Posted on March 13, 2007

American Spirit, in Darkness and in Light

Tom Robotham, Portfolio Weekly (Norfolk), March 13, 2007


The words I have before me are part of a subscription solicitation from American Renaissance magazine. Copies were sent anonymously to me and to our senior editor, Leona Baker, challenging us, through handwritten notes on the back, to explain why “segregation is wrong for America and South Africa but just fine for Israel….” and to “Question Diversity!”

On the front, the headline is accompanied by a photograph of a blond baby in a field of grass and wildflowers.

“By the time she’s 40,” the headline reads, “she’ll be a racial minority.”

The subhead, then asks the million dollar question: “Why are we letting this happen to our children? What can you do about it? Subscribe to American Renaissance.”

The body of the letter elaborates on a two-part message. First, it declares, “It is clear that people of different races have, on average, different levels of intelligence.” Second, this is a problem because “if massive non-white immigration continues, whites will become a minority in the United States. This would transform our nation and sweep away our way of life.

That last line raises an important question: What exactly is this “way of life” of which the publisher speaks?

As near as I can tell, it’s a way of life characterized by homogeneity, not just of color but of culture and of thought.

“Why are we asked to believe that diversity of race, religion and language are a strength when they are so obviously sources of tension and conflict?” the publisher asks.

The answer, it seems to me, is self evident: We are asked to believe that diversity is a source of strength because the people who are making this assertion know it to be so. They recognize that each of us has, at best, access to small glimmers of truth about the human condition and the potential of the human mind and spirit. And they know that our only hope, as a species, lies in drawing together those glimmers to create one magnificent light. They know, in other words, that exposure to other races, religions, languages and cultural experiences is not only exhilarating; it allows us, individually and collectively, to see our reality and our potential in new ways.


The Jeffersonian overtones of its name notwithstanding, American Renaissance seems to reflect gross ignorance of our nation’s history. Time and time again, groups have emerged in reaction to the perceived threat of immigrants and people of color. And time and time again, history has shown those fears to have been not only unfounded but in direct opposition to our greatest strength as a nation. At different times, there have been groups claiming that the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews and countless others needed to be kept at bay for the good of the nation. In 1854, the “Know Nothings” grew to a million strong, according to historian James McPherson, based on the belief that the political power of immigrants needed to be restrained. Meanwhile, McPherson points out, anti-black animus was by no means limited to the South. Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot was among those who wanted to keep slavery out of the territories not because he was morally opposed to it but because “the negro race already [occupied] enough of this fair continent.”

The Negro race, of course, went on to create our greatest indigenous art form—a fusion of African rhythmic traditions, spirituals, blues and European instruments, harmonies and melodies—and laid the groundwork, as well, for rock-n-roll. The black influence on British musicians came back to our shores, ironically, as the British invasion, which is the theme of our music awards show. (Told you I’d likely get back to it.)

Needless to say, as American Renaissance points out, the story of racial, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity in America is also one of conflict and tension.

So what?

All of human history is a story of conflict and tension, in addition to magnificent harmonies. There are two ways of dealing with such tension. We can work through it with creativity (you can’t make music without tension) or we can try to eradicate it. History—and the laws of life—show us clearly that the latter approach is not only futile but self-destructive.

Unfortunately, groups like those represented by American Renaissance are blind to this truth. It is their loss. But if we were ever to allow them to dominate our national discourse and psyche, it would be our loss as well.