I grew up in suburban San Francisco, on a court with families of different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Our family was from India. We knew that our court had much diversity. Some on the court were Catholic. Others were of Japanese heritage. Many of our own family friends were from Pakistan and India.
But every morning, we kids gathered on different driveways to carpool together to our local public school. On New Year’s and Fourth of July, the neighbors would come together to celebrate. I remember running over to neighbors’ houses excitedly on Christmas mornings to share my new toys with my friends. One neighbor with a swimming pool would hang out a flag on the front lamp post to let us know that we could all come over and jump in the water.
Those common rituals and values sustained our diversity. It made it possible for each of our families to be different because we shared so much that was also the same. We were all American, not in some abstract way. Nor were we American because anybody can be American according to some abstract principle. We were American because we did American things together as Americans. And yet we were all so different. Those differences were not threatening, and were even celebrated, because we had so much that we shared with each other too.
Do we still share those things? In her 2016 response to President Obama’s State of the Union, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley said, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.” Her comments were targeted as much at then-candidate Donald Trump as they were at President Obama. Haley, herself an immigrant of South Asian background like myself, realized that the American Dream remained alive for many immigrants. Work hard and join a nation that will respect you and treat you as a full member of the community.
My family did that. We became Americans. We loved American traditions. But today, I feel lost. In an era of globalization and multiculturalism, many on the left are unwilling to say what constitutes those traditions that define America. They worry that any content will exclude people, as of course it will. But in its absence, what will be the ties that bind?
On the right, many white voters, and certainly Trump, have offered a vision of America that is bounded by color and religion. Trump has been blatantly racist and sexist. Yet he has also given voice to those Americans who feel adrift, not just in a globalized economy but a globalized culture. These Americans want to “make America great again” by re-claiming a nation that they love. But in their efforts to reclaim, they have perverted it too.
The court where I grew up, and the country in which I grew up, knew better. We could all be Americans because we shared a common history—the Pilgrims belonged to my past on Thanksgiving as much as they belonged to any other American. They were not part of white history, but American history. We could all be Americans because we shared common rituals, holidays, and institutions. And because of those deeper connections of history and ritual, we upheld the values of decency, tolerance, respect, and a deep abiding love for democracy.
Today, I feel abandoned by both the right and the left. The left has sought to create a coalition of identities, but what American identity does it offer that can transcend and link together all the minority groups that compose its coalition? What does it mean to be an American? And the right has taken what had been a broad, inviting nation and repackaged it into something narrower and more racial than it had been during my childhood.
None of this is to deny the very real racism and prejudice that continues to haunt our lives. But for those of us who shared Governor Haley’s experience, who grew up as immigrants in a world where common bonds were as strong as or stronger than those that connected us to our sub-communities, and in which we could become American, where do we turn now? Is there a nation that can still be home to us?
Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia.