“What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it….If I’m not the nigger here, and you invented it, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why.”
—James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
I took the early August death of Toni Morrison harder than I expected. She was a mother of our stories, and thus, the loss felt familial. I had already been honoring her in an unwitting prelude to her passing. One morning a few weeks before her death, I took myself to see Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a beautifully rendered documentary of her voice, her work, and her life. I came home and took all of her books off the white built-in bookcases in the living room. I started with the somewhat less celebrated Tar Baby, having been unable to find my decades-old copies of Song of Solomon and Beloved in a fruitless search of my parents’ basement. At the initial re-reading of Tar Baby, I was instantly reminded of her powers: the way she both played with reality and reanimated the living world, giving voice and will to trees and flowers and even wisps of tropical fog. I read Toni Morrison again with reverence and a full-grown appreciation of her genius, which I had encountered first as an untutored adolescent.
While the coronavirus may be novel, the carrying of disproportionate burdens is not. There is nothing in the biology of black bodies that make them more fertile targets for this dread disease. Instead the social, political, and economic distribution of resources patterned along racial lines results in black illness and death, as it has before and will again.
Eons seem to have passed since early August, and we have lost a great many more precious lives to a virus whose toll has been disproportionately exacted on African American communities. While the coronavirus may be novel, the carrying of disproportionate burdens is not. There is nothing in the biology of black bodies that make them more fertile targets for this dread disease. Instead the social, political, and economic distribution of resources patterned along racial lines results in black illness and death, as it has before and will again. And as many in the nation rush to reopen businesses—many cavalier in their disregard for the threat this carries for black communities and other communities of color—the problem of race in America is presented in perhaps its the starkest relief. And as if the fear and despair of COVID-19 were not enough, many watched in fresh horror as video footage was released of the violent killing of another young, unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who would have turned 26 today. The pain of it, the rage it enkindles, can push one well above the boiling point. All of this loss and death seems senseless, but it does have an explanation. There is a need and a reason for race in America. And Toni Morrison turns out to be eminently instructive in the explication. She had a great deal to say—with an inimitable majesty—about the role of race in this country, the part that it has played and continues to play in the unfolding national drama about which her body of work is a sublime reflection.
And yet I cannot wholly agree with Morrison. I take issue, in fact, with one of her more trenchant metaphors, delivered not in writing, but in the snippet of an interview in The Pieces I Am. She explains to her interviewer that a centerpiece of popular mythology on American racial and ethnic diversity, the venerated melting pot, does not work for black people because we have never been in the pot. We are the pot. In this age of COVID and of killing, I am sympathetic to what she means. To be black is to contain the process of white assimilation, to hold the nation together by way of the ultimate contrast. For to become American has meant, it must be admitted, to become a particular shade of white. And that whiteness was something to be earned by European migrants to the United States who made their way into the melting pot. For many of those Europeans, especially from religious minorities and the southern and eastern reaches of the continent, melting did not happen before long and often violent efforts to keep them well away from the pot. Even when the nation’s exigencies required that once-despised groups join the admixture, it came at a price. Melting under conditions of extreme heat is only undertaken with considerable suffering and loss, but generations of white Americans have felt the loss of forgetting to be worth it, if not a little bit because they would rather be what is melted than the pot.
But that is where Morrison and I part ways. I do not think we are the pot. I think black people are underneath the melting pot. More specifically, I think black bodies have been the fuel, the very kindling, for the fire that melts what is in the melting pot. And the expendability of black bodies allows America as we have known it to exist and to persist. Bodies disposed beneath the melting pot make America possible.
There is a need and a reason for race in America. And Toni Morrison turns out to be eminently instructive in the explication. … And yet I cannot wholly agree with Morrison.
The idea first began to bother me after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Coates is nearly obsessed with black bodies in his book. He wants to make the flesh of black people vivid, palpable, not unlike Morrison’s Baby Suggs in her earthy, ecstatic sermon in Beloved, carefully cataloging parts of the body that must be loved both with tenderness but also a kind of jealous ferocity. Coates imagines in one passage what it must have been like to live the life of a particular enslaved woman, a true and substantial incarnation of flesh, “whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”¹ This woman, he goes on to note, is owned by someone. Her mother and father are owned. Her children are owned. All of the members of this imagined family were considered property but were actually people inhabiting bodies, Coates seems intent on showing us, almost desperately so, because bodies can be understood.
They were people in the same way that it sucker punched me one day to see an old advertisement for enslaved people that, after listing “bucks” and “wenches” of various ages and levels of fitness, lists for sale a six-month-old baby. Someone’s real-life, beloved infant child. A child with two teeth at the most, arms still defined less by muscle than doughy rolls, perhaps just starting to sit up on her own. By a frightful contortion of the human soul, someone had advertised this child for sale, to be used like some domesticated beast of toil for the rest of her natural life. That is part of why I think Toni Morrison (of blessed yet insistent memory) was wrong. I do not think you treat a pot like that. You keep a pot so that you can continue the melting. You clean it out from time to time and look to its soundness and durability. You come to appreciate it and depend upon it like good craftsmen do their trusted tools. But you expend the wood beneath the melting pot, piling piece upon piece, body upon body, flesh upon real, substantial, particular flesh, so that the flame stays hot enough to melt.
I do not think we are the pot. I think black people are underneath the melting pot. More specifically, I think black bodies have been the fuel, the very kindling, for the fire that melts what is in the melting pot.
Fueling the melting pot is a crucial part of the American project. Without those burning flames, America ceases to work. You could not peaceably people a nation with Germans and Poles, Irish and Slavs, French, Spanish, Russian and English—who had for centuries been ruthlessly killing each other over empires, dynasties, religion, and resources—without first creating a new identity, forged in a crucible powerful enough to melt away their cultures and histories and distinctions. And the product of all this melting, all this reduction and forgetting, is quite fittingly: whiteness. A color with no color (and yet reflecting every color in the spectrum). The color of the blank page and the unpainted canvas, but also of the funeral shroud. A white whose opposite is black. Black that absorbs the light but also makes it possible for the light to be seen. A color of background and of contrast. The color of the cave, the womb, the night sky, and the vastness of the universe. America needs whiteness to cohere, to hold itself together. It needs to believe that white is pure and good and clean and new, and most of all, as Baldwin taught us, innocent. Whiteness needs blackness to define itself against. Historian Winthrop Jordan, quoted in Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, suggests a more primal psychological need for blackness to contain that which these newly American white people could not face in themselves: “English colonists in the Virginia wilderness felt a great urgency to destroy…‘the living image of primitive aggression which they said was the Negro but was really their own.’ Far away from the security and surveillance of society in England, the colonists feared the possibility of losing self-control over their passions.”² The great urgency to destroy has not abated. It is what finds us still underneath the melting pot.
• • •
While the idea of melting together different nationalities, strains, and “races of men” dates back to at least the 18th century in America, the myth and image of the melting pot as it currently exists in the national imagination did not appear until 1909, with the premiere of Israel Zangwill’s Broadway play of the same name. Panned and praised in its day (the latter most notably by Theodore Roosevelt), ³ The Melting-Pot ⁴ centers on a recent Russian Jewish immigrant and musician-composer named David Quixano, who lives with his uncle and grandmother in New York City. In a melodrama that seems tailor-made for the silent film it would become, David falls in love with another immigrant, Vera, who is a member of the Russian aristocracy. Their star-crossed love takes a gruesome turn when we learn at the climax of the play that Vera’s virulently anti-Semitic father was the military officer who oversaw the pogrom in which David’s entire immediate family was killed before his eyes. He is the actual monster in the posttraumatic flashbacks that overtake David at various points throughout the play. After escaping the horrors he has endured in Russia, David holds onto a salvific vision of America as a land where all such ancient hatreds and Old World atrocities can be overcome by creating a new people shorn of their ethnic identities.
As David rhapsodizes in the play, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to—these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”⁵ David gives artistic expression to this vision of America in “The Crucible,” an orchestral work that receives an 11-minute ovation when it is performed on the Fourth of July at the settlement house where Vera works with new immigrants.
David and Vera’s love is also able to withstand the knowledge that her father was involved in the merciless butchering of his family in Russia. The play concludes as they watch the sunset over Manhattan, and David, with stage direction calling him “prophetically exalted by the spectacle,” calls the setting sun “the fires of God round his Crucible.” He imagines the “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow—Jew and Gentile” to be “stirring and seething” as “the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame.” And in the final line, he wishes peace upon the millions of children of this heroically melted America, who together will “build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.” ⁶ It is a stunning and deeply affecting end to an emotionally turbulent work of art whose artifice often seems overwrought. Indeed the play feels like the almost incidental vehicle for the idea of the new American as an ethnic amalgamation. And while most people in the early decades of the 21st century will never have heard of Israel Zangwill or his play, the notion of the melting pot has become as much a part of the myth of America as the pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.
