The Community of Communities:
A Communitarian Position Paper
ENDORSED BY: RUDOLFO ALVAREZ, Department of Sociology, University of
California, Los Angeles; JAMES P. COMER, Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale
University Child Study Center; CLAIRE GAUDIANI, President, Connecticut College; SIDNEY
HARMAN, Chairman and C.E.O., Harman International Industries, Inc; JENNIFER L. HOWSE,
President, March of Dimes Foundation; BARBARA JORDAN, L.B.J. School of Public Affairs,
University of Texas; JAMES JOSEPH, President, Council on Foundations; LEONARD
KRAVITZ, Professor of Midrash and Homiletics, Hebrew Union College; SYLVIA L. PETERS,
Consultant, The Enterprise Foundation; and DENNIS WRONG, Professor of Sociology, New
Organizations are listed for identification only.
MELTING POT, RAINBOW, OR FRAMED MOSAIC?
In exploring the future of American society, specifically relationships among various
communities--racial, ethnic, and others that jointly constitute American society--we are groping
for an image. Some hold on to the notion of a melting pot, in which all groups would be
assimilated into one homogeneous American amalgam. Others see a rainbow, in which various
people of different colors range next to one another.(1) The image of a mosaic, if properly
understood, serves us best.
The mosaic is enriched by a variety of elements of different shapes and colors, but it is
held together by a frame and glue. The mosaic depicts a society in which various communities
maintain their religious, culinary, and cultural particularities, proud and knowledgeable about
their specific traditions--while recognizing that they are integral parts of a more encompassing
whole. The communities are, and see themselves, as constitutive elements of a more
encompassing community of communities, a society of which they are parts. Moreover, they
have a firm commitment to the shared framework. "We came on different ships, but now we are
all in the same boat," to draw on a popular saying.
American society faces two major dangers that the vision of a community of communities
seeks to guard against: first, the danger of tribal warfare; and second, that of cultural
impoverishment and rebellion against an obsolescent and imposed creed or "canon."
Tribalism is on the rise worldwide, from Bosnia to India, from the former USSR to
Rwanda. Americans had a short lesson in its ugly course during the 1991 Los Angeles riots,
intergroup violence spread from a confrontation between African-Americans and whites into a
wave of violence that also engulfed Korean-American and Hispanic communities in a spree of
killing, arson, and looting that required the national guard to restore order. As it is, public
opinion surveys show that various ethnic and racial groups perceive each other in rather
unfavorable terms.(2) Moreover, the social mechanisms societies draw upon to counter the
centrifugal forces that all societies experience are weak in the United States.
Unlike several other Western nations, the United States is not held by nationwide
educational curricula, through which a shared set of values is transmitted to one and all, from one
generation to another. The media largely lacks a normative binding content and is increasingly
locally driven. There are only few opportunities for shared experiences like the settling of the
West, in which persons from different backgrounds intermingled. The modern equivalent might
be a year of national service or in the armed forces. But most citizens have not met and will not
meet one another one-on-one in either because they will not serve.
American heterogeneity is much greater than that of most democracies, and is rising.
There is, hence, a need to shore up the bonds and forces that keep us together. While we no
longer fear secession, we do need to concern ourselves with intergroup violence, hatred, and our
inability to work together. Among the worrisome signs are heightened tensions not only along
racial and ethnic lines but also between the genders, between heterosexuals and homosexuals,
and between those who believe they have cornered God and those they perceive as "Godless.
Given the worldwide trends toward tribalism, the high level of American heterogeneity,
and worrisome levels of intergroup strain, we note with concern attempts to push identity politics
to extreme levels. In a justifiable effort to correct and compensate for past injustices, numerous
community leaders are now paying special attention to group identity; they set one group against
all others, and promote diversity, as well as recognize, appreciate, and celebrate differences.
These efforts are well-founded in both historical needs and societal contortions, which are
potentially dangerous and must be corrected. By relentlessly classifying and distinguishing
between Americans, by stressing diversity but not the elements that bind us, we further diminish
our already weak and weakening commonalities; we face the danger of coming apart at the
Assimilation is not the proper treatment to the diversity overload we face. There is no
compelling sociological reason to assimilate Americans into one indistinguishable blend, to
apply, as James Bryce put it, the great American solvent to remove all traces of previous color
and to strip Americans of their various ethnic or racial hyphens.(3) There is no reason for Greek-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans or any other groups to see themselves as plain
Americans without any particular distinction, history, or subculture. Similarly, Americans can, if
they so choose, maintain their separate religions, from Greek-Orthodox to Buddhism, and their
cultures (including distinct tastes in music, dance, and cuisine) without this constituting a threat
to the American whole. Indeed, this society is richer for having both a close introduction to jazz
and to classical music; the jig, square dance, and polka; Cajun and soul food; and so on. Nor is
there any evidence that we will be lacking if we learn more about each other's backgrounds and
traditions, know the teachings of the Qur'an, learn about Asian philosophy, or study the traditions
of Native Americans. And each community can proudly hail its heritage and nourish its interest
in its country of origin. True, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it, in his book The Disuniting Of
America, one of the great virtues of America is that it defines people individually and by where
they are headed (to science? politics?) rather than where they came from (an aristocratic family, a
peasant background).(4) But this does not suggest that Americans need to jettison their interest and
knowledge of their past in order to be regarded according to their contemporary contribution.
