What does it mean to be an American?

Changing Concepts of National Identity

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

89 Pages, Grade: 2,0


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. The difficulty of finding a national identity
2.1. Immigration
2.2. U.S. Demography: The racial composition of the USA

3. Changing concepts of national identity in American history
3.1. Concepts focused on conformity
3.1.1. The Melting Pot
3.1.2. Americanization
3.1.3. Anglo-Saxon Racism
3.2. Concepts focused on diversity
3.2.1. Cultural pluralism
3.2.2. Cosmopolitanism/ Transnationalism
3.2.3. Multiculturalism
3.2.4. Postethnicity

4. The depiction of American identity concepts in the in the films
The Birth of a Nation and Crash
4.1. The Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith
4.1.1. General facts
4.1.2. Plot synopsis
4.1.3. The cinematic representation of race with reference to Anglo-Saxon racism The image of the inferior African-American The glorified ideal of the Aryan race Mulattoes as expression of a monstrous American future
4.1.4. The film’s influence on America’s society Manifestation of racial bias and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan The birth of a multicultural nation
4.2. Crash by Paul Haggis
4.2.1. General facts
4.2.2. Plot synopsis
4.2.3. The depiction of Los Angeles as a multicultural universe The cinematic representation of an interracial contact zone Racism as a unifying force The construction of whiteness and its connection to otherness Parables of hope
4.2.4. Fragmented they stand?

5. What does keep Americans united?
5.1. The American Creed
5.2. Constitutional faith
5.3. National symbols of cohesion in everyday life

6. Synopsis and Outlook

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Who is and who might be American? The question has challenged the U.S. quite from the beginning of the nation. Unlike other western countries, the United States of America was formed without an immediate antecedent ethnie, but through different waves of immigration. Its multicultural society is considered to be the world’s largest immigration country and is known for its varying cultural scenes. Its racial make-up is extraordinary heterogeneous and its composition is permanently changing. Hence, Americans become insecure of their cultural and national identity. Are they one people or several? What differentiates them from their neighbors? Should the nation use the cultural distinctiveness of the dominant ethnie to articulate a national identity or should it recognize the minorities? Should its population be multi- or unicultural, a salad bowl or a melting pot? Nationals were uncertain whether promote assimilation or ethnic persistence. One of the first debates can be found in the Federalist Papers in 1787.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. (Madison 41)

James Madison stated that human interests can never correspond totally, because different opinions will always be formed. People should not strive for the elimination or harmonization of these differences but rather learn to handle them adequately. On the other hand, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that diversity could undermine national stability and social cohesion (cf. Barber 611). As a consequence, two contradictory principles emerged. One that fostered uniformity and another that encouraged diversity. This MA thesis demonstrates that the nation’s quarrel about its national identity runs through American history. Several concepts focus on its conformity, whereas others celebrate its diversity. The films The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith and Crash by Paul Haggis reflect contemporary concepts and their problems in American society. All these discussions seek to answer the question what keeps American people united and what does it mean to be an American.

It is important to mention that this MA thesis simply refers to the United States of America and does not include other American countries. America’s difficulty of finding a national identity is the focus of interest. But what does the term identity mean? Charles Taylor defines it as “a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being” (25). He notes that identity is created in dialogue with other people (cf. 33). Stuart Hall defines it as a construction “on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation” (2). Identification is a kind of process which operates across differences. It is “a process of articulation, a suturing, an over-determination not a subsumption” (Hall 3). Individuals inherit multiple identities, for example gender, class, religious, and ethnic identities. These identities exist simultaneously and overlap with each other. Group identification intimates personal associations. Group identities refer to that which individuals share with each other in a group, including their ethnic background, religion, or social class. With reference to ethno-racial differences, they help individuals to find their ways in their ethnic enclaves and to develop an ethnic self- consciousness. Group identification is not fixed; it can change as the individual’s situation changes; “or at least, the many identities and discourses to which the individual adheres will vary in importance for that individual in successive periods and different situations” (Smith 20). Nevertheless, a group identity cannot replace a national identity. But why is a national identity so important and fundamental? Of all collective identities, a national identity is the most inclusive. While different group identities focus on distinctiveness, a national identity is shared by all individuals of a society and gives a feeling of solidarity and togetherness. “National identity is distinguished from other identities … in that the source of identity, in this case, is located within a ‘people,’ which is seen as the bearer of sovereignty, the supreme object of loyalty, and the basis of collective solidarity.” (Greenfeld 19) A national identity provides a social bond with which individuals can identify and to which they feel they belong. Other collective identities may overlap with national identity but rarely succeed in undermining its hold (cf. Smith 143). Fundamental features of national identity are a common historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a common mass public culture, common legal rights and duties for all members, and a common economy with territorial mobility for all members (cf. Smith 14). It becomes clear that a national identity is multidimensional and touches on a wide range of spheres of life and cannot be reduced to a single element. A national identity provides a territorial, economic, and political bond. Further, it socializes individuals as citizens and provides a powerful means of defining and locating their selves in the world, through collective personality and distinctiveness (cf. Smith 17). Anthony D. Smith writes that a common homeland and a common mass public culture are fundamental to a national identity. America’s heterogeneous and multiracial population has difficulties to meet these preconditions, whereby identification problems occur. Does the United States of America have a national ethos or a culture of its own? What is the American identity or the American way of life? Is it the Anglo-Saxon, the Hispanic or even the African-American one? Or is it maybe the sum of all parts? This MA thesis shows that the process of self-definition and location is the key to national identity and has nothing to do with ancestral roots. Homi K. Bhabha supports this idea. He claims that cultural differences are based on hybridities created in so-called in-between spaces.