It is surprising, then, to learn that Zangwill never lived in the America he envisions as the world-historical land of human brotherhood. He was instead a celebrated British writer whose own Russian Jewish family immigrated to Victorian England. He was born in London in 1864, graduated from the University of London in 1884 and taught school prior to devoting himself entirely to writing novels and plays, several focused on the experience of children in the Jewish ghettos. Judging by his later pursuits, Zangwill appears to have had more personal interest in finding a homeland for the Jewish people than finding salvation in America. Apparently, he considered a move to the States at one point, but thought better of it. Like Alexis de Tocqueville in an earlier generation, it was an observer of America who gave it one of its most enduring and incomplete metaphors.
… the play feels like the almost incidental vehicle for the idea of the new American as an ethnic amalgamation. And while most people in the early decades of the 21st century will never have heard of Israel Zangwill or his play, the notion of the melting pot has become as much a part of the myth of America as the pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.
Curiously, there are only two mentions of black people in The Melting-Pot. The first is when Vera’s father, the Baron Revendal, is told that Americans might react with squeamishness toward the slaughter he has visited upon Jews in Russia. He replies guilelessly, “Don’t you lynch and roast your niggers?” To which his interlocutor demurs, “Not officially.”⁷ The second mention comes at the end of the play, when Zangwill includes “black and yellow” among the melted multitudes almost as a parenthetical afterthought. This is the sum total treatment of the millions of black people who play such a central role in the real American drama. In Zangwill’s play we barely exist.
When one reads the aggressively defensive afterword published along with the play, one is grateful for Zangwill’s earlier silence. He evades the question of “the negro” in his spiritual-metallurgic scheme by suggesting that America will soon resolve its race problem. His position is in rather staggering contrast with W.E.B. Du Bois’s forecast of the 20th century in The Souls of Black Folk, published just a few years before the Melting-Pot premiere. One wonders whether Zangwill read it, given his ostensibly high-minded notions of race. His backhanded praise includes the observation that black people are as not nearly as smelly and immoral as commonly thought. He feels good about himself, one can tell, when he proclaims: “The devil is not so black nor the black so devilish as he is painted.” A few sentences later, though, he allows that black people are in fact ugly, stupid, and vaguely subhuman. We are redeemed, however, by “valuable ethnic elements [such as] joy of life, love of colour, keen senses, beautiful voice, and ear for music,” which he thinks may compensate for “dragging down the white” and could one day give lively culture to an “artless” America (a bit of British cultural snobbery being necessary for good measure). He believes that whites are entirely justified in keeping their social distance and views intermarriage as a dare that the races ought not take, though one he seems titillated by nonetheless. Mr. Zangwill is a sensitively sympathetic racist, who in the space of two paragraphs trades in nearly every pseudoscientific claim and stereotype that would have been current among the Western elite in the early 20th century. But he has high hopes for the American Negro, for whom he recommends Liberia or some other separate state. Someday black people might even be civilized. As evidence, he mentions that he has met the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.⁸
• • •
I am certain that he did not consciously intend it, but Zangwill placed black people precisely where he believed they belonged in The Melting-Pot: lynched and roasted. Underneath, not in, the pot. Our lives were not worth mentioning in any meaningful way, and nowhere is the question of our use in the combustion beneath the pot adequately addressed. It is easier to suggest that the fire is from God. That way one need not ask how the fire was started or how it is tended. Europeans created the melting pot in America, just as they invented modern notions of race, in order to benefit themselves. Though Judeo-Christian theology would be used to justify the savagery they called civilization, God was not much consulted in the process.
Nell Irvin Painter tells us in her painstaking History of White People that the idea of race was always chauvinistic, even as it purported to be based upon science.⁹ Over centuries, the intellectual development and cultural investment in whiteness proved to be endlessly facile and flexible. There is something fundamental to our make-up as a species that finds us categorizing objects and phenomena, including other human beings, in order to make our social and practical lives simpler and our cognition more efficient. But race, as we understand it, is not an immutable law of nature imprinted upon Homo sapiens; it is a fairly new system of categorization. Painter tells us that an ancient Roman (to the chagrin of modern white supremacists who claim direct descent from their empire and achievements) would not have had any idea what the questioner meant if asked if they were “white.” They were Roman, or more likely residents of some region, outpost, or town within the sprawling Roman Empire. Surely they were aware of the multiple hues in which humans come, but they were more likely to use climate to explain group characteristics like hardiness or sloth.
Later Europeans trying to reclaim their own classical heritage would first define race based on an aesthetic rating system, essentially judging “races” of people by how closely their physical features matched that of Greco-Roman statuary. This initial ethnocentric ethos would later be buttressed by attempts at science concerned with classifying humans in the same way that botanists classify plants or zoologists order animals. There were thought to be variations of humans, and the white men (and some women) who promulgated the classification of our species into various “races” had no qualms about putting their own supposed race at the top of their taxonomy. All others were substandard deviations from the white ideal. From the measurement of skulls to the testing of IQs, the basic premise would not waver: whatever was white was best.
In America, a confusing array of people would and would not be white over the course of the Republic’s existence. The Irish and some Germans were not white in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson called them “guano races of men” who were deficient in the “English traits” of true white Americans. Italians, Slavs, Jews, and others were decidedly not white at the 19th century’s end. The Roosevelt who loudly cheered The Melting-Pot was also given to grave misgivings about the “race suicide” portended by the influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans who threatened to ruin the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the United States. Both the exigencies of national political-economy and the conscious calculations of ethnic proto-whites resulted in what Painter calls “enlargements” of whiteness, admitting waves of formerly “sub-white” Europeans into the melting pot. They were jumping at the chance to be melted.
In America, a confusing array of people would and would not be white over the course of the Republic’s existence. The Irish and some Germans were not white in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson called them “guano races of men” who were deficient in the “English traits” of true white Americans.
It does not take a great deal of imagination to see why. In one of Zangwill’s appendices, he includes a description of the kind of massacre that inspired his fictional protagonist’s flashbacks. He quotes the firsthand account of a Red Cross nurse in Odessa who witnessed the pogrom there. She tells a truly horrific story of Jewish children being thrown out of windows, their limbs broken, and their necks wrung. Children as young as six months old. She goes on to describe the butchering of a pregnant woman, her fetus torn from her womb and the cavity stuffed with straw. An old man’s tongue is cut from his mouth and nails are driven into his eyes. Blood flowed thick through the streets as the medical personnel tried to save those they could. This went on for four days before soldiers from a neighboring state arrived as re-enforcements for a makeshift Jewish militia who rose up to defend their community.¹⁰ That these atrocities happened over 100 years ago does not in any way diminish the utter despair and disgust with which any feeling human heart responds to them. And, of course, they foreshadow the systematic killing of some 6 million Jews in the Holocaust just a few decades following this period.
Cruelty visited upon peoples who would become white was commonplace. One could point to the barbaric treatment of the Irish at the hands of the English (the latter of whom will come to the New World and use the same tactics on Native populations that they will have the temerity to call savages). One could note the near endless carnage resulting from the religious wars and politically motivated persecutions touched off by the Protestant Reformation. In fact, it is probably impossible to trace the origin of so many centuries of pain. It is no mystery that some Europeans would want to flee to a land promising that all of this could be escaped if only it could be forgotten. More, that they could become masters in this land, could remake themselves into something better, stronger, and more secure. It is not surprising that so many would go willingly into the melting pot when they had been so recently in the fire.
• • •
The privilege of melting has never been afforded black people in America. It is a great psychic burden to recount the numerous ways in which the position of African Americans has been underneath the melting pot. When the full weight of suffering is summed in one place it becomes almost too much to bear. Of course, the enslavement of Africans in the United States offers the most obvious evidence of our position. The commodification and disposability of black bodies is on full display in the “peculiar institution.” And though slavery had been part of human societies for centuries, the Transatlantic Slave Trade ushered in a unique system of racially defined, multigenerational bondage that would come to equate blackness with servitude. One could and should interrogate the psychological turn that this requires in the enslaver and the enslaved, but we have to remember that this arrangement was primarily economic in its motivations. First international trade in sugar and tobacco and eventually the global demand for cotton created an economic imperative for white planters to cultivate the land that they had taken from Native populations. They may have convinced themselves that they were doing this in the name of civilization, country, king or queen, or God Himself, but the making of money lay at the heart of the enterprise.
The privilege of melting has never been afforded black people in America. It is a great psychic burden to recount the numerous ways in which the position of African Americans has been underneath the melting pot.
For the promise of money, the wealthiest of these white people were willing to sacrifice the many millions of Africans lost in the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Stacked on top of each other like so much cargo in a modern shipping container, they were covered in their own vomit and excrement, a ripe and repulsive breeding ground for any number of diseases centuries before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Many jumped overboard to their deaths or found other means of suicide. In her haunting book Slavery at Sea, historian Sowande’ Mustakeem says that the “interior holds of merchant ships served as vital sites of power [that] sailors used to dehumanize captives, enforce dependency, inflict pain, establish order, and prohibit any sense of control over one’s personal life.” ¹¹ All of this was necessary to “unmake” human beings and remake them into commodities—what Mustakeem calls the “manufacturing” process in the slave trade. She notes the prevailing sense of terror aboard these vessels trafficking in black bodies and the horrible results: “mental disorientation, familial and communal separation, malnourishment, lack of sanitation and cleanliness, severe isolation, debilitating diseases, miscarriages, sexual abuse, psychological instability, and bearing witness to physical violence committed against kin and shipmates.”¹² These were people, some just children, others advanced in age, some sick or disabled, all torn from the only homes they had ever known, forced on a hostile voyage to an unforgiving land. Those who survived were property, to be bought and sold like a horse, a head of cattle, or a piece of farming equipment, so that other people, mostly though not exclusively white people, could become wealthy and pass that wealth onto future generations.
Edward Baptist argues that the very unity of the nation depended on the buying and selling of black people, when in the chaos that followed the end of the Revolutionary War, it became necessary to deal with the issue of slavery. Essentially, a bargain was struck between the Northern entrepreneurial class and the Southern planters, both of whom depended on human bondage for their economic well-being. Already aware of the pernicious psychic and social costs of slavery for masters and the enslaved, there was some notion that the practice ought to be curtailed, but the dollars and cents ruled the day, as they had for several centuries by this time. Slavery would be the American reality for nearly 80 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Its preamble might have just as easily said that “in order to form a more perfect Union, we the [free white male] people will purchase and breed human property or profit from those who do.”
That last part about breeding is of particular importance. When human cargo was banned from importation, slaveholders replenished their stores through human reproduction, often as violating participants. As property with no rights to self-determination cannot by definition offer consent, what amounted to massive-scale, systematic rape produced generations of enslaved children. Take a moment with this notion. Thousands of white men forced thousands of African and African American women into sexual intercourse and roughly nine months later, they welcomed not their cherished infant children but their property, whom they could, and did, sell without the least compunction. Is it any wonder that this nation does not want to discuss slavery seriously? Is it any wonder, as Baptist’s title attests, that The Half Has Never Been Told? ¹³
We need not stop at slavery, though. The bright new day of emancipation following the Civil War seemed replete with promise. Formerly enslaved people, fresh from bondage, built large farming concerns, businesses, churches, and schools. They searched desperately for family lost to sale and rebuilt what they could of kinship. Several became prominent members of their communities, served in state legislatures (even forming a black majority in South Carolina) and were elected to seats in the U.S. Congress. Then the federal government under Rutherford Hayes abandoned them underneath the melting pot. And for the price of whiteness, it was the most prominent black men and women who were terrorized, tortured, and lynched. Who had parts of their black bodies gouged, mutilated, cut, and carried off as souvenirs either under the cover of darkness or while large crowds gathered for picnics and pictures. Their burning bodies hung from trees, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, to send a blunt and brutal message about power and superiority, clear as the code of the slave vessel and the terror that reigned there.
… how could you unify these disparate interests hailing from distant shores without the carnage beneath the pot? It required violence, cruelty, and domination. That is the only way to make fuel of people. They must be broken into kindling that can be fed into a fire.
This dark and awful period, all the more poignant because of its proximity to what could have been, gave birth to Jim Crow and the fiction of a separation that was equal. Even Lincoln, the great emancipator, could not fathom social equality and was not terribly enamored of black people. He would have abandoned enslaved African Americans if it meant saving the Union. He said so. And what was the Union, if not the Melting Pot? And how could you unify these disparate interests hailing from distant shores without the carnage beneath the pot? It required violence, cruelty, and domination. That is the only way to make fuel of people. They must be broken into kindling that can be fed into a fire. There is no other way. Perhaps on some level the lynch mobs who set their victims aflame knew this, knew that fire must be part of their depraved ritual, that sacrifice must be made on the altar of whiteness—both of black bodies, the ultimate scapegoat, but also of their own humanity. For melting, too, comes at a cost.