The sociological trick is to leave some room for the enriching particulars while
sustaining the shared values, habits of the heart, institutions, and public policies that keep the
various communities as members in the more encompassing community, the American society.
(The relationship of American society to a still more encompassing community, such as North
America, the Western Hemisphere, or the human family, is a subject not explored here. Suffice
it to say that these more encompassing societies so far have not developed sufficient
communitarian elements to create viable communities, as much as one may regret this fact.)
Diversity within unity and bonded pluralism are concepts that capture, in more formal terms, the
image of a mosaic held together by a solid frame. "E Pluribus Unum" may not be equal to the
task; it implies that the many will turn into one, leaving no indication of respect for pluralism as
a permanent feature of a diverse yet unified society. To reiterate, unity does not require blending
and may indeed thrive on recognition and appreciation of differences as long as they do not sever
the shared bonds.
THE FRAMEWORK: THIN OR THICK? PROCEDURAL OR SUBSTANTIAL?
When it comes to a discussion of the American framework, one frequently hears from
those who strongly favor diversity but are much less concerned with unity, that the existing
framework reflects traditional white, white-male, or European-American values. However, even
to the extent that this is a valid observation, it does not agitate against the compelling
significance of a framework but suggests that as one envisions the future America, one must
concern oneself not merely with the relations among the parts (the various communities) and the
whole (the community of communities, the American society), but also with the specific contents
of the shared values, habits, institutions, and policies that make up the framework. The
American society, indeed, faces the challenging task of recasting the framework as it seeks to
prevent the parts from falling out.
The discussion of what ought to be the normative content of the framework, presumes
that it will encompass a definition of the common good, of social virtues and moral values. But
this in itself is a contested issue.(5) Libertarians (sometimes referred to as liberals) maintain that
any formulation of the common good endangers individual rights, and hence they seek only
procedural commonalities (e.g., various arrangements for voting to settle differences, say in a
city council), or only those definitions of good that individuals voluntarily concede or contract.
They are opposed by groups best called social conservatives (not to be confused with laissez-faire conservatives) who favor strong shared conceptions of virtue to the point they leave
woefully insufficient room for minority and individual rights.
As is often the case wisdom is to be found in an intermediary position, difficult to reduce
to a sound bite but of considerably more validity. A society is held together best when it
commands a set of shared values that define virtues the society seeks to uphold, strong
commitment to shared purposes, and a clear sense of social responsibility; but also when it has a
strong commitment to mutual tolerance and a high regard for minority and individual rights.(6)
The differences are highlighted not only between those who believe solely in individual
definitions of what are good and shared values, but also in the scope of what is considered
shared. Libertarians who believe in a thin society (one with no shared definition of the common
good, with no or only contracted normative elements) maintain that the polity can function on the
basis of shared procedures, of which majority voting is a prime example. Everyone can hold
onto their particular set of values, their own definition of what is good or virtuous, without
subscribing to any shared normative conceptions; but everyone agrees to abide, for practical
purposes, by the rule of the majority regarding which specific course to follow. (Some go so far
as to suggest that society only needs a computer, into which the various preferences will be
entered, to produce public policies.)
In contrast, there are those who hold that unless there are some shared, substantive, core
values (a "thicker" framework) which most everyone finds compelling, the societal union cannot
sustain itself because the foundations for building a shared course will be too weak. They point
out that the computer programmers accord weights to various inputs, as well as affect the
outcomes in the ways the inputs are processed, all of which introduce values inadvertently or
surreptitiously. There are no technically pure decision-making procedures or machines. We
have collected considerable evidence--by comparing societies that fall apart to those that sustain
themselves--that shows that maintaining a reasonable measure of unity requires shared core
values. (In addition, individual members of communities should not control means of violence,
or at least their control should be subordinate to that of the overarching community. The society
at large must also have the capacity to reallocate resources among communities.)(7)
To point to the importance of core values, however, is not to suggest that these are a strict
and rigid creed, a given canon, immutably handed down from one generation to another. On the
contrary, historical experience shows that the framework continuously adapts to changing
balances within the society and to changes with the world environment, while maintaining its
own continuity. Examples come handily from American constitutional history. For instance, the
concept of privacy is now deeply ensconced in our constitutional lore although it is not so much
as mentioned in the original text.
