, bilingual education has been mandated, and has especially affected Hispanics, who are anomalously classified as “non-white” without being granted the status of a separate race. The effect of bilingual education seems to be to retard adaptation to a society in which English—rather than Spanish (or for that matter Ebonics)—is ineluctably “the language of empowerment.” No wonder then that a poll of Hispanics in Florida showed that 98 percent wanted their children to achieve fluency in English, which teaching in Spanish tends to decelerate; and in California only half the Hispanics of the second generation can still speak the mother tongue of their parents.

Wilkinson’s book is not “balanced,” since it largely ignores the deeper forces of assimilation at work. But One Nation Indivisible must be praised as more than merely a compendium of the mischievous follies associated with ethnocentrism. The author demonstrates an especially good feel for the melancholy consequences of the logic of separatism. He links affirmative action, legislative redistricting, bilingual education and even speech codes (which inhibit communication rather than insult anyone); he reveals a pattern that legal interpretation has often protected, an ideological system that leads to wackiness grounded in the caprices of ancestry. Citing as evidence newspaper accounts as well as the opinions of his brethren on the federal bench, Wilkinson is persuasive in connecting a syndrome of policies to expose their underlying rationale, which has engendered factionalism, resentment, and widespread feelings of unfairness. However worthy and sensible affirmative action might be in a biracial society, in which white supremacy deprived all blacks of the full rights and opportunities of citizenship, a multiracial society makes it fiendishly difficult to sort out who has been subjected to discrimination, who has perpetrated such wrongs, and who should be required to pay the bill for them—to say nothing of who gets counted in the effort to promote diversity. President Clinton’s attitude toward affirmative action, which is to “mend it, don’t end it,” is therefore quixotic as well as hurtful. “Nix it, don’t fix it,” counters Wilkinson, who served under Reagan as a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights.

When almost everyone wants to come across as marginalized, the mainstream cannot readily provide legitimization for social policy, and mutual sacrifices for the sake of the general welfare are more difficult to authorize or defend. In identifying a disturbing set of trends, spreading across the nation like kudzu, this book crackles with a sense of urgency. But its author is no determinist, and thus avoids the rhetorical trap into which Vice President Dan Quayle fell on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, when he predicted that the direction of freedom was “irreversible.” But such a pattern, he added, “could change.”


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