The Working Catholic: Identity
by Bill Droel
The pro-ethnicity movement of the early 1970s made some sense. Michael Novak (1933-2017), to mention one proponent, convincingly argued that the elite Hollywood and Wall St. and Beltway culture might not be “good for children and other living things.” He foresaw that the modern emphases on achievement, bureaucratic efficiency, tech-obsession, celebrity status and quick results leaves many people behind, especially those who live in de-industrial cities and in smaller towns. Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (Macmillan Co., 1971) championed alternative sub-cultures of families, ethnic groups, neighborhoods and solidarity. He urged political leaders and policy makers to bank on families and local communities, and the institutions that support their way of life.
Roots: the Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley (1921-1992), to mention a second example from the early 1970s, was a surprising success upon its release as a book (Doubleday, 1974) and as a TV series. Roots not only appealed to Blacks but also fueled a big interest in ancestry among the general populace.
To a degree, the pro-ethnicity movement is a reminder that in our pluralistic society a person’s self-confidence begins with security in their particularity. Our civic unity emerges out of respect for our variety (E pluribus Unum). Cautions are in order, however.
First, a healthy mediating group must aim toward the common good. One that exists in isolation and stokes resentments will soon enough poison its members and turn against society.
Second, the standard of judgment in our beautiful country is ultimately not ethnicity, race, gender, lifestyle, religion or ascription. As Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) put it, people are “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Third, no group identity is privileged above another. Women are not ipso facto better than men; New York residents are not ipso facto better than Pennsylvania residents; Protestants are not because of their denominational choice better than Muslims. All lives matter.
Give respect and equal treatment to all interest groups over the vast geography of our country, said James Madison (1751-1836). Then the cross-fertilization and bargaining among those many groups will minimize hostility and foster pluralism. Each person is more than his or her identity group.
Group identity can be a good and healthy starting point. But a group identity confers no unique knowledge, talent or civic standing. Immediately dismiss anyone who begins a conversation by asserting, “Speaking as a white, male, Irish-American…” or similar claim to knowledge. Don’t bother with anyone whose basis for authority is their gender, their ethnicity, their race, their religion, their aristocratic lineage or their age.
The recent revelation about attitudes in the Los Angeles City Council makes vivid the prejudice about group identities. The Los Angeles example also shows that class can be a group identity; that successful Mexican-Americans can belittle those Mexican-American groups whom they consider inferior.
Finally, keep in mind that some group identities are made-up political constructs. There is, for example, no such thing as a Hispanic or a Latinx. These categories and others like them are used in business or in electoral politics to compress particularity for the sake of appealing to “a target audience.” Our country desires unity but not imposed uniformity.
Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).