The history of nations is mostly characterized by ethnic and racial uniformity, not diversity.
Most national boundaries reflected linguistic, religious and ethnic homogeneity. Until the late 20th century, diversity was considered a liability, not a strength.
Countries and societies that were ethnically homogeneous, such as ancient Germanic tribes or modern Japan, felt they were inherently more stable and secure than the alternative, whether late imperial Rome or contemporary America.
Many created words to highlight their racial purity. “Volk” in German and “Raza” in Spanish and “Razza” in Italian meant more than just shared language, residence or culture; those words also included a racial essence. Many cultures showed their suspicion of diversity by using pejorative nouns for the “other” – “goyim” in Hebrew meant all the other non-Jewish nations and peoples; “odar” in Armenian denoted anyone not ethnically Armenian.
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Even today, it would be hard for someone Japanese to be fully accepted as a Mexican citizen, or for a native-born Mexican to become a Japanese citizen. Mexico’s constitution unapologetically predicates immigration policies on not endangering Mexico’s ethnic makeup.
Countries that have tried to unite diverse tribes have usually fared poorly. The Italian Roman Republic lasted about 500 years. In contrast, the multiracial Roman Empire that after the Edict of Caracalla in AD 212 made all its diverse peoples equal citizens endured little more than two (often violent) centuries.
America is history’s exception.
It began as a republic founded by European migrants. Like the homogenous citizens of most other nations, they were likely on a trajectory to incorporate racial sameness as the mark of citizenship. But the ultimate logic of America’s unique Constitution was different. So the United States steadily evolved to define Americans by their shared values, not by superficial appearances. Eventually, anyone willing to give up his prior identity and assume a new American persona became American.
The United States has always cherished its “melting pot” ethos of e pluribus unum – of blending diverse peoples into one through assimilation, integration and intermarriage.
When immigration was controlled, measured and coupled with a confident approach to assimilation, America thrived. Various ethnic groups enriched America with diverse art, food, music and literature while accepting a common culture of American values and institutions. Problems arose only when immigration was illegal, in mass and without emphasis on assimilation.
Sometime in the late 20th century, America largely gave up on multiracialism and opted instead for multiculturalism, in which each particular ethnic group retained its tribal chauvinism and saw itself as separate from the whole.
Hyphenated names suddenly became popular. The government tracked Americans’ often complicated ethnic lineage. Jobs and college admissions were sometimes predicated on racial pedigrees and quotas. Courts ruled that present discrimination was allowable compensation for past discrimination.
Schools began to teach that difference and diversity were preferable to sameness and unity. Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes were categorized as “white male” or “black” rather than as “American” authors.
Past discrimination and injustice might explain the backlash against melting-pot unity. And America’s exalted idealism has made it criticized as less than good when it was not always perfect.
Still, for those who see America becoming a multicultural state of unassimilated tribes and competing racial groups, history will not be kind. The history of state multiculturalism is one of discord, violence, chaos and implosion.
So far, America has beaten the odds, becoming the most powerful nation in the world. We should remember that diversity is an ornament, our strength is unity.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.” You can reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.