Black, white, American? Our most important identity is in God.

America is in the midst of an identity crisis. It can be seen in people questioning everything from the true date of the country’s founding to whether only women can become pregnant. As a country, we are having a hard time agreeing on anything that has to do with how we see ourselves. 

No aspect of identity has been more difficult to resolve than the question of race. Historically, the issue has been reconciling our declaration that all men are created equal with the reality of second-class citizenship for people of discernible African ancestry. Conservatives in recent years have worked to forge a more cohesive national identity, but some black Americans question the role race should play in shaping that identity.

The root of this issue goes back hundreds of years. Chattel slavery erased tribal distinctions for the majority of black people in the West. Enslaved Africans from different regions who spoke different languages who were brought to this country had those distinctions erased. They were considered property, and to the extent their humanity was recognized, it was as Negroes, not distinct African tribes.

For black Americans, this means that absent the use of DNA technology, it is extremely difficult to trace ancestry back more than a few generations and almost impossible to link it back to a specific people group in Africa. The same dynamic exists for black people like me with more immediate roots in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Claiming American identity would be a lot easier if everyone who came to America had done so willingly. In that alternate reality, someone like Sen. Tim Scott might say his ancestors came from Ogun State, Nigeria, the same way someone like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions would say his forefathers came from the Ulster province in Ireland. Unfortunately, that is not our history. 

The American racial caste system that existed for over 300 years necessitated the creation of separate neighborhoods and institutions, from black schools and universities to black churches and businesses. What evolved over that time period is one of the most inspiring stories of human resilience in modern history. 

The contributions of black Americans to the arts, science, industry, military, music, sports, and politics are too many to name. People like Dr. Frederick Douglass III, Charles Drew, Marian Anderson, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and Mae Jemison are commonly seen as important figures in “black history,” but they are also foundational to American history.

To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “White supremacy made us a ‘race.’ But by our own invention we became something more: a people.”

This doesn’t mean that all black people are exactly the same. Any group spread across regions, topographies, and climates will develop specific subcultures. But it does mean there are some things that are familiar to enough black people that they constitute elements of a distinct culture within the broader American story. 

My wife and I learned this when we started dating. She is a Houstonian HBCU grad with roots in Louisiana and Mississippi. I grew up in New York City in a family with roots in Barbados. We had regional differences on issues like guns and government, but our family dynamics, religious traditions, and musical tastes were strikingly similar, down to the same reaction when a Mint Condition song comes on the radio. 

That familiarity exists in many other social contexts, but a common history has been the glue holding together black identity in America for four centuries. 

Black history has moved from the era of the closed fist to the age of the open hand. The former maximized the force needed to knock out the barriers to full citizenship. The latter requires grasping the opportunities that are available to all who desire them. Both epochs include people who are connected, but the interests of black people today are not nearly as common and predictable as they were in previous generations when both a black janitor and a black doctor had to drink from the “Colored” water fountain. 

The arc of black history in America has seen the definition of “race” expand from a social construct based on biology and phenotype to a broader concept that includes common elements of history and culture. Over the past 60 years, that definition has also incorporated elements of political ideology. 

Joe Biden’s infamous “you ain’t black” comment was universally criticized by his black liberal colleagues, but Nikole Hannah-Jones’ subsequent distinction between being “politically black” and “racially black” is an accurate assessment of how the left sees racial identity. 

This is why Condoleezza Rice, Winsome Sears, and Larry Elder were all characterized as agents of white supremacy while the cavalcade of black politicians, professors, and organizations fighting for expanded abortion rights – and fewer black babies being born – are seen as champions of racial justice. 

In many respects, blackness has become an “anti-identity,” known more for what it opposes than what it embodies. 

Envisioning an escape from this entanglement is difficult. Conservatives try to do it by emphasizing a common national identity. That is a wise move in a country that seems to be breaking apart along every conceivable line of difference. That doesn’t mean we should act like we’re all the same, especially in a country where citizenship is not predicated on being part of a specific ethnic group or religion. 

Identity is multi-layered and complex, but every distinction doesn’t need to end in division. Race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality all intertwine. What unites us are the benefits bequeathed to us as citizens. Our founders understood that rights come from God and codified them for future generations. It has taken us centuries to live up to the words inscribed in our Constitution, but an Englishman who was naturalized last week and a black man with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta both have the same rights as Americans.

Diversity is a beautiful thing when it operates within the confines of unity. The human body is incredibly diverse, with different parts of different sizes playing different roles and performing different functions. What makes those differences work is the fact that all of those parts contribute to the health of the overall body.

I first learned this lesson in a spiritual context.

My identity rests firmly in my Creator, who made mankind in his own image. Not only does the Bible say that nations and people groups are part of God’s design for humanity, it also says that his followers are drawn from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It is the most solid foundation on which to build an understanding of who I am. It allows me to appreciate my own ancestry, citizenship, and culture without being envious or resentful of those who are different. As Americans, we need to learn a similar lesson. The body politic is battling an auto-immune disease. We are not just attempting to tear down the elements of what make us American, we’re also chipping away at the types of foundational truths that allow us to create future generations. We need to be healed soon, because identity won’t matter in the long run if we drive ourselves to extinction.