Ronald Takaki describes flying into Norfolk, Virginia, and talking to the taxi driver who collects him from the airport. During the conversation, the driver asks how long Takaki has been in the United States, commenting that his English is very good. Takaki explains that his grandfather immigrated to the US from Japan in the 1880s. Yet he knows that despite how long his family has been in the country, the driver does not really think of him as American. Takaki thinks about how Virginia was the beginning of “multicultural America.” This was where English colonizers seized land from Native people, and where the first slave ship arrived carrying Africans to the continent.
The introduction of the book shows how history is woven into the way the US operates in the present. Takaki highlights that when the colonizers arrived in Virginia, they intended to found a country of and for white people—despite the fact that there were already indigenous people to whom the land belonged. In a sense, this history of erasure is repeated when the taxi driver assumes that Takaki is not American just because he’s not white. The driver continues to buy into the myth that America is a country of white people.
Takaki knows that the driver’s thoughts were influenced by what Takaki calls the “Master Narrative of American History,” which falsely asserts that being American means being white. If you are not white, you are “Other,” and treated as “inferior” and “unassimilable.” The Master Narrative can be attributed to Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian who gave a talk in 1893 about the closing of the frontier. Turner argued that a new, distinctly American culture had emerged from the imposition of civilization onto the “savagery” of Native life and the natural landscape.
Here Takaki explains in more detail how the myth of white America works. Clearly, no one can deny that there have always been nonwhite people in the US. However, these people were dismissed, degraded, and kept separate from white society in order to preserve the myth that the country was white.
Shortly after, a Harvard professor named Oscar Handlin argued that immigrants were not just a part of American history; “they were American history.” However, his study of immigrants was limited to those who came from Europe. Takaki explains that today, overhauling the Master Narrative is urgent. White people will soon be a minority in the US, and because of the Master Narrative, most Americans have not been properly educated about the history of people of color in the nation. Educational institutions are beginning to realize this, and are establishing requirements in ethnic studies.
The quote from Oscar Handlin shows how knowledge and ignorance can intersect, creating dangerous false beliefs. Takaki shows that Handlin was right to argue that the story of immigrants is the story of the US, but he was wrong in asserting that this was limited to immigrants from Europe, who represent only a portion of the overall story.
However, scholarship on ethnicity thus far has tended to only focus on one ethnic group at a time, which means the “bigger picture” is difficult to see. Takaki aims to study “race and ethnicity inclusively and comparatively,” examining many different groups side by side. Briefly introducing each group in the study, he begins with African Americans, who have been a vital component of the nation since its founding, yet who have been severely exploited and dehumanized for most of American history. Asian Americans also have a long history in the US, often brought in as much-needed labor and then shunned as “unassimilable” Others.
The story of different ethnic groups in the US is so rich and complex that it is understandable why people usually focus on only one group at a time. However, while these studies provide crucial, detailed information, they can also miss vital chances to have a broader, comparative view. Moreover, they may not adequately emphasize the extent to which the US is one whole made of many diverse strands.
Many of the first Irish immigrants arrived as indentured servants; millions more later sought an escape from the deathly clutch of the Potato Famine. Jewish immigrants, meanwhile, were also seeking an escape from death, this time from the Russian pogroms and, later, the Holocaust. Many were disappointed by America’s lack of support for Holocaust victims, and as a result became important figures in the fight for (African American) civil rights.
Takaki will treat all these histories in more detail in the book to come. For now, he is providing an overview of the content he will cover, while creating a sweeping account of the diverse reality of American history.
Many Mexican Americans did not actually choose to move to the US, but rather found themselves residents of the nation after the 1846-48 war shifted the border. Today, they represent the greatest proportion of undocumented immigrants to the US, and there remains disagreement over how to best address this issue. The book also looks at Muslim Americans, and specifically the Afghani refugees who came to the US following the 1979-89 war and rise of the Taliban. Following 9/11, many Afghan Americans were terrified of facing retaliation in their new home. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 also confirmed that Afghan Americans would not be able return to their homeland anytime soon.