These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. It is a the emergence of the interstices – the overlap and displacement of domains of difference – that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. (1-2)

Bhabha says that societies are made up of hybrids of different ethnic backgrounds and experiences, a kind of “living on the borderlines of the ‘present’’ (1). The nation identifies itself with “a liminal signifying space that is internally marked by the discourses of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference” (148). Bhabha states that culture and nationness are not fixed and stable entities, but that they are formed by social and textual affiliations (cf. 140). Thus, individual’s characteristics are not limited to ethno-racial backgrounds but through social experiences, and experiences of others around them. “The difference of space returns as the Sameness of time, turning Territory into Tradition, turning the People into One.” (149) Hence, American nationality is still in a process of forming and its final form yet unknown.

The question what does it mean to be an America is of current interest. A vast number of legal and illegal immigrants enter the United States of America every day. Immigration has become more a problem than an opportunity in recent years. More and more Americans share deep concerns about immigration by calling for harsher naturalization laws, stronger border controls, and tougher sanctions for people who hire illegals. Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that immigrants and minority groups acted as powerful force in the creation of the nation and America’s self image. The question how to deal with immigration is simultaneously linked to the question who is or who might be American. President Barack Obama, for example, has challenged the idea of America’s national identity; because he is son of a white Kansas mother and a black Kenyan father. Does his biracial background makes him American or un-American? Furthermore, the United States is confronted with changing demography patterns. It is estimated that by 2050, America’s majority group will become a minority. The U.S. Census Bureau states that the browning of America is imminent and cannot be stopped. What kind of consequences will have the changing racial make-up of the United States with regard to its national identity? In addition, growing demands for globalization make national identity a topic of current interest. Do we live in an era of transnational and cosmopolitan identities, or do we still prefer distinctive national identities that provide a shared feeling of solidarity and togetherness?

This MA thesis relies basically on literary work. Different authors, essayists, socialists, journalist, and philosophers will be mentioned and discussed in order to support propositions and assumptions. Not only works of current interest will be covered but also historical texts. In addition, two different films will be analyzed. These films serve to visualize previously discussed concepts with the help of an independent analysis.

First of all, this MA thesis will discuss why the United States has difficulties to find a national identity. The United States is a country of great diversity, primary formed by immigration. Immigration will be spotlighted as an important part of American history. Different reasons for immigration to the United States will be explained and discussed. The country has experienced several waves of immigrants, each different in ethnicity, emergence, and number. This chapter will show in which extent immigration has influenced American policy, economy, and society. Then, present and future immigration trends will be demonstrated. The next section concentrates on the racial composition of the United States. America’s heterogeneity is exceptional and a challenge to a common national identity. On the basis of latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the racial and ancestral composition of the U.S. will be demonstrated. Further, current changes in America’s multiracial make-up and future predictions will be analyzed. The following chapter will deal with changing concepts of national identity in American history. First of all, concepts that base on America’s conformity will be presented. These, primary early, concepts rely on the assumption that America’s population has to be uniform. Different ideas of acculturation and assimilation are in the center of interest and will be illustrated. The concept of the melting pot will focus on biological assimilation, whereas Americanization will be linked to cultural and social assimilation. Anglo-Saxon racism strictly denies assimilation and will be exemplary for an exclusionary concept. The following section will deal with concepts of American national identity that base on diversity. After former concepts have proved to be dysfunctional, pluralistic ideas will be examined. Cultural pluralism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism will be sketched, as well as their relation to former assimilationist ideas and their significance for latter pluralistic ideologies. The next spotlight will be on present multiculturalism. In this context, recommendation as well as critical voices will be analyzed and discussed. The following section analyses a postethnic perspective that is based on critical cosmopolitanism. All these concepts of America’s national identity will reflect contemporary tendencies and thoughts. The films The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith and Crash by Paul Haggis illustrate these tendencies. The silent movie The Birth of a Nation will depict the ideology and consequences of Anglo-Saxon racism. Further it reflects America’s social attitudes and sentiments in the early years of the 20th century. The film Crash will illustrate consequences and failures of present multiculturalism. Although it depicts general problems, it additionally offers solutions and optimistic future prospects. The last chapter will finally analyze what holds the United States and its diverse population together. All these discussions seek to answer the question what keeps American people united and what does it mean to be an American.

2. The difficulty of finding a national identity

2.1. Immigration

The USA is a so called immigration country; hence, its inhabitants once were or even are immigrants from other countries. One can say that “the state arose from a democratic-cosmopolitan nation shaped largely by immigration” (Bade 39). Therefore, the American population consists almost completely of people from different countries and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Every American comes from someplace else and has at least a second cultural heritage that makes the U.S. to a unique multicultural nation. First of all, it is important to know that America does not have a history comparable to European countries.