Even the escape from the South that so many millions of black people made during the Great Migration did not release them from underneath the melting pot. As Baldwin notes, castration in the North was simply of a different kind. No doubt the family of Mamie Till believed that they had made it out of the fires of the Jim Crow South when they left Mississippi in the 1920s. Of course, they would have encountered a welcome that was less than warm in Illinois. Decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would remark, after marching through the Chicago neighborhood of Cicero, that the experience had been worse than anything he had encountered in the deepest South. Urban residential segregation would trap African Americans beneath the melting pot, trading Southern terror and peonage for Northern ghettos. But the South, indeed her home state of Mississippi, would ultimately rob Mamie Till of her only son.
One wonders, shudders really, at the ability to kill a child such as Emmett Till. Here was a 14-year-old black boy raised in Chicago, who allegedly failed to observe the rules of total Southern white domination and supposedly whistled at a white woman in a store in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. (The woman in question has since admitted that she completely fabricated a much more salacious version of the story she told then, with Till grabbing her, lewdly gesturing, and making obscene comments.) For this, Till was dragged from a relative’s home in the middle of the night and beaten so savagely that his face is not recognizable as belonging to a human boy. He was later shot in the head, and according to a New York Times report, “His body was tied with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.” The shock and outrage that followed his murder has been credited with touching off the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement. His admitted killers were never punished for their crimes, having been swiftly and summarily acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury. It is a story of international renown, but whether young Emmett whistled or not does not seem to me to be the vital question in this case. The question is, what was wrong with those two white men? Why did they feel the need to visit such unspeakable horrors on a child of 14?
As recently as October of 2019, some 64 years after Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, a bulletproof glass encasement and security cameras were installed in response to the latest in a series of attacks on a memorial sign that marks the spot. Three white male University of Mississippi students proudly posed with guns in their hands in front of the bullet-riddled memorial. One also wonders what is wrong with them, but our answer is in the melting pot—and underneath. The crucible still burns, and some sick and hateful young men who think that they are white cannot even let a child dead since 1955 rest in peace.
As recently as October of 2019, some 64 years after Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, a bulletproof glass encasement and security cameras were installed in response to the latest in a series of attacks on a memorial sign that marks the spot.
It is too easy to be scandalized by cases like this, though, and somehow contain such actions to a fringe element not admitted into polite society. That would be a mistake. The logic of the melting pot is all-encompassing. None are exempt from it. A 12-year-old black child named Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun at a playground and shot to death. A black man sitting in his apartment eating ice cream was shot and killed by an off-duty officer recently convicted for his murder. A young man out for a jog was shot in cold blood by a white father and son, who likely would have escaped arrest and prosecution were in not for widely circulated video footage—and whose convictions are not assured even with this incontrovertible proof. Brown children and their families escaping violence in their homelands face conditions on our nation’s border that are eerily similar to Mustakeem’s description of slave ships. And black and brown people are disproportionately losing their lives and their livelihoods to the coronavirus in this country. We can at least appreciate the candor of some supporters of the current president when they express a desire to “Make America White Again.” They make the process of melting quite plain, and one almost prefers that to the evasions implicit in banal descriptions of America as “a nation of immigrants.”
• • •
If America is to be anything at all by the close of this century, it will need a new metaphor. While the melting pot may be an apt description of our past, it cannot be the way that we imagine our future. For one thing, whiteness no longer works as it once did. There is evidence that after all the suffering and death it has wrought for black and brown and Native peoples, whiteness is finally beginning to kill white people. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown that especially non-college educated, middle-aged, and rural whites are dying at elevated rates due to what they have termed “deaths of despair,” ¹⁴ including through suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol-related diseases (deaths that are projected to increase in the age of COVID-19). Of course, it has never been easy to be poor and white in America, but whiteness has been a fairly potent consolation prize for the poor and working classes until now. The ravages of globalization and automation, the near-religious conservative faith in tax cuts and hollowing out of social programs, and the very real demographic shifts in the nation have all made whiteness a fairly precarious bargain. In his book Dying of Whiteness, Jonathan Metzl, argues that it is a lethal one as well.¹⁵ While protecting and projecting their racial identity, he says, many whites are willing to sacrifice their very health and well-being, whether through loose gun laws that have resulted in increased white male suicides or staunch opposition to the expansion of health care coverage for poor and working-class whites or lack of support for education and other social supports that are necessary for so many families to thrive. It is a condescending mistake to claim that these individuals are voting against their interests, though. Their interest is in maintaining a social investment in whiteness in a world that no longer pays the same dividends.