If one grants the need for a "thick" shared framework, albeit one that may be recast, what
should be its key elements?
CORE ELEMENT 1: THE SUPERIORITY OF DEMOCRACY
Recognizing that the American form of democratic government, as flawed as it is,
embodies the highest ideals of any political system and provides the best practice is a core
element of the American institutional framework. Those who favor an authoritarian, theocratic,
plutocratic, or totalitarian form of government and seek to foster it among the American people,
are attempting to break the core framework. This cannot and should not be said about those who
urge the American democratic system to live up to its promise, who endeavor to reform the
American polity to ensure that all members of the society are included de jure and de facto, as
was done for the propertyless, women, minorities, and the young. Recasting the framework
adapts it to the changing times and societal needs, and in the process, enhances the ability of the
framework to withstand challenges and strains. Such recasting should not be confused with
attempts to frame the American polity in an inferior, ill-suited, and alien cast.
The commitment to democracy, as this term is applied here, refers to democracy as a set
of substantive values, not merely a set of procedures, because a strong normative commitment to
democracy is required to protect the polity from temptations to set it aside when the results of an
election or a vote in the legislature deeply offends one's values. Only when one subscribes to
democracy as core value can one's commitment to it be sustained under such a challenge.
It follows that it is important to transmit this value to future generations and new
Americans, as well as sustain it among old-timers. Civic education in schools and adult
education helps. (One observes with regret the decline of opportunities for new immigrants who
are keen to learn English and rudimentary principles of American civic life, to quench their
thirst.) Most important are opportunities to practice citizenship, occasions such as town meetings,
community boards, boards of education, and other such institutionalized occasions in which
citizens apply, and thereby develop and continue to exercise their civic "muscles."(8)
CORE ELEMENT II: THE CONSTITUTION AND ITS BILL OF RIGHTS
Another major element of the American framework is the Constitution and its Bill of
Rights. The Constitution is much more than a procedure. It represents core values that guide the
American polity and society. It is the embodiment of our shared conceptions of the ways
liberties will remain ordered; the measures that serve to ensure individual and minority rights and
maintain a civil society.
Noted less often is that the Constitution provides a major guide regarding the
relationships among the communities that constitute the society at large. It does so by drawing a
line between the decisions local (and nongeographic) communities may make, even if they
greatly differ from one particular community to another, and those that are framed by the
national society and not subject to variance. This is expressed in terms of the numerous matters
on which the majority may rule and those in which the majority does not govern but where
minority and individual rights are guaranteed. For instance, no majority (local or otherwise) may
vote to once more allow individuals to be sold as slaves, be denied the right to vote, the right to
speak freely, and so on. On the other hand, the majority is entrusted with deciding the level of
taxes that will be exacted, the allocation of these funds among various competing demands and
While the line between legitimate majority decisions and the areas from which it is
excluded does not necessarily parallel the line between the particular and the common (the pieces
and the frame of our mosaic), this, in effect, is very often the case. Most social and economic
policies, from what to teach in schools to the levies for using public roads, from what to charge
for water to conditions for divorce, are set locally. These policies reflect values particular
communities seek to uphold. This is the reason that antidrug policies are stricter in Houston,
Texas, than in New York City; immigrants are treated differently in communities in Southern
California than in Maine; and so on. In each of these communities, local or state majorities set
their particular course. However, all these communities must act within the values embodied in
the Constitution. This prevents communities from following a wide range of particular values
and following a course that society at large has agreed to outlaw, such as banning speakers whose
views a given community finds offensive, discriminating against a given racial or ethnic group,
and so on. Here the Constitution--speaking for the shared values of the community of
communities, the society at large--upholds the universals in the form of limits on local policies.
(It also limits what the national majority can do, often by protecting a universal principle against
values favored by a particular group.)
While the division between community autonomy, particularism, and societal
universalism are at the core of American democracy and society, the specific lines between the
legitimate domain of specific communities and the community of communities is continually
contested and redrawn--at the margins. Two recent Supreme Court decisions illustrate this point.
These decisions are often discussed in terms of separation of church and state, but this is only
one facet of a broader issue: what are the issues that a community is entitled to decide on its own
and when must it yield to society at large, the community of communities?