Many centuries ago, people from all over the world settled on the new found continent to start a new life. Over the years more and more immigrants came for a variety of reasons and from several different countries to the United States of America. The first settlers detached themselves from their mother county to escape from religious and political persecution. Compared to life in Europe, people reached religious and political freedom, and had the possibility to achieve social uplift and personal success. Each individual that immigrated had the same opportunities regardless of their ancestry, religion or social status. “[T]hese colonies enjoyed a great deal more social and geographic mobility, a significantly greater economic reward for the labor of common folk, and considerably more latitude for the exercise of religious and political freedom.” (McElroy 16) Other people immigrated because their home countries suffered economic disturbances, for example crop failures, famine, and unemployment. Many Europeans tried to escape from the “dark cloud of European wars” (Freese, “Between” 250), especially World War I and II; whereas many intellectuals left their countries in order to search for new inspiration in the New World. Michael D’Innocenzo and Joseph P. Sirefman offer in the Introduction of their book Immigration and Ethnicity an appropriate résumé:

Individuals came to America for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Famine Irish, the Pogrom and Holocaust Jews, the Vietnamese, Haitians, the Latin Americans, were refugees for whom the United States literally meant survival. Nearly all immigrants enthusiastically regarded the United States as a land of opportunity where they could attain greater freedom and a higher standard of living. (ix)

People were fascinated by the unknown country that seemed to be a tabula rasa; a no man’s land that only waited to be taken possession of. Soon America was considered to be a country in which one’s dreams can become true and where the streets are paved with gold. The myth of the American Dream was born and thousands of immigrants entered the country in order to improve their lives. On the one hand immigration was favored by the positive American image. On the other hand it was favored by the lack of any laws and restrictions which regulated the number of aliens who wanted to immigrate in the early years of the nation. “Until the latter half of the 1800s, [...] [t]he federal government [...] allowed unrestricted admission of aliens and the automatic qualification of immigrants and their children as citizens.” (Edmonston, “Ethnic” 3) Such an open and self-selected immigration was not allowed anywhere else in the world (cf. Mc Elroy 27). Consequently, the number of immigrants increased steadily in the early years of the country. The USA is a country with one of the largest number of immigrants in the world. “More than 55 million immigrants have arrived in America in the last four centuries. This represents the largest movement of human beings to any one place in the history of mankind.” (McElroy 60)

The vast number of immigrants that entered the USA came from a wide range of ethnicities and places of origin. Each period in American history is characterized by immigration of a particular racial or ethnic group. Because of that the racial make-up of the country was and still is constantly changing.

For four centuries, the ethnic and racial composition of the United States has been constantly changing picture, reflecting the varying sources of immigrants as well as the different fertility and mortality of the native residents and the new immigrants. (Edmonston, “Future” 317)

According to Barry Edmonston, the territory today known as the United States of America has experienced several “waves of immigrants” (“Future” 318). One should take into account that these early settlements now and then influenced the racial composition of the country. “The first two waves of immigrants entered [...] in apparently quiet separate movements from Asia.” (“Future” 318) Today these Asian immigrants are called American Indians or Native Americans because they were the first settlers of the North American continent. These separate indigenous tribes arrived long time before the founding of the first European settlements. After Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, he gradually colonized parts of Central and South America. Since then, an immense number of Hispanics entered North America in order to expand the Hispanic territory by founding new colonies (cf. “Future” 318). Besides Hispanic colonies in the South, they founded settlements in territories today known as Arizona, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Rarely, people pay attention to these first settlers although they present an important part of American immigration history and even currently effect the composition of the country. If we narrow down immigration history to the first settlers on the East coast of the American territory, today known as the USA, latest findings has been surprising and will put a new complexion on American history. The first European settlers were not Englishmen but French pilgrims who arrived in the New World in the mid-16th century (cf. Davis A33). Spanish colonists were bothered by these Lutherans. As a result King Phillip II of Spain ordered to kill them; and within short time, most of them were massacred. Later, these first pilgrims disappeared from American history books. “[T]hey fell victim to Anglophile historians who erased their existence as readily as they demoted the Spanish settlement[s] … to second-class status behind the later English colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth.” (Davis A33) Traditionally, Americans consider only the settling of Jamestown in 1620 to mark “the beginning of the stream of immigrants who eventually came to America from virtually all over the globe” (McKnee 1). These settlers achieved the independence of their colonies by establishing their own country, today known as the United States of America. The majority of these settlers came from England and other western and northern European countries. Contrary to the opinion of some recent scholars, for example Samuel Huntington, the United States was heterogeneous from its beginning. It is true that, in early years, the British influence was dominant; but we must also consider that other European roots spread widely and intermingled. “Most Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries were still white, English, and Protestant—but not all of them. Diversity set in early.” (Miller 24) In his book American Beliefs, John H. McElroy argues that the English stock population was homogeneous “only for the seventeen years between 1607, when the first permanent English settlement was founded, and 1624” (61). After that period, an immense number of immigrants from non-British ancestries entered North America, among them Spanish, Dutch, French, Swedes, Jews, and Italians. Hence, McElroy rightly notices that “the proportion of English stock in the American population declined, and it has declined ever since” (62). Accordingly, the United States was not established by a uniform white, English-Saxon, and Protestant people, but was developed by a people descendent from varying European sources. “By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, perhaps only half the American population was of English ancestry.” (62) A concrete example can be seen in the residents of New Amsterdam in the 17th century. The settlement, today known as New York City, inhabited such a diverse population that the first U.S. Census in 1790 reported more than 18 languages and “that roughly 40 percent of the white population was non-English” (Miller 25). Naturally, the multiethnic population of New Amsterdam arose from specific and exceptional circumstances, and cannot be representative for the composition of the whole county. Nevertheless, it shows that there existed, in addition to the English majority population, some other racial and ethnic groups in early American history. These European nationalities did not live isolated but were constantly in contact with each other. For this reason, the immigrants intermingled and mixed their European races by intermarriage (cf. McElroy 28). The early colonists were confronted with a Stone-Age wilderness which they had to transform into a civilization. They were convinced that the country needed a vast number of working immigrants to achieve that goal.

What this temperate coastal plain mainly offered was a great deal of wild land for conversion to agriculture; therefore a large population of European farmers was needed, as quickly as possible, to transform its ancient forests into farms, a population that would also provide a market for the manufactured goods that English merchants would sell them. (McElroy 26-27)

At this time in American history, the government paid little attention to immigration restriction. By way of contrast, they favored immigration by creating a positive image of the county, permitting unrestricted admission, and promised the automatic naturalization of the newcomers. Aside from self-selected immigration, many black people came to America by force in the 17th and 18th century. Because the demand for cheap workers was incredibly high, a vast number of blacks were shipped to America. At first treated as servants, they soon became slaves. “These early blacks were considered to be indentured servants and not slaves, but as their numbers grew, a Virginia slave code came into existence.” (McKnee 1-2) Until the 19th century, black people and American Indians were excluded from citizenship, and therefore, were not seen to belong to the American population. Despite of the abolition of slavery and governmental laws against discrimination, the black population still suffers from their past in form of disadvantages, prejudice, and racism. Today the so-called African-Americans represent the second largest minority group in the USA. In the mid-19th century more and more Irish immigrants entered the U.S. because their mother country suffered from famine, poverty, and unemployment. These Irish immigrants were mostly impoverished and unskilled Catholics who hoped for a better life in America. It became a matter of time that the wealthy and protestant Americans developed anti- Irish feelings. Gradually, American nativists used Irish immigrants as scapegoats for economic or social failures. “They were accused of bringing diseases to the USA and contributing to crime.” (McKnee 5) Further, the Irish catholic religion was a thorn in protestant evangelicals’ side, who tried to preserve the nation’s moral purity (cf. McKnee 5). By the end of the 19th century, more and more immigrants came from the Southern and Eastern portions of Europe. In addition, many Chinese migrants entered the U.S. in order to work on the railroads and in mining between 1860 and 1880 (cf. McKnee 7). Until then, the American population was primarily shaped by people of western or northern European descent. With changing composition of the nation’s racial make-up, many Americans started to reconsider the controversial issue named immigration. The majority of the population reacted with suspicion of these new kinds of immigrants that took on alarming proportions. Americans were gripped with an increasing feeling of xenophobia. Consequently, certain governmental restrictions on immigration came into existence. According to Edmonston, the first restrictive immigration law, passed in 1875, banned undesirable ‘obnoxious’ immigrants such as prostitutes and convicts (cf. “Ethnic” 3). Soon after that, additional laws on restriction were passed “which excluded immigrants on a variety of moral, economic, and physical grounds” (“Ethnic” 3). Many Americans insisted that these new immigrants, especially Jews, Italians and Chinese, were very slow or even refused to assimilate. In addition to mistrust, prejudice, and xenophobia, “[t]he rise of immigration overlapped, for some years, with periods of economic weakness and high unemployment in the United States” (“Ethnic” 4). With the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, American government restricted Chinese laborers. Besides anti- Chinese feelings and racial discrimination, many conservatives alleged that the vast number of Chinese laborers would displace American workers and depress wages. “American anxiety over economic threats from cheaper immigrant labor, as well as racism, was, in large part, behind the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” (“Ethnic” 4) Several restrictive Immigration Acts followed in 1891, 1903, 1907, and 1917. Finally, the Emergency Quotas Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 established quotas to each nationality, in proportion to its contribution to the existing total population of the country (cf. McKnee 3). The situation changed after I and II. Considering Nazism, racial racism, and European genocide, the U.S. had to rethink their immigration policy and evident discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments were passed and repealed the national origins quota provisions (cf. McKnee 3). Thus, the discriminatory national origins system was replaced by immigrant selection based on family reunion and employment skills (cf. Edmonston, “Ethnic” 5). Mayor changes in America’s immigration policy led to an increasing number of such immigrants who were restricted and excluded before. Consequently, the USA experienced an immense influx of immigrants of color, coming predominantly from Asia and Latin America (cf. Lauter 392). This trend can be witnessed to this day. Above all, the Hispanic proportion increased in such a great extent that it has become the largest minority group on the North American territory. If we consider recent trends and future prediction, there is a probable cause that “[m]ost of the new emigrants will be Asians because this region is home to half of the world’s population” (Edmonston, “Ethnic” 23). It becomes clear that the racial composition of the USA permanently changed and is still changing.

Despite the fact that there are rarely any legislative actions on immigration today, the issue cannot get out of the public’s mind. There are still people who fight for immigration restrictions in favor of a uniform nation. These people talk about immigration to be out- of- control, and, for example, accuse immigrant workers to be responsible for unemployment among American workers. Other voices argue that immigrants are an important part of U.S. history and should be recognized, welcomed, and supported to establish a democratic- cosmopolitan nation and a multiethnic society.

2.2. U.S. Demography: The racial composition of the USA

America is a country in which the national identity of its inhabitants is not clearly defined and still constitutes a problem to these days. The main reason is that “heterogeneity formed the basis of the state” (Bade 39). This fact distinguishes America from most of the other western and civilized countries whose population is based on a single ethno-racial group. America is considered to be the country with the largest number of immigrants and varying ethnic groups. “The United States has qualified as world history’s greatest immigration country by the virtue of the quantity of immigrants received and the number of ethnic groups it accommodated.” (Bade 40) The heterogeneity is based on the large number of varying ancestries within the population that immigrated to the North American continent. Neither the majority population, nor the minorities share a single common ancestry. But what does the term ancestry mean? The U.S. Census Bureau defines it “as a person’s ethnic origin, heritage, descent, or ‘roots,’ which may reflect their place of birth, place of birth of parents or ancestors, and ethnic identities that have involved within the United States.” (Brittingham 1)

In January 2009, the total United States population is estimated 305.5 million people (cf. Bernstein, “Census”). Robert Bernstein and Tom Edwards have released latest U.S. Census data in their 2008 article “An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury”. Today, the white population is considered to be the majority. Its non-Hispanic, single race population contains of 199.8 million people (cf. Bernstein) and is mainly composed of people descended from Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa (cf. Grieco “white” 1). Accordingly, one-third of the population belongs to racial or ethnic minorities. With 46.7 million people, the Hispanic population remains the largest minority group in the USA (cf. Bernstein). Most of them originated from Central or South America, especially from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba (cf. Guzmán 1). The black population is the second largest minority group. According to the U.S. Census, the black population counts 41.1 million people (cf. Bernstein). Their ancestries came from black race groups of Africa or the Caribbean islands, for example Nigeria or Haiti (cf. McKinnon 1). The Asian population consists of 15.5 million people (cf. Bernstein), once immigrated from “the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam)” (Barnes 1). The American Indians and Alaska Natives, with Navajo, Cherokee, or Eskimo ancestries (Ogunwole 1), count 4.9 million. 1.1 million People (cf. Bernstein) have Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander descendants, for example Guamanians and Fijians (Grieco “Hawaiian” 1). Furthermore, there are 5.2 million people who identify themselves as being of two or more races (cf. Bernstein).

America accommodates varying ethnic groups that differ in social standing, expansion, and quantity of its members. Most people are descended from European countries, such as Germany, Ireland, or England. Another vast number originated from Africa and Mexico.

In 2000, 42.8 million people (15 percent of the population) considered themselves to be of German (or part-German) ancestry [...]. Other ancestries with over 15 million people in 2000 included Irish (30.5 million, or 11 percent), African American (24.9 million, or 9 percent), English (24.5 million, or 9 percent), American (20.2 million, or 7 percent), Mexican (18.4 million, or 7 percent), and Italian (15.5 million, or 6 percent). Other ancestries with 4 million or more people included Polish, French, American Indian, Scottish, Dutch, Norwegian, Scotch-Irish, and Swedish. (Brittingham 2) (Fig. 1)

These diverse nationalities are not limited to a particular area but are spread over the whole country (Fig. 2). At first sight, it seems to be surprising that only 7 percent of the American population considered themselves to be of American ancestry. However, the Americans often consider themselves as hyphenated individuals, to be German-American, African-American, or Mexican-American. That means that the term American is always included in their self-identification. It becomes obvious that the question of someone’s ancestry is very important to identify and locate oneself in the multiracial state, in which a multitude of nationalities form a metaphorical communal room. The situation becomes more difficult if one takes into account that there are also combinations of races and ethnicities, and therefore, people with more than one ancestry. Nowadays, the tolerance threshold towards ethnic minorities increased noticeably. After decades of segregation, integration became the center of interest. Thus, more and more people of different ethnic backgrounds get-together and intermingle. These interracial marriages lead to an increasing number of children with more than one race.

Besides the multiracial character of the nation, one should even consider current changes in the nation’s racial composition. In American history, its multiracial make-up constantly changed and is still changing. The article “An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury” by Robert Bernstein and Tom Edwards additionally includes newest future predictions. The browning of America is imminent because minorities are expected to become the majority in the near future. “By 2050, the minority population — everyone except for non-Hispanic, single-race whites — is projected to be 235.7 million out of a total U.S. population of 439 million.” (Bernstein) Regarding future prospects, the white population will increase slower and “is projected to be only slightly larger in 2050 (203.3 million) than in 2008 (199.8 million).” (Bernstein). While the White population seems to stagnate, the number of the Hispanic population climbs continuously. “Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is projected to nearly triple, from 46.7 million to 132.8 million during the 2008-2050 period. … Thus, nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic.” (Bernstein) Even today, the Hispanic population has already replaced the white one and became the majority in more than 50 U.S. countries (cf. Guzmán 5). According to the U.S. Census, the black population will “increase from 41.1 million, or 14 percent of population in 2008, to 65.7 million, or 15 percent in 2050” (Bernstein). Besides Hispanics and blacks, the Asian population is expected to rise from 15.5

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Figure 2 (Brittingham 8)

to 40.6 million (or from 5.1 percent to 9.2 percent of the total population), American Indians and Alaska Natives from 4.9 million to 8.6 million (or from 1.6 to 2 percent of the total population) and the Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander population is expected to more than double, from 1.1 million to 2.6 million in 2050 (cf. Bernstein). Even mixed race populations within the USA will rise steadily. In this sense, Mike Hill observes in his book After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority that “[t]he ‘multiracial baby boom’ is apparently upon us” (37). Further, he mentions changing patterns of mono- and multiracial birthrates. “For the first time in U.S. history the number of bi- and/or multiracial babies appears to be increasing faster (260 percent) than the rate of monoracial births (15 percent).” (37). By 2052, according to U.S. Census predictions, “[t]he number of people who identify themselves as being of two or more races is projected to more than triple, from 5.2 million to 16.2 million” (Bernstein).

3. Changing concepts of national identity in American history

After the nation’s independence, Americans began to feel the need for a new national consciousness. Regarding the nation’s heterogeneity and its ever changing composition, the Americans, however, had to realize that it is quite complicated to develop one particular national identity in the USA.