While the melting pot may be an apt description of our past, it cannot be the way that we imagine our future. For one thing, whiteness no longer works as it once did. There is evidence that after all the suffering and death it has wrought for black and brown and Native peoples, whiteness is finally beginning to kill white people.
I do not want to overstate my case here either. Whiteness continues to work for a great many people. On the whole, white people still control most of the wealth and power in the United States—by a lot. They are more likely than other groups to live in neighborhoods characterized by low poverty rates, good schools, safe streets, and plenty of grocery stores, parks, and other services and amenities. They are still more likely to see themselves represented in arts and culture as the main characters, the default option, the norm. And on average, they live longer lives in better health than most other groups in the United States. In the social hierarchy of America, whites are still firmly on top, regardless of the breathless reports of a (white) nation “under siege” or subject to “invasion” and “annihilation.”
There is another class of whites who are questioning their attachment to whiteness from an entirely different angle. They are attending Witnessing Whiteness groups and reading books like White Fragility. ¹⁶ They have become steeped in the language of white privilege and white supremacy and are reckoning in sincere ways with a history that is often new to them. Many were awakened by the election of 2016 and then the tiki torches in Charlottesville and the mass shootings inspired by racist manifestos. They feel themselves complicit in a lack of “racial equity” and are searching for ways to “use their privilege” to effect a more just society. Theirs is a moral opprobrium that is informed by a confrontation with both history and current realities facilitated by an increasingly sophisticated set of actors and advocates. Those from a more liberal or progressive bent will view this as all to the good, informed as it is by a set of multiculturalist imperatives. This awakening has not resulted in a concomitant shift in the distribution of wealth and resources, though a political realignment of younger whites may still be in the offing.
There is a deeper question, though, about what kind country we want to be. The multiculturalist vision of an all-encompassing embrace of difference does not seem to square with the way that most humans tend to operate. This is perhaps why the 1990s notion of the salad bowl over the melting pot never really took hold. Both neurobiology and social psychology suggest that we are hardwired to notice difference, to place a premium on what we perceive to be our “in-group,” and to deliver coveted resources to those who are like us. Experiments in neurobiology show that the regions of the brain associated with empathy light up when we perceive a same-race individual in pain but not when we perceive the same pain in someone of a different race. According to research reviewed in Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave, even the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for the bonding that lovers and nursing mothers and their babies feel, is implicated in bias.¹⁷ It tells the brain that “we” are bonded, but not “them.” The study of intergroup relations as a subfield of social psychology has long held that groups are competitive and ethnocentric. Even in experiments where group membership is entirely fictional and study participants will never actually interact with another member of the group to which they have been assigned, they rate their group as superior on a number of dimensions. That is how much a part of our social species the division into groups tends to be. It is a feature, not a bug. Children as young as a few months old notice difference and show a preference for people who look like them, exploding the quaint notion that prejudice and bias only occur as children age and are taught to hate.
Centuries before brain science would confirm it, he [David Hume] concluded that our tendency is to distribute our time, money, and attention to our family, friends, and associates, and the further out we go in the concentric circles of our association, the less we give. Every development officer at a non-profit knows this intuitively. In order to give, we must feel connected. There must be a relationship.
Indeed, hate is a rather superfluous byproduct of what appears to be an innate desire for birds of a feather to flock together. I recall being dejected when I first read the philosopher David Hume. I admit to having taken up philosophy as a minor in order to justify my belief in an ethic of service motivated by human altruism. Hume’s much more sober assessment was that we possess “limited generosity,” giving our care and resources to those closest to us. Centuries before brain science would confirm it, he concluded that our tendency is to distribute our time, money, and attention to our family, friends, and associates, and the further out we go in the concentric circles of our association, the less we give. Every development officer at a non-profit knows this intuitively. In order to give, we must feel connected. There must be a relationship. Those eager young undergraduates calling yearly from your alma mater—your loving mother—are banking on it.
None of these tendencies are deterministic, of course. They are the well-worn paths of our evolution as a species and our history as the co-authors of civilization. Many people are not only able to appreciate difference in others, but have deep and intimate interactions across boundaries of all kinds. I would argue that they are not the majority of people, however. And fewer still are able to muster the same moral fervor they feel for the child sleeping down the hall as for the child across town, let alone at the border or on the other side of the world.
So, what is a nation as diverse as ours, with a history characterized by melting and burning, to do? In the face of both human nature and our history, how do we find a better way to be together? A couple of social psychologists have suggested what to me is our best hope. Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio came up with the Common In-group Identity Model as a theory for how we overcome intergroup bias. ¹⁸ They note that there are two pathways to reduce bias. One that is taken by those boundary crossers we just mentioned above involves a process called decategorization. Stated simply, once someone encounters a member of an outgroup and comes to know them, their outgroup membership becomes less important. Interestingly, the boundary crosser’s own in-group membership also tends to become less important to them. This is the “we’re all individuals” feeling so common in many Americans in particular. It is likely what motivates some well-meaning but naïve whites to declare, “I don’t really see you as black.” This hints at the problem with decategorization as a bias reduction strategy. It only extends the reduction in bias to individuals, not to their groups, because their groups are not seen as important. But, of course, people’s groups often are very important to them.
The other path is through recategorization. In this case, often as the result of working towards some shared goal with members of different groups, those who were categorized by “us” as “them” become recategorized as part of a new “we,” as Gaertner, Dovidio and their colleagues describe it. These scholars are building on a much longer tradition initiated by the Contact Theory of Gordon Allport in the 1950s. Contact theory predicts, pretty reliably, that bias will be reduced when people with equal status encounter one another as acquaintances in situations sanctioned by those in authority that require cooperation towards shared, or superordinate, goals. Subsequent scholars have updated the theory to account for a number of additional features of situations that must be present for contact to result in bias reduction, but the central thesis remains intact—which is fairly impressive for a theory in the social and behavioral sciences.
Defining a new “we” does not mean we forget our important group memberships—both history and biology suggest the folly in such an approach. We are not looking for a new pot, so much as a new process. It must be finally possible to pledge our allegiance to a republic truly representative of all while reserving a certain amount of our attention and affections to those we hold closest to us.
All of this suggests to me that America needs a new story that captures our deep need for a new “we.” The notion that the melting pot included all Americans is a terrible lie. We know that there were always people underneath the melting pot fueling its inexorable fires. We know that they are still there, and even the people who were melted are finding the bargain too great a burden to bear. They are losing their very lives because of it. The way out of this insanity seems to be encountering one another as equals, inspired by leadership, and working together towards some superordinate goals. Defining a new “we” does not mean we forget our important group memberships—both history and biology suggest the folly in such an approach. We are not looking for a new pot, so much as a new process. It must be finally possible to pledge our allegiance to a republic truly representative of all while reserving a certain amount of our attention and affections to those we hold closest to us. We have seen imperfect evidence of just this larger “we” in our history. The mobilization for World War II and the first few days after the 9/11 attacks come to mind. Even service in the U.S. military offers some glimpses of the power of contact theory in America. And there is no shortage of problems that we might solve together, with a renewed spirit of civic possibility—from climate change to crumbling infrastructure to persistent poverty and an aging population to the public health and economic ravages of COVID-19.
Perhaps instead of fire and metal, the better metaphor is water. First to douse the flames that have consumed far too many mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. And then to wash away the illusions of race, the fiction of the complex human family as reducible to a handful of colors.
There is nothing magical or panacean about this new “we.” It will not be the cure to all our social division, nor will it usher in an entirely new order. Human history does not seem to work that way. We will still be flawed and prone to parochialism. Many will fight doggedly to maintain the advantages they enjoy in the status quo. But coming to a new “we,” a new story of what it means to be an American, can be better than the horrible melting pot. It can improve upon a mythology that was always meant for some but not for all.
Perhaps instead of fire and metal, the better metaphor is water. First to douse the flames that have consumed far too many mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. And then to wash away the illusions of race, the fiction of the complex human family as reducible to a handful of colors. But also water to suggest that we come from distinct sources, starting off in some mountain stream, some creek or brook, which must be remembered, and yet we can join together in our various tributaries, feeding mighty rivers that have the power to shape and sustain the land before emptying out into vast oceans and seas. Perhaps our language was in the land all along. And with honesty and courage, perhaps it can finally be a home for all of us.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Colin Gordon, Dick Weiss, and Sally Altman for their review and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.