In one case the following question arose: was the Native-American Church entitled to use
Peyote during its religious ceremonies as its tradition commands or did it have to abide by the
national laws prohibiting the use of controlled substances. (The situation is somewhat akin to
asking whether wine may be used in the sacrament or Jewish religious services during a
Prohibition). The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the use of Peyote and one cannot but wonder if
it correctly drew the line between the common and the particular in this case. Indeed, the
decision in the Peyote case was recently overturned when the United Stated Congress passed the
Religious Freedom Restoration Act which requires the government to have a "compelling
interest" when instituting measures that might interfere with religious practices.
On the other side there is the Santeria case. The Santeria Church, primarily based in
Florida and New York City, practices the sacrifice of live animals as part of its religious
ceremonies. The group hauled the town of Hialeah, Florida to court challenging an ordinance
that prohibits animal sacrifice. The Supreme Court ruled that the state must have a compelling
interest to restrict any religious practice, and further indicated that in the case of Santeria's animal
sacrifice, no compelling interest was established. Thus, in this case the community's values were
allowed to take priority over a national sensibility toward animals.
If, on the other hand, a group of African immigrants practiced female circumcision in an
American town, one would expect public health authorities and social work agencies to stop the
practice. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the courts would uphold this action on the
grounds that it offends basic values of American society as a whole.
The purpose of citing these cases is to highlight that there is an ongoing societal dialogue,
couched in legal terms, as to the proper place to draw the line between the societal set of values
and the particular ones, those of the community of communities and those of the constituting
communities. Indeed, the fact that these lines can be redrawn reflects the adaptive nature of the
whole American system. However, it does not change the basic setup one iota. Frames are
recast but society is not left frameless.
CORE ELEMENT III: MUTUAL RESPECT AND TOLERANCE
For the community of communities to be sustained, members have to combine their
appreciation of and commitment to their own particular traditions, cultures, and values with an
appreciation and tolerance, even respect, for those of others--without this being interpreted as
embracing these as their own. Thus, one may respect the richness of Islam and Buddhism
without viewing either as expressions of one's own values.
Mutual respect, especially, must be cultivated--the more one works to shore up particular
communities. One must, however, recognize that the more one promotes and strengthens
particular communities, the more likely they will be to develop a strong sense of an in-group and
a rejection of the out-groups. Hence, one must actively foster layered loyalty so members of a
community see themselves as part of an immediate community as well as of more encompassing
wholes, wholes that contain communities other than one's own.
The fact that such layered commitments can be developed is well supported by American
history. Well into the 1890s many Americans saw themselves primarily as members of local
communities. When asked, "Who are you?" a typical answer was, say, a "Virginian." After the
1890s, many Americans developed the sense of being a member of a two-layered community.
Today the answer to "Who are you?", especially if asked overseas, is typically an "American
(from Virginia)." Symptomatic of the change is that the Supreme Court, which up to the 1890s
referred to the United States in the plural ("are"), started to refer to the United States in the
singular ("is") from then on. In short, mutual tolerance and respect do not hang in thin air; they
are best anchored in an encompassing sense of community that embraces not merely those of
one's "own kind" but also those of other kinds that make up the larger societal whole.
Although mutual respect and tolerance continuously need to be sustained and fostered,
Americans are much more mutually tolerant than one would gather from the picture of the
United States drawn by the national media. A survey of the general public and public school
parents who are white, African-American, and traditional Christians (those who believe in the
literal interpretation of the Bible and/or are born-again Christians) found that 95 percent of
Americans believe that schools should teach "respect for others regardless of their racial or ethnic
background." Eighty-four percent think students should learn that "having friends from different
racial backgrounds and living in a racially integrated neighborhood is good." Furthermore, 61
percent of traditional Christians, an equal percentage as the general public, say that teaching
"respect for people who are homosexual" is a suitable subject for the public schools.
CORE ELEMENT IV: RECONCILIATION
To nourish the community of communities, we must accept that there is room for regret
in our particular histories and in our shared history. However, there is little to be gained and
much to be lost for all concerned if individuals or groups use the dark moments in each other's
history to bash other groups or to promote hatred. One need not forget the injustices inflicted on
African-Americans, Native-Americans, or the way Japanese-Americans were treated during
World War II, but we must learn to forgive so that we avoid the fate of societies that are
violently torn apart all around us. Fanatics who forever find emotional buttons to push--claiming
that there was no Holocaust, suggesting the Bible condemned Africans to being mere hewers of
wood and drawers of water, claiming that Satan is behind the women's movement--are damaging
the social fabric. If we could put the Civil War behind us (in which millions of Americans killed
one another, set cities on fire, robbed, and pillaged), if Israelis and Germans can visit and trade
and exchange culture and be civil with one another, today's ethnic and racial groups should be
able to achieve the same level of togetherness.
We all need to learn more about the ways reconciliation among groups is achieved.
Among the steps entailed is a recognized willingness to acknowledge past injustices; to make
some amends; to ensure that we overcome such unacceptable practices as racial discrimination,
sexual harassment, and bashing of homosexuals in our present and future. But more is involved.
We need to learn to know people from other backgrounds as persons rather than merely as
members of sociological or statistical categories. We cannot recognize them if identity politics is
incessantly promoted. We need rituals of forgiveness, closeness, and closure.
CORE ELEMENT V: A CORE LANGUAGE?
There is much less agreement on whether the expectation that one should communicate in
English is part of our framework. Knowledge of English has become a highly emotive and
symbolic issue. Some right-wingers have used it as a code word for nativism and anti-immigrant
sentiments. Some people on the left have used such demands as proof that the United States
seeks to rob immigrants of their culture. In other societies, as different as Israel, India, and
Canada, language too has been a central element of cultural wars. However, if stripped from
such emotive overtones, the following facts stand out: first, most immigrants are very keen to
Second, there is no inherent contradiction between learning English and maintaining
one's own culture. Most societies have discovered that having one shared language that all
members of society command, albeit in varying degrees, enhances the cohesion and functioning
of the society. Indeed, much business is conducted worldwide--from control of air traffic to
banking--in English, the world's most used language. Other issues, often tied to the question of
whether or not we should foster one shared tongue, the proper treatment of illegal immigrants to
the scope of opportunities for bilingual education, deserve full airing. However, this is best
achieved if these issues are not commingled with the question of what language Americans are
going to address one another in their daily pursuits.
Diversity within unity, bonded pluralism--or best, communities nestled with a
community--are concepts that capture a view of a society in which persons respect differences
while maintaining unity. Once one embraces this basic concept, the next step is to determine
what belongs to the shared framework and what to the constituting communities? Here, there is
considerable agreement, that the democratic mode of government, the Constitution, and mutual
respect are core elements of the shared framework, while other questions concerning where to
draw the line between the particulars and the universal remain to be faced. One observation
stands out and is particularly compelling: we are not condemned to choose between simply
embracing diversity or suppressing it in the name of unity. We truly can have both, if their
relationship is properly crafted: diversity within unity, itself to be recast without allowing the ensuing debate about the nature of the evolving cast to destroy what we must share.
This position paper was drafted by Amitai Etzioni and revised to include the comments of
various endorsers. Alyssa Qualls assisted in the research for this position paper.
1. Sheldon Hackney, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, suggested that
"jazz [is] the ideal metaphor for America. . . . As befits a democratic society, it was created from
the bottom up, is nonhierarchical in both its performance and appeal . . . . " ("Organizing a
National Conversation," The Chronicle of Higher Education April 20, 1994).
2. "Taking America's Pulse," a 1994 study commissioned by the National Conference of
Christians and Jews, reported that high percentages of European Americans, African Americans,
Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans held negative stereotypes of each of the other groups.
3. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth vol. II (London, 1888), pp. 328, 709: quoted by
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (Knoxville, TN: Whittle Direct Books,
4. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (Knoxville, TN: Whittle Direct Books,
5. This is at the heart of the debate between libertarians such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls
and communitarians such as Robert Bellah, Michael Sandel, and Philip Selznick. See Selznick's
"Foundations of Communitarian Liberalism," The Responsive Community, vol.4, no.4 (Fall
1994) pp. 16-28.
6. "[Alasdair] MacIntyre claims that 'natural or human rights . . . are fictions.' Rights presuppose
'the existence of a socially established set of rules . . . [in] particular historical periods under
particular social circumstances.' MacIntyre's project is thus one of duties, of the obligations of
membership." (Amitai Etzioni, "Liberals and Communitarians, " Partisan Review, vol. LVII, no.
2 (Spring 1990) pp.215-227).
7. Amitai Etzioni, Political Unification: A Comparative Study of Leaders and Forces (New
York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston) 1965. See also Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society: A Theory
of Societal and Political Processes (New York: The Free Press) 1968.
8. Harry C. Boyte, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989).
9. The National Latino Political Survey reported that 94 percent of Puerto Rican-Americans, 93
percent of Cuban-Americans, and 90 percent of Mexican-Americans agree or strongly agree that
all Americans should learn English. (Rodolfo de la Garza, "Researchers Must Heed New
Realities When They Study Latinos in the U.S." The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2,