The US celebrated the 242nd anniversary of its independence this week, roiled by fallout from the Trump administration’s family-separations policy at the same time it considers long-simmering questions over addressing its racial history and confronts the world with an isolationist trade policy.
At heart of the debate is the question of identity—of us and them. Why is identity so often a source of conflict? Jelani Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker, suggests the answer goes all the way back to founding of the republic.
“The question of ‘We, the people’ has been our ongoing and unresolved conflict in American identity,” Cobb said at a Chautauqua Institute talk in western New York. “We’ve never sufficiently understood and defined who is included in that term.” Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s passage famously decrying the transatlantic slave trade in the Declaration of Independence was cut, American democracy has been characterized by a boom-and-bust cycle, Cobb said. “An expanding concept of ‘we,’” followed by “a contracting, fearful idea of who ‘we’ should be.”
Identity politics—and a cycle of progress, followed by backlash— have…