Most people have multiple identities, and contemporary America is tolerant of almost all of them, including men who think they are women and women who think they are men. There is one notable exception, though, to this general tolerance: people who attach any importance to the fact that they are white. The left, of course, denounces anyone who is not ashamed of being white, and spends considerable energy asserting that anyone who is white should be considered “racist” for that reason alone. That is the point of the antiwhite “whiteness studies” that have mushroomed in the academy and all the talk of “white privilege.” Susan Sontag’s view that “the white race is the cancer of human history” has become a central tenet of the contemporary left. Some on the right, on the other hand, dismiss the notion that there is a white race, or that whites should care about it, as an abstraction and a distraction. But Merle Haggard sang of his pride in being both “an Okie from Muskogee” and in being “white,” and he was right to do so, because there was no conflict between those two identities, nor any reason to take less pride in one than in the other.
In the Old World, of course, Europeans seldom thought of themselves as “white.” They thought of themselves as Englishmen and Frenchmen and the like. But it was different in the New World. The Dutch settlers of what later became Albany rescued the famous Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues from captivity among the Iroquois, even though this rescue threatened to bring the fury of the Iroquois upon them. For his part, Jogues offered to return to the Iroquois rather than endanger anyone in the Protestant colony. After his rescue, Jogues and the colony’s Calvinist minister, Johannes Megapolensis, became good friends. It is unlikely that the Dutch would have looked as kindly on a Jesuit missionary back in the Netherlands. But in the New World, Europeans began to appreciate what they had in common, and the first Congress limited naturalization in 1790 to what it termed “free white persons.”
Even if a white identity was an abstraction at one point, it no longer is. One of Michael Novak’s sillier books is The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. I first came upon this book in the 1970’s, and wondered what Novak could have been thinking. I have spent my whole life surrounded by what Novak termed “ethnics”—American whites whose families came through Ellis Island—and almost all of the “ethnics” I have encountered had already melted, or were happily melting, a melting that was marked by tremendous intermarriage among European ethnic groups. Although often derided today, the strong desire to assimilate to American life that marked so many descendants of the Ellis Island immigrants was perfectly understandable: Life in America was much better than it had ever been for their families in Europe. My wife’s great-grandparents were born in four different countries, and my great-grandparents were born in five different countries. Our pedigrees are mostly Ellis Island Catholic, but each of us has ancestors who were here before the Revolution. Our nationality is American—a point of pride for all the various branches of our family tree—but our ethnicity can fairly be described as European, or white. We are hardly unique; millions of American whites have family trees featuring marriages between European ethnic groups that seldom ever saw each other in Europe, much less married. It is hard to see why such people should not consider themselves white, or take pride in that heritage. And even when intermarriage among European ethnic groups did not take place, the American experience produced a sense of group identity among whites different from the European experience.
Of course, there is the danger that having a sense of white identity will coincide with a disdain, even hatred, for other groups. But there is no logical reason for pride in one’s own group to be accompanied by disdain for other groups. In 1999, Charlton Heston gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he noted that he had been denounced as a “racist” for observing that “white pride is just as valid as black pride or red pride or anyone else’s pride.” Heston was not a racist. Indeed, as he told that Harvard audience, he had been a vocal proponent of civil rights in the 1960’s. But what Heston realized was that an essential part of humanity is a sense of group identity and a pride in that identity. And, as the example of Isaac Jogues and Johannes Megapolensis suggests, a sense of group identity among whites is only likely to grow as America becomes more “diverse,” all the respectable voices to the contrary notwithstanding.