Crucially, Takaki contextualizes the current boom in undocumented Mexican immigrants by pointing out that in the nineteenth century, the US forced many Mexicans to live within its boundaries. Takaki implicitly asks readers the following question: considering that the American government took such an action, is it really fair to demonize Mexicans who now illegally cross a border that was arbitrarily extended into their country in the first place?
Native people were in what is currently the US thousands of years before Columbus “discovered” it. The creation of the American nation state meant the forced eradication of Native people and their ways of life. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope that one day Americans would be a homogenous people who all spoke the same language. However, the demand for labor meant that workers from all over the world came to the country, bringing with them vastly different languages and cultures.
Here Takaki juxtaposes two contradictory desires at the heart of the founding of the US. On one hand, the US was a country built on an already existing diversity of tribes or nations—indigenous cultures that had been there for many centuries, and between which there was already much variation. Yet the founders of the country, such as Jefferson, wanted to create an artificially homogenous state.
Ethnic tensions were rife, for example, between black and Irish people, who found themselves pitted against one another and developed deep resentments. However, different ethnic groups ultimately shared much as well: “labor experiences, hopeful dreams, and, above all, values.” Indeed, different groups were united through their shared participation in the US’ booming industries. These industries were literally tied together by the Transcontinental Railroad, which was built by Chinese, Irish, black, Japanese, and Mexican-American workers.
One of the most important ideas in the book is the way that people of vastly different backgrounds are united by their experience in labor. Indeed, because the US was a country constructed so quickly and over such a large area, the sheer amount of labor needed was staggering. As a result, a huge number of people came together from different parts of the world and were unified by their efforts.
United by “shared class exploitation,” workers of different ethnicities at times maintained solidarity, such as by going on strike together. Struggling together as workers could make people forget ethnic differences. Likewise, immigrants of different ethnicities were linked by their hope in the American nation. Rumors would spread in various home countries depicting the US as a country of freedom, abundance, and possibility. Immigrants had faith that the Declaration of Independence assured equality for all.
Sometimes, it can seem as if the faith immigrants had in the promises of American freedom and equality were naïve—particularly considering the extent of the bad treatment many suffered in the US. However, as Takaki’s mention of strikes indicates, immigrants were not just passive recipients of a culture that could be highly racist and unjust—they also actively shaped that culture into something better.
The Civil War was initiated by enslavers who desperately opposed the abolition of slavery, and President Lincoln originally refused to allow black people to serve in the Union Army in fear of rebellion by those from the border states. However, a shortage of men led him to allow African Americans to serve. In the end, 186,000 black men fought, which proved essential to Union victory. Later, President Roosevelt’s decision not to desegregate the army during the Second World War led many people of color to question whether they should fight for a country where they were treated as second-class citizens. Many did serve, only to find that they would have to keep fighting for equal treatment following the end of the war.
As will become clear later in the book, wars tend to mark major shifts in the history of race and citizenship in the US. During wartime, questions of loyalty, patriotism, and unity are brought into stark relief, and hypocrisy over the way that people of color and noncitizens are treated becomes exposed. In a similar way to how the demand for labor accelerated the importation of immigrants to the US, the need for soldiers gave those excluded from society a role in fighting for the nation.
In the 1960s, a wave of legislation helped promote justice for immigrants and citizens of color. In 1988, the government issued an apology and compensation for the Japanese-American victims of internment camps during the Second World War. The stories of ethnic minorities in the US have not always been heard, but listening to them is a powerful and vital way of understanding the nation. It can be painful for people of color to look in the “mirror” of American history and not see themselves reflected. The African-American poet Langston Hughes insisted that we “let America be America again,” meaning honoring the American principles of freedom and equality for all. Despite exploitation and oppression, ethnic minorities have built a rich and diverse nation, and it is important to recognize this truth.
Ultimately, Takaki takes a fairly optimistic stance when it comes to both the history and future of race relations in the US. Although he is frank about the suffering, exploitation, and injustice that has characterized much of the experience of ethnic minorities in the US, he also retains hope in the ideals upon which the country was founded, and even more so on the achievements of ethnic minorities in holding the nation to account on these ideals.