The Pluralism Within


Who are we as a people? I can’t remember a time in my life when we more badly needed an answer to that question.

Rediscovering our American identity begins with understanding who we are as individuals. According to some, we are each defined by the characteristics that we inherited on the day we were born. For example, I am a man, not a woman. I am brown, not white. I am straight, not gay. For proponents of this view, we are each defined by the innate and immutable, by the visible and superficial.

This is essentialism — the idea that the characteristics we inherit at birth define who we are, what we can achieve, and how we should be viewed and be treated by others. It’s the idea that, for example, a scientist’s application for an NIH grant should be judged not only on the basis of its scientific merits, but also on the basis of the race or gender of the applicant. It’s the idea that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor on the Supreme Court had to be a woman, just as Thurgood Marshall’s successor had to be Black. It’s the idea that Joe Biden’s pick for vice president had to be a “woman of color.” It’s the idea that the diversity of a board of directors ought to be measured on the basis of gender and color, rather than on the basis of diversity of thought or experience. It’s the idea that if you’re a member of a particular race, you are committed to a particular ideology — summed up well last year by Repre­sentative Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.), who famously declared: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”

According to this philosophy, I am merely a fault line at the intersection of the tectonic plates of group identity. It denies my status as a free agent in the world by limiting my choices to strictly those that advance the interests of my “group.” I am reduced to attributes such as the color of my skin, my gender, and my sexual orientation. As Congresswoman Pressley would have it, my race isn’t just about my skin color — it’s about my voice, my ideas, and my way of thinking. When you look at me, you’re expected to see not an American, but an Indian American. When I look at my neighbor, I am expected to see not just my neighbor, but my black neighbor, and to anticipate his worldview and lived experience based on his skin color.

This narrative of identity is becoming dominant in our country’s psyche. But I reject the narrative, and I think every American bears a responsibility to soundly reject it too.

I am not just a man — I am a proud father, a loyal husband, and a grateful son. I am not just a person of color — I am a Hindu, a child of immigrants, an American citizen, a native of Ohio. I am a CEO, but I am also a scientist and an entrepreneur.

Most important, I am the author of my own destiny, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but always unconstrained by whatever limitations someone else may think I inherited. I am not defined by any one of those things. Rather, I am all those things at once and a great deal more. Each of those identities is part of my personal mosaic — the mosaic that together makes up who I am as an American.

Some people think of pluralism as getting a bunch of different-looking people together in the same place and then celebrating the visible tableau of diversity. That’s just putting lipstick on essentialism. True pluralism isn’t about celebrating the differences between us as people. True pluralism is about the diversity of identities within each of us — rich identities that go beyond the color of our skin or the number of our X chromosomes. Pluralism means rising above the siren song of woke culture to recognize that there’s more to each of us than our immutable characteristics. To be sure, our inherited traits and abilities and circumstances will influence what we can achieve in life. As a kid, I dreamed of becoming an NBA player; it wasn’t meant to be, and no amount of training would have changed that. But that’s the exception rather than the rule: the notion that basic facts of our genetic makeup determine all that we can achieve denies what it means to be American.

The fundamental problem with essentialism isn’t just that it offers the wrong answer to the question of identity. The bigger problem is that it forecloses the possibility of shared solidarity. If we see each other as defined by a narrow set of attributes — the color of our skin, our gender, the sex of the person we’re attracted to, or even, for that matter, the size of our bank account — then it becomes difficult to find commonality with those who don’t share those characteristics.

But if we define ourselves by a plurality of attributes — the pluralism of identities within each of us — then we find our path to true solidarity. I may be brown, conservative in my politics, and Hindu. My colleague at work may be white, liberal, and Christian. But we share a passion for unlocking the mysteries of human biology to discover new medicines for serious diseases. My neighbor may be black and progressive, but we are both fathers of children who we hope can play sports together, go to class together, and learn from one another. We don’t need to have everything in common with one another. We need to share only a few things that bind us together and focus on those.

Consider our vulnerability to COVID-19 this year. Out of this tragedy, we have seen many examples of shared sacrifice and patriotism. My wife, Apoorva, is an airway specialist who faced a difficult choice this spring — whether to head to the front lines to treat patients or stay at home to begin raising our son, born in February. Ultimately, we decided that, in this case, it was Apoorva’s duty to treat patients during her hospital’s hour of need, when they were short-staffed at the height of the pandemic; and it was my duty to become the principal caretaker of our son during those months. She went on to become infected in the line of duty and was separated from our family for longer than we had planned. She would have been a good doctor even if she had made the opposite choice; she was a good mother even in making the choice that she did. The same went for my choices as a father and as a CEO. American pluralism is about embracing the multitude of identities in each of us, rather than reducing ourselves to just one of them at a time.

