I wonder what the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. would have made of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's pandering to Lone Star secessionists on April 15. I'd love to hear what he'd say about Sarah Palin's flirtation with the Alaskan Independence Party and its disdain for the rest of the United States.
Way back in 1991, Schlesinger wrote a bestselling book, "The Disuniting of America," in which he argued that multiculturalism was threatening the integrity of the nation. "The cult of ethnicity," he wrote, culminated in an "attack" on a commonly shared American identity.
According to Schlesinger, the challenge came first from white "unmeltable" ethnic groups who didn't adapt to the British foundations of U.S. culture. His primary concern, however, was with groups of non-European origin.
"Making a single society of this diversity of antagonistic European peoples is a hard enough job," he wrote. "The new salience of non-European, nonwhite stocks compounds the challenge. And the non-Europeans, or at least their self-appointed spokesmen, bring with them a resentment, in some cases hatred, of Europe and the West."
In the wake of Perry's comments -- on the one hand saying we "have a great union" and on the other warning that if "Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people ... who knows" -- Schlesinger's warning seems not only quaint but misdirected. He was, in large part, responding to militant, old- school campus racial activists, and he wildly overestimated the influence of such "professional minorities." But he also didn't foresee the emergence of white grievance based on minority status.
That's odd, given that by the early 1990s, demographers already knew that whites were on the verge of becoming a minority in bellwether California. Looking back at the three big ballot measures of the 1990s -- Propositions 187 (anti-illegal immigration), 209 (anti-affirmative action) and 227 (anti-bilingual education) -- it's hard not to see in them a white backlash to the state's demographic transition. In 1999, in an article entitled "California and the End of White America," even Ron Unz, the entrepreneur who spearheaded Proposition 227 and ran for governor in 1994, concluded that "this unprecedented ethnic transformation is probably responsible for the rise of a series of ethnically charged political issues."
Unz generally agreed with Schlesinger's premise that ethnic and racial sectarianism had the potential of tearing at the social fabric, but he didn't exclude whites from the list of potential offenders. He argued that encouraging "minorities to exercise influence through the mobilization of ethnic or racial grievance" left the door open to "the rise of a similar ethnic grievance movement among America's emerging white minority."
The recent talk of secession on the political right has not been racially based per se, but it would be naive not to suspect a racial component. Just as Unz warned, there does seem to be a growing number of whites who feel -- and act -- like an aggrieved minority. And the signs aren't just coming from the far-right extreme.
Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a workplace discrimination case filed by a firefighter in New Haven, Conn., who claims he was passed over for promotion because he is white. Last August, the New York Times-owned Ocala Star-Banner in Florida published an opinion article by an immigration-restriction activist who claimed that "whites in America are going to be disempowered, assuming we remain a democracy, through a radical and rapid transformation of the nation's demography on a scale unprecedented in world history."
We're likely to hear more such sentiments as the nation goes through the same demographic transition that California has experienced.
Fox News' Glenn Beck has even posited a creepy "Bubba effect." In February, his guest was a retired Army sergeant major who talked about the expanding ranks of survivalists, who "lose that faith and confidence within the various politicians" and "end up developing their own infrastructure, their own means to survive, to basically fend for themselves."
I don't want to make the same mistake Schlesinger did and overestimate the influence of such sentiments, but it's disturbing to see mainstream politicians such as Perry and Palin and talk-show hosts give these ideas any credibility whatsoever.
In some ways, the election of Barack Obama is a culmination of the mainstreaming of nonwhite minorities. Despite the worst excesses of multicultural separatist rhetoric and activism, these groups are more politically integrated than ever before. Now we shouldn't be surprised to hear louder calls for separation, secession or national disintegration from whites than from nonwhites.
No matter the source, at this point in the history of this extraordinarily diverse nation, we should be wary of any political movement that favors the unum over the pluribus. But be fair: The threats to the fragile bonds of cohesion in our society can no longer simply be laid at the feet of those pesky multiculturalists.