What does it mean to be an “American” … “we the people” ?
Were the indigenous tribes of North America Americans (they were, after all, here before any white and to this day are members of other, first nations, that the US Government suppressed through violence)?
Were the Pilgrims Americans (they were, after all, subjects of the English King)?
Were the imported African slaves Americans (they were, after all, brought here and kept here against their will)?
Were the waves of northern and later southern European immigrants, who came here for reasons of economic opportunity from the 1830s to the 1930s Americans (they were typically, after all, not English speakers, with limited employment skills other than manual labor)?
Were the Irish Catholics Americans (they were, after all, followers of (then) alien religion of questionable dual loyalties to the Pope and this nation, fleeing famine more than pursuing US citizenship)?
Were the the European Jews who fled religious oppression across Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s Americans (they were, after all, arguably coming to the US out of fear for their lives more than a desire to be Americans)?
Were the Central and South American guest workers who came to this country to support the post-WWII industrial agriculture boom Americans (they were, after all, coming at the invitation of US agribusiness interests, with the overt or implicit consent of US boarder officials, and later at the invitation of construction, lawn care, and light manufacturing industries)?
Is the Iraqi war refuge an American (many of which, after all, fear for their lives because they worked for US Coalition forces in the long Iraq war and were promised protection, only to have the US exit the country, leaving a power vacuum for pro-Iranian Shiite warlords to take over and persecute anyone who cooperated with Americans)?
The Voter Study Group’s recent study sheds light on current American (note the circularity) beliefs about American-ness.
- Respect for American political institutions and laws
- Have US citizenship
- Accept diverse racial and religious backgrounds
- Speak English
Are the four attributes of American-ness shared across the political spectrum.
Arguably, this a good basis for defining citizenship. Respect for political institutions and laws and speaking English are the minimum conditions of individuals binding themselves to group norms (we have to suppress our personal and subgroup interests for those of the nation). We circumscribe that larger group identity with the bright line of citizenship (Canadians and guest workers are not Americans). But then we leave the door opening to joining the group of American citizens by honoring racial and religious diversity (see chart, below).
The next group of defining attributes shows the difference among Americans and defining the width of the door for admitting new members. (Current) Americans are mixed on how important (a) being born here, (b) living here most of your life, and (c) being a Christian is. Debates about European heritage as prerequisite to American-ness are mostly in the rearview mirror of our national debate.
One question, not asked in our “me-centered society” and this survey, is to what degree some form of national or community service is a fundamental attribute of American-ness.
“57 percent of Americans favor requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service in exchange for educational benefits and other support. However, the poll finds that 18-29 year olds are opposed to mandatory service by a margin of 50 to 48 percent.” – Bi-Partisan Policy Group. 2013 Survey.