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 York University.

Organizations are listed for identification only.


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 seams.

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.


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?


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)


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 so on.

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.


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.


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.


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 learn English.(9)

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.

© 1995


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, 1991) p.7.

4. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (Knoxville, TN: Whittle Direct Books, 1991).

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, 1993) Bl-3.)

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