What Made America Diverse?
Native Americans are the only ones who deserve to be on this stretch of land we call the United States. But the rest of us are here, arriving from all over the world and making the nation diverse, and we are supposed to deem this diversity a good thing. Many college-educated Americans look askance at racially homogeneous regions of the U.S. with a mixture of pity and contempt, sometimes assuming racism and always assuming provinciality. Yet what Americans now call diversity is itself the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and more colonialism. This fact may be unpleasant because it runs against our impulse to praise the diversity of America, but pre-Columbian America was homogeneous. Despite its cultural variation, it had no racial diversity by today’s standards. To pull terminology from the U.S. Census Bureau, everyone in the Americas was “American Indian or Alaska Native.”
There are three historical reasons for the subsequent diversification, none of which are pleasant. The first reason is that English, Spanish, Dutch, and French settlers began to arrive in North America in the 17th century. This led to an America of two races: Native Americans and Whites. Most of these unauthorized immigrants from Europe were not “pro diversity.” They believed in the racist idea that they were entitled to the land, which they had fortuitously “discovered,” a belief that eventually led to the ideology of manifest destiny, the circular argument that stealing land from Native Americans meant that the land never really belonged to Native Americans in the first place. Admittedly, racism was not the only factor; some colonists were fleeing persecution. But settler colonialism was predicated on the idea that Native Americans lacked certain inalienable rights. And because this drive ultimately pushed the surviving Native Americans into segregated areas, this diversification was temporary.
The more painful and permanent reason for American diversity was the Atlantic slave trade. This trade was enabled by the dehumanization of Africans by other Africans who kidnapped them (people forget this) and sustained by anti-Black racism among Western Europeans. Slavery persisted in the South because racism became part of the regional ideology. Although slavery has been illegal in the South for 150 years, it continues to be the most racist region in America; the strategy of appealing to racist White voters is correctly called the Southern Strategy. The slave trade also diversified the South but did not diversify regions where abolitionism was prevalent.
As a result, the diverse states that now have the highest proportion of African Americans are the states where slavery persisted until the 1860s. The states that are homogeneous and White include those in northern New England where slavery was abolished early. As C. G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History” noted in the middle of the 20th century, “Slavery during the early years of the colonies was just as widely extended in the New England settlements as elsewhere…. Yet, New England has never had but a few thousand Negroes. The main difference is that whereas New England early saw that slavery was an evil and uprooted it, the South clung to it as its greater treasure….”. In most of New England, slavery was abolished by state legislatures between 1789 and 1800. The legislators were elected by property-holding White men who had some regard for the rights of Africans despite living in a homogeneous place and having little contact with them.
Even though the Great Migration of African Americans to the North diluted the contrast between free states and slave states, especially in industrialized areas where African Americans sought jobs, the racial contrast is still evident. The homogeneity of Vermont is mainly due to its White settlers being marginally more enlightened than those in South Carolina, not to Vermontians being less “inclusive.”
The third reason for the diversification of the U.S. is global inequality. As I can attest, as a naturalized American from India, people in developing countries do not have an intrinsic desire to leave their home country to diversify the U.S. We nevertheless move to the West because that seems like the only route to a better education and greater financial security.
Countries like India and Pakistan may have dimmer prospects because these countries were immiserated by the East India company and the English Crown. Between 1700 and 1947, India’s share in the world economy fell from 27 percent to 3 percent. “I know it is said in missionary meetings that we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians,” wrote the U.K. Home Secretary in 1928. “That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Britain.” A century earlier, in 1844, a British general acknowledged the criminality of Europeans, much like Thomas Jefferson: “We shall yet suffer from the crime as sure as there is a God in heaven.” Had things gone differently, Indians might have the same luxury that Americans take for granted: access to good opportunities without moving 8,000 miles away from home. It is hard to say for sure because, absent the British Empire, the wars within India may have had similar consequences, and most of the wealth in India was concentrated at the top even before colonization.
Nevertheless, people like me are economic immigrants. We rarely speak about the pain of this departure. In an alternate universe, I would not be diversifying the U.S. but enjoying a life without family separation and homesickness, a privilege that Americans and Europeans take for granted. When I came to the U.S., separation from my family took a toll. Staying in touch with my parents was hard. In the 1990s, international phone calls could be $1 per minute, a cost that is fortunately gone, and I could only afford two trips home during my four years of college. I had two major bouts of depression along with one tepid suicide attempt during my first four years here. Looking back, I now think of my journey as an adventure. Yet if India had been as wealthy as an OECD country, I doubt I would have left.
Even if economic migration becomes less necessary over time, there will be northward migration from Latin America due to climate change, leading to greater ethnic diversity within the U.S. Yet again, diversification will come from misery. Admittedly, politics may taint the allure of the United States for people in other regions. It’s springtime for idiots in the Republican party, and there’s no point settling for the Trump family in a strange country when you can get dynastic oligarchy at home. The middle class is also growing in India and China. With less economic precarity comes less desire for migration. Nevertheless, the U.S. will still attract people because of global inequality, and Americans will continue to overlook the emotional costs those immigrants bear.
This is the story of national diversification now. To be sure, we shouldn’t evaluate the diversity of institutions in the same way we evaluate the diversity of regions. However, institutional homogeneity is not the same regional homogeneity. Had slavery been prohibited at the outset, the Black American population would be a smaller minority, and Alabama would resemble Vermont. Had slavery persisted everywhere until the 1860s, New England would be diverse.
This narrative of U.S. diversification rooted in slavery and colonialization is difficult to swallow. We seek consonance, pairing good with good and bad with bad. It is consonant to see that Jim Crow laws are rooted in racism; it’s dissonant to see that diversity is too. This dissonance is palatable to neither conservatives nor liberals. Conservatives like to praise the European cultural heritage of the early colonies, but our actual heritage is polycultural rather than European precisely because of political and economic decisions taken by Europeans. Liberals think of homogeneity as bad, yet in a just world, the land that Americans now occupy would be a homogenous set of Native American nations.
Many Americans care about diversity and worry that parts of the U.S. are still homogeneously White. It is valid to argue that the diversification of a place can make its racial minorities feel less isolated as it becomes easier to find fellow minorities in the community. But one can also recognize that the cosmopolitan mindset of immigration-as-diversity relies on selective attention. At many times, diversification has been the cause or symptom of problems for disadvantaged peoples.
Chris C. Martin is a co-founder of Heterodox Academy and a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology.