It’s time to start taking E pluribus unum seriously again.
President Donald Trump’s feeble and vacillating response to the violent confrontation that white nationalists provoked in Charlottesville has emboldened those on both the alt-right and the radical left who claim that racism and American nationalism are the same thing. Most Americans of all races think otherwise. Unfortunately, the ability to promote or even discuss a common American identity that transcends race and religion is weakened by confusion about four terms: “nation,” “culture,” “race,” and “ethnicity.”
“Nation” can refer to a state, a purely political entity, whose citizens may belong to various ethnicities (Switzerland). It can also refer to the exact opposite — a stateless ethnic group (the Kurds). “Culture” in American parlance can refer either to actual culture (English as the primary language) or to the categories of the U.S. Census, such as “non-Hispanic white,” which refer to race or biological descent. To compound the confusion, “ethnicity” can refer both to acquired culture (Amish culture) and to inherited DNA (white or Caucasian).