It’s also about recognizing that our diversity is meaningless without the things we have in common — even our vulnerabilities. Like 9/11, COVID-19 offered us the stark reminder that our greatest vulnerabilities are shared: The virus affected us whether we were black or white, Democrat or Republican, common man or president of the United States. Diversity means something only in the context of a unified whole. As Americans we say E pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”), rather than the reverse, for a reason. Without a common creed, we are nothing more than a group of higher mammals sharing a common space while staring at our iPhones. Without the sense that we are all in this together, we cannot defend ourselves against the threats we face together — be it a virus or a terrorist attack.

This year’s election, which was imminent when this article was being prepared, is another example of our commonality as a people. That might sound surprising, since partisan division runs deep and the acrimony between our political leaders is painful. It reminds me of the misguided feeling that I sometimes had as a kid when I heard my parents in the depth of a heated argument and worried that they might get divorced (they remain happily married to this day). But even across those partisan divisions, we share an ideal as Americans that we resolve our differences through democracy, not tyranny. This year we cast our ballots for elected leaders in positions ranging from county commissioner to president. Whatever disagreements we might have, we are united by our commitment to participate in a free, open, and deliberative process for selecting our leaders — and to live with those results whether we like them or not, knowing that we’ll have another chance to make our case in the future. If that sounds obvious to you, then I am grateful: It should be rightfully banal to all Americans, regardless of party.

Just like you and me, America isn’t just one “thing” either. That’s what makes America special. Most countries in the world, and indeed most nations throughout human history, are defined based on a single attribute — whether it’s a single ethnicity, a single language, a single religion, or a single monarch. Not America. We were the first and greatest country defined pre­dominantly on the basis of a set of ideas. We came into being through a set of ideas that unified a polyglot, religiously divided group of people. America wasn’t just a place; it was a vision of what a place could be.

The foundations for that vision were plural: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, democracy, free enterprise, reason, faith, exceptionalism. And, of course, the American dream — the idea that no matter where you are born or who your parents were, you can achieve your dreams with hard work, commitment, and your own ingenuity. America isn’t just one of those things. It’s all of them.

I believe that part of rediscovering American identity begins with separating these identities from one another, so as to preserve the integrity of each. That’s part of what gives me pause about the modern fad for concepts such as “stakeholder capitalism” — the idea that corporations shouldn’t just make products and provide services, but should also address other social and cultural issues — or the influence of “woke” culture over our civic and community institutions. It’s not that social activists don’t have a point; it’s just that they’re often mistaken about the right way to drive positive change.

For example, as a biotech CEO, I am charged with making new medicines. Some of the younger employees at my company were disappointed earlier this year when I chose to focus on this mission rather than on leading our company — like many in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street — to weigh in publicly on the difficult matter of addressing racism in the United States. As a citizen, I care deeply about these issues and the right way to create true equality of opportunity in America. Yet as a CEO, I cared foremost about developing safe and effective medicines. I felt that the best way for America to be the best version of itself wasn’t to expect CEOs to solve racism and politicians to develop cures to diseases, but to let each make their own unique contributions with integrity and humility.

Democracy, capitalism, reason, faith, science, freedom, speech, exceptionalism — all of these are quintessentially American values and institutions. As Americans, we should care about preserving the power of each of them. Sometimes that means leaving each one of them alone and keeping them separate from one another. That, too, is part of what it means to reject essentialism and embrace pluralism, at the level of America itself.

The antidote to the siren song of identity politics and tribal division in our country isn’t to double down on our division. We’ve spent so much time celebrating our differences that we have forgotten all the ways that we are actually the same. The cure to our division isn’t to celebrate our diversity between one another. It is to celebrate the diversity within each of us. That is the key to our shared identity as Americans — one so strong that it makes both racism and woke culture superfluous, one that is achievable even if we don’t share every attribute, or even most attributes.

I recognize that much of this message may sound aloof to many Americans who find themselves suffering during this particularly difficult year. I recognize that not everyone has experienced the full arc of the American dream in the same way that I have. Rediscovering shared American identity may sound like a load of high-minded chatter to a working family that is struggling to make ends meet during the current recession, or to a family member of a victim who died at the hands of excessively forceful police, or to a small-business owner who had his or her store raided in the name of racial justice, or to someone whose parents may have died of COVID-19. Rebuilding shared American identity may seem abstruse in the face of these practical challenges.

Yet I believe it is a necessary precondition to making real progress on the more tangible problems that we face. In the end, all we can do is make progress, bit by bit. America is imperfect and always will be. Indeed, America was born in part from the idea that perfection is impossible. Our system of checks and balances reflects an understanding that humans are fallible, including the leaders we elect.

Still, more than any nation in history, America is the pursuit of perfection — call it the pursuit of a more perfect union, the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of liberty, equality, and justice for all. If we can elevate these ideals above fractious group identities, then nothing — not a nation, not a virus — can beat us.

— This article is adapted from a speech Mr. Ramaswamy delivered at the 2020 annual meeting of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Vivek Ramaswamy (born August 9, 1985) is an American entrepreneur in the biotechnology sector. He is the founder and executive chairman of the biopharmaceutical company Roivant Sciences