It is a fact that the American people always tried to find a certain national identity over the years. But what is the American identity or the American way of life? Is it the Anglo-Saxon, the Hispanic or even the African American one? Should differences be harmonized, eliminated, or accepted? These controversial questions led to several quarrels about the nation’s unity or diversity. The most important question is how to deal with immigration. Several concepts of national identity concentrate on these issues, and thus, differ from each other fundamentally. The national motto E pluribus Unum promises a harmonious unity out of diversity. Reality, however, often tells another story. On the one hand there are concepts that underline the necessity of immigrant assimilation or exclusion in order to secure America’s cohesion. Others focus on the recognition of America’s heterogeneity and turn their attention to concepts concerning pluralism. Although these concepts of national identity are very different, they often coexisted. “Of course, these positions did not neatly arise after the other, but often existed – differently accentuated in different historical situations – beside and against each other [...].” (Freese, “Between” 264)

3.1. Concepts focused on conformity

All Americans get enthusiastic about the image of a coherent nation. Many of them are convinced that this goal can solely be achieved by a conform population that is cultural identical. Over the years, more and more immigrants of varying cultural backgrounds entered the United States and threatened the conformity of the nation’s cultural and ethno-racial composition. Hence, acculturation became an important part of immigration treatment throughout American history. „The acculturation of minority groups … has always been of concern to the American public, particularly when the volume of migrants increases rather rapidly in a short time span.” (McKnee xii) Acculturation is a phenomenon that occurs in the course of interaction between different cultures. Within this contact, minority groups give up their ethnic culture in favor of main-stream American culture (cf. Sandberg viii). In the process of assimilation, the individual “adopts the cultural traits of the dominant group and identifies with that group, and the dominant group accepts the individual or group without discrimination” (McKnee xiii). The individual becomes fully socialized in American society. On account of this, a confused debate emerged, that calls in question America’s ethnic and cultural identity.

Did assimilation mean that immigrants would and should absorb and be absorbed into the Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers? Or did it mean that they would and should join with the descendents of settlers, slaves, conquerees, and prior immigrants to create a new American culture and ‘the new American man’? (Huntington 128)

Nativists or racist people even denied any possibility that immigrants could be integrated and socialized into American society. But all these different concepts have one thing in common, “the idea that the immigrants must change was basic” (Gleason 82).

3.1.1. The Melting Pot

The idea of the so-called melting pot emerged very early in American history. For many Americans, this odd image seems to be an appropriate explanation for the paradox of the national motto E pluribus Unum. The melting pot is a metaphor that has been used to describe the desirability and inevitability of the melting of different nationalities in order to create a new kind of man.

The melting pot concept assumes that as different ethnic groups come to America they intermingle. Rather than conformance amalgamation occurs, thereby producing a new composite national stock and a new breed called the ‘American’. (McKnee xii)

Because of its multicultural character, many American settlers had difficulties to identify themselves. One important step towards the settlers’ independence was to find a new national identity that separated them from Europe. Right from the start, there were writings in American literature that pointed to the image of the so-called melting pot. The best known early statement about American identity was given in 1782 by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer.

What then is the American, this new man? He is either a European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. … He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. (43)

Crèvecoeur was the first who literally spoke about the melting of different races and ethnicities. He mentions America’s ethnic diversity but underlines that in a process of amalgamation they all become Americans. Thus, a new race and culture will arise that differ from the previous ones. The new Americans are said to adopt new values, new principles, and a new way of life. Ralph Waldo Emerson holds the same opinion in his famous Journals published 1845. He agrees that the United States “will construct a new race, a new religion, a new State, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages” (qtd in Freese, America 139). The image of the melting pot was launched by Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting-Pot, which was premiered in New York City in 1909. The Melting-Pot tells the story of the idealistic Jewish immigrant David who wants to overcome old-world notions, and believes in the possibility that all people could fuse together to create a new American race.

There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth …—the habour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—… Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. (184-185)

The image of the melting pot was born. The concept includes that all nationalities that enter the U.S. will be metaphorically melted into an exceptional and superior American character. In addition, America is described as a chosen country. In this sense, the nation is associated with myths such as the “rebirth into a new golden age”, “the redemption into a new life through Christ” and “the creation of a new species from the alchemist’s crucible” (Freese, America 102). The melting pot even build on assumptions of some social Darwinists—“the idea that racial mixture would yield stronger alloy” (Miller 61). As a consequence, the immigrants must drop their ethnic roots and become simply American. This can be called unconditional assimilation, visualized in the simplified formula a+b+c becomes d (cf. Freese, “Between” 264). There were only two possibilities for newcomers, “you are in or you are out; if you are in, you get melted, and if you don’t like the heat, stay away.” (Griffin 134) The aim was to create an American homogeneous society regardless of someone’s origin and cultural background. In the early years of the United States, immigrant restriction laws rarely existed. Regarding the common belief that all immigrants would develop into identical Americans, this kind of legislation seemed to be paradox. Some observers even interpreted the “open-door immigration policy of the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century as reflecting an underlying native faith in the effectiveness of the American melting-pot” (Gordon, Assimilation 116). Nevertheless, there has been an opposition too. Critics like John J. Miller focused their attention on the vanished cultural traits of the immigrants. “What if the melting pot melts away identities that are worth preserving?” (Miller 62) Other critics even argued that the melting pot is primarily a metaphor of destruction than of creation (cf. Øverland 149). In addition, the concept of the melting pot was fundamentally exclusionary; as a result, the national motto E Pluribus Unum fails to be realized. Although it promised the fusion of all races and ethnicities, blacks and Indians were excluded from participation. “For black, the product of the American experience was not the new man but Invisible Man; Native Americans were the Vanishing Americans.” (Griffin 139) After the incorporation of racial restriction in 1882, Asians were ostracized too. The melting pot transformed gradually into an idealized Anglo-Saxon model of assimilation. “The ‘new man’ … turned out to be very much a ‘man,’ very male, very white, very Anglo-Saxon, very Protestant, and very Yankee.” (Griffin 138-139). Thus, citizens that drop out of this ideal dismissed the melting pot as a bad idea (cf. Griffin 139).

