E Pluribus Unum or Tribalism?

By Errol Hale

Not so very long ago, people used to come to the United States from all over the world, people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Each had one thing in common: they longed to be Americans!  They took classes to become citizens of this great union.  Each retained a pride in their ethnicity, from foods, to customs, to language.  They enjoyed the freedom to worship according to their own conscience and religion.  They lost nothing of their heritage.  They coexisted with others of backgrounds as colorful and diverse as their own, and yet they were Americans, and glad to be so.  America celebrated the unity of many becoming one.  In fact, the motto of the United States, adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782, is “e pluribus unum.”  These Latin words written on the Great Seal of the United States, mean “out of many, one.”

That has changed . . .

Today, removed by one or more generations from their immigrated forefathers, many Americans of various ethnic backgrounds, seem to have a disdain for their American identity.  Many prefer to major on their ethnic past instead of their national identity as citizens of the United States.  People are more proud of being whatever their ethnic heritage is than of being Americans.  This is seen in the fact that we identify ourselves as African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc., instead of simply as Americans from a particular ethnic descent.  There is an ever-increasing emphasis on what sub-group we are from that is fueling a growing racial tension in our day.  We are no longer Americans, “e pluribus unum,” or “one nation under God.”  We are instead dividing and sub-dividing ourselves into tribes.  This new kind tribalism insists on racial distinction [read: racial division].  This tribalism, based on race, has become the new racism.

Some may not be aware of the difference between e pluribus unum and tribalism.  The distinction may seem semantical, but it is not.  There are two distinct mind-sets, or worldviews, in these two diametrically opposed ideologies.  Here are a few distinctives:

E pluribus unum says, I am an AMERICAN from ethnic descent.  Tribalism says, I am an ETHNIC-American.

E pluribus unum recognizes distinctives, while not making divisions.  Tribalism insists on division.

E pluribus unum celebrates unity of all peoples.  Tribalism cannot see past differences.

E pluribus unum emphasizes unity among people from varying ethnic and religious backgrounds, while not denying or losing any of the wonderful contributions that each group brings to the whole.  Tribalism emphasizes only our differences.

E pluribus unum is almost forgotten by most.  Tribalism is promoted by tribal leaders, and embraced by many who do not understand how damaging the shift away from e pluribus unum truly is.

There is strength in the unity of being Americans from diverse backgrounds.  There is an inherent weakness in dividing ourselves into tribes.  This is especially true when the tribes become so driven by tribal honor and pride, that they war with other tribes.  Has the United States become a disassociation of warring tribes?  Look at how various groups clamor for their share of every pie that our government bakes.  Look at how race is made the dominant issue in nearly every conflict—even if race has nothing to do with the conflict.

Might there be two kinds of racism?  The old racism and a new racism?  The old racism conjures up images of the KKK, hateful men in white robes who insisted on racial division, terrorizing all who stood in their way.  The old racism beckons us to remember the horrors of the holocaust.  Old racism is, and always has been, deplorable to thinking people.  Old racism is so obviously wrong, those who embrace it are easily spotted and denounced for what they are: narrow, bigoted, people who must be opposed.  Unfortunately, there is a new racism that has crept unnoticed by many.  Sadly—and destructively, the new racism, based on tribalism is being celebrated by many who have forgotten how to think (and not a few who may never have learned to think—thank you public education!).  Frighteningly, many of these new racists hold the cameras and microphones that used to be in hands of journalists.  Many entertain us, and many more teach our children.

Defining Racism:

Race: "A group of people classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or genetic characteristics."

Ism: "A system of principles, doctrine, a way of thinking."

When one puts race and ism together the result is a way of thinking based on race.  Therefore, a racist is anyone who, no matter what they are looking at, sees race as the issue—even when it is clearly not.  The new racists claim to be the standard bearers of tolerance.  To test the veracity of this, try disagreeing with one of them.  No matter how kindly you may do so, you will be assailed by a barrage of names which will likely include “xenophobic,” and you guessed it: “racist!”

We didn't get from e pluribus unum to tribal racism overnight.  We will not get back over night either, but there are steps that individuals can take to help turn the ship around.  Here are three:

1.   Be color-blind.  As difficult as it may be, especially since we are bombarded with the new racism at every turn, do all you can to refuse to judge based on color, ethnic background, or religion.  Insist on every person and every case being judged on its own merit.

2.   Speak up.  Politely point out the new racism when you encounter it.  Point it out for what it is, and then calmly and intelligently explain how it is damaging our great nation.  Challenge people to rethink their position.  For those who are a little more bold, write letters to newspapers, commenting on the new racism when it is in the news.  You might even write a little pamphlet.  I did!

3.   Be an American first. Many, if not most of us, have some identifiable ethnic distinction.  Do not forget your heritage, but be an American FIRST.  Because America is made up of every race under the sun, being an American, while celebrating our cultural diversity is not racism.

 A footnote:  The notion that the new racism is divisive is likely to be seen by the probability that what is written here will infuriate the new racists.  They are likely to denounce it as racist.  Doesn't it seem strange that the proponents of e pluribus unum (who celebrate unity) are labeled racist, by the champions of the new racists (those who emphasize diversity)?

A final thought about Christianity v. Racism

Because Christians are human, we have often found ourselves on the wrong side of many issues throughout history.  However, biblical Christianity is opposed to racial distinctions, because God makes none.  He created all people groups. He is no Respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).  He makes the sun shine and the rain fall on everyone (Matthew 5:45), regardless of the differences that so often divide us.

Jesus Christ said, “For God so loved the world [people of all ethnic backgrounds] that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus Christ] so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus is our peace who has “broken down the wall of separation [between peoples].” (Ephesians 2:14)

How does it all end?  Revelation, the last book of the Bible, says Heaven’s choir will be made up of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.”(Revelation 7:9)

No matter what ethnic background any of us may have, we all have equal need for God’s love and intervention in our lives, and we all have equal access to God through Jesus Christ.

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