This concept of national identity was not successful because after a short time one could mention that the melting pot was dysfunctional. “[T]he point about the melting pot ... is that it did not happen.” (Glazer 290)

3.1.2. Americanization

Another concept of national identity is the process of Americanization. Americanization is basically another form of assimilation. Contrary to the concept of the melting pot, Americanization primarily focuses on cultural and political assimilation of the immigrants, instead of a genetic assimilation or the biological fusion of nationalities (cf. Miller 58). Until today, it has been controversial what the term Americanization exactly means. In general, it is often equated with the concept of Anglo-conformity. The whole concept bases on the simplified formula: a+b+c becomes a (cf. Freese, “Between” 264). In its process, the immigrant should learn the English language and adopt Anglo-culture norms and principles.

The general notion of ‘Americanization’ appears to signify the adoption of the American variety of English speech, American clothes and manners, the American attitude in politics. ‘Americanization’ signifies, in short, the disappearance of the external differences upon which so much race-prejudice often feeds. It appears to imply … a transmutation by ‘the miracle of assimilation’ of Jews, Slavs, Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Hindus, Scandinavians and so on into beings similar in background, tradition, outlook and spirit to the descendants of the British colonists, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ stock. (Kallen 79)

It is necessary to mention that the concept of Americanization and the belief in Anglo-conformity as the desirable goal of assimilation can not be equated with racisms. The Americanizers did not belief that their culture was superior but that the newcomers should adjust to the culture that was dominant and shared by the majority of citizens, in order to be fully integrated in American society. Thus, they understood their concept rather to include than to exclude newcomers from participation in the American experiment. Nevertheless, one should mention that many non-European immigrants did not fit into the pattern of Anglo-conformity and “have frequently been denied full assimilation into Anglo-culture because of their skin color and visibility” (McKnee xii).

Until the 19th century, an incredible number of immigrants entered the USA in order to become American citizens. The American attitude towards immigration could be considered as ambiguous. On the one hand immigration was desired to “swell the population […], to man the farms of expanding prairie settlement, to work the mines, build the railroads and canals, and [to] take place in expanding industry” (Gordon, Assimilation 91-92). Hence, America did not have any legislation on immigrant restriction. On the other hand a vast number of poverty-stricken Irish Catholics immigrated to the overwhelmingly protestant society of the United States. Catholicism seemed to be a serious threat to American Protestantism. The poverty and drunkenness of the Irish immigrants additionally made the bad impression that “immigration was degrading American character and morals” (Gleason 75). Consequently, anti-Irish feelings, anti-catholic campaigns, and demands for immigration laws were articulated by the American public. The situation came to a heat in the 1850s, when anti-catholic nativists developed a secret patriotic society called the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings was officially a political party known as the American Party (cf. Gleason 70-71). Its members were angry and anxious of the vast influx of immigrants, especially Irish-Catholics, who threatened the hegemony of Protestantism and the cohesion of the whole country. “The question that bothered the Native Americans and Know-Nothings might be expressed in colloquial terms as, ‘Whose country is this, anyhow?’” (Gleason 71). From the 1880s on, more and more American citizens felt bothered by the immense number of immigrants that steamed into the country. This tensed atmosphere was aggravated by the immigration of people from Southern and Eastern Europe, who seemed to assimilate very slowly or even refused to assimilate at all. Many nativists used these new immigrants as scapegoats for economic and social disturbances, such as strikes, social unrest, crime, unemployment, slum housing, and urban problems (cf. Gleason 85).

As ordinary Americans followed the news and read the tales of strikers organized along ethnic lines, cable cars plundered in street riots, speeches delivered in a dozen languages, verbal attacks launched at the native-born, musicians who played foreign national anthems, and immigrants arrested for carrying concealed weapons, they began to wonder what kind of people the United States had been importing in recent years. (Miller 44)

The American nation articulated a growing demand for Americanization to protect the American character from its decline, caused by the immense influx of immigration that was considered to be substantially different from the American national type. The Americanization of the newcomers into Anglo-conformity seemed to be an appropriate way to keep the hegemony of the Anglo-American culture and to integrate the newcomers into American society. The so called Americanization movement was born in 1914 and began as a local phenomenon with the help of private organizations and public institutions (cf. Miller 65). The process of Americanization took place in different areas of life and was understood as a kind of social reform that would eventually lead to social uplift of the immigrant population. There were various groups that were engaged with the Americanization of the newcomers. First of all there were protestant missionaries who wanted to Christianize immigrants from Catholic, Jewish, or orthodox religious backgrounds. “For them, the belief in God was the basis for being a good citizen; and Americanizing became synonymous with Christianizing.” (Herrmann 172) Social workers set their task to offer practice school programs, such as English language classes, and education in domestic science, and American history. “They were a great help to the peasant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in many practical ways, in explaining the necessities of life in big cities, such as hygiene or garbage collection.” (Herrmann 172) They wanted to welcome the immigrants, to help them to improve their social conditions and encouraged them to become active and full accepted citizens in American society. Even economy recognized the benefits of Americanization to increase efficiency and production. The industrialist Richard Feiss, for example, offered his workers a wide range of social and educational programs such as “English courses, a cafeteria, entertainment programs, book lending, evening dances, but also workmen’s compensation programs and bank services” (Herrmann 173). The idea beyond was that contend and better skilled workers would have a positive effect on the proficiency of the industry. In addition, the foreign workers were “drilled to work hard, always be on time, follow orders, respect superiors, and so on. The ideal American for the industrialist was the ideal workingman” (Herrmann 174) Gradually, Americanization shifted from a local to a national sponsored issue. The American attitude towards immigration changed with the beginning of World War Ι. The United States worried about the loyalty of its immigrants in case of war. Henceforth, it was not enough that the immigrants declare their loyalty to the U.S., it was expected that they would cut all ties with their past to become 100% Americans. Consequently, hyphenated Americans became the target of certain attacks and discrimination. The hyphen was regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties and challenging the countries unity. Even president Roosevelt was absolutely convinced that “[t]here is no room in this county for hyphenated Americanism. … Our allegiance must be purely to the United States.” (Qtd in Øverland 144) In few words, if you desire to stay, you must forget who you have been and become Americanized as quickly as possible. “Indeed, acquiring a new 100% identity also means divesting yourself 100% of your previous identity.” (Øverland 147) The anti- hyphen campaign was pushed by xenophobia, war time hysteria, and, of course, certain Americanization programs. Immigrants were no longer seen as harmless evil but developed into a genuine risk. Thus, Americanization was used as a strategy to secure national security (cf. Miller 69). Above all German-Americans were under suspicion to be traitors and target of harsh observation. At the same time the U.S. disregarded that the majority of immigrants have become loyal and patriotic citizen. “These were tough words to swallow for Americans of second and third generations all over the United States who considered themselves as loyal Americans yet had the culture and language of the land of their parents as a part of their American identity.” (Øverland 145) Americanization was no longer a social reform program to help immigrants to integrate into American society. “The helping hand of assimilation had mutated into an iron fist of conformity.” (Miller 75) In these and the following years, most of the restrictive immigrant legislations were passed by Congress. This harsh Americanization movement with its anti- hyphen campaign lost its intensity after the end of the war. The concept of Americanization changed course in the Second World War. Then the nation’s cohesion was defined by a “we’re all-in-this-together attitude” (Miller 93) rather than on ethnic lines. More and more intellectuals began to disapprove the concept of Americanization. The political theorist Michael Walzer, for example, called the radical program of Americanization “un-American” (qtd in Huntington 200). Also the socialist Dennis Wrong called Americanization undesirable. “Today, […] nobody advocates ‘Americanizing’ new immigrants, as in the bad old ethnocentric past.” (Qtd in Huntington 200) They argue that the refusal of one’s ethnic and cultural background leads automatically to personality and identity problems. The Americanization of immigrants diminished drastically because it seemed to be an inappropriate violation of the immigrants’ rights.

Although most intellectuals underline its morally reprehensible character, the concept was and even is very popular in the USA. The Washington Post reports that many Americans think that immigration is “‘more of a problem’ than an opportunity” (Constable A15) for American society. Latest reports describe that more than 90 percent of the Americans want newcomers to “respect their new country’s laws and institutions, and a strong majority also said they should speak their new country’s national language” (Constable A15). According to John J. Miller and his book The unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism has undermined the Assimilation Ethnic, the strategy of Americanization “has worked in the past—the vast majority of Americans rightly think that assimilation has been a remarkable success. It can work again.” (20) Miller calls into question if the concept of Americanization should be revived. In his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the Harvard professor and political scientist Samuel P. Huntington scarifies Americanization as “great, possibly the greatest, American success story” (183). He is convinced that America’s greatness lie in its ability to assimilate all kinds of people. He claims that Americanization “enabled America to expand its population, occupy a continent, and develop its economy” (183). Huntington maintains that the concept of Americanization helped America’s economy because better skilled immigrant workers lead automatically to sales increase. Further it transformed foreigners into loyal American citizens. He fears that unassimilated immigrants are undermining America’s greatness and could disdain Protestant-Anglo values. For Huntington, there is no question that America’s core culture has been and is still that of the 17th and 18th century Anglo-Saxon settlers (cf. 40). In this sense, America’s cultural beliefs were brought over the Atlantic from England. But is that really true? John H. McElroy’s book American Beliefs holds the opinion that Americans separate themselves very early from England, not only politically but even culturally (cf. 14). The early settlers left their countries of origin because they were discontented and weary of life in Europe. After arriving in America, nothing in their cultural memory could help them to survive in such a Stone-Age wilderness (cf. 16-17). In order to survive, they had to find new ways of acting and living together that differed drastically from their life in Europe.

Neither the English social system, nor the English religious establishment, nor English institutions of government, nor English land distribution practices, nor England’s historical beliefs regarding work—each of which was aristocratic—was brought across the Atlantic Ocean intact to become the basis for life in the twelve colonies authorized by the English crown during the 1600s on the mainland of North America. (16)

Therefore, Englishmen and other European settlers transformed into Americans. “By the mid-1770s Americans discovered that they were not, after all, Englishmen living in America, but rather Americans with American interests and beliefs that were antithetical to the beliefs of England’s aristocratic culture.” (14) Thus, one can say that American culture cannot be considered to be solely Anglo- Saxon- Protestant, but developed through unique American conditions and the get-together of different discontented European settlers who searched for a better future. Despite Huntington’s good descriptions regarding immigration change, he talks about broad generalizations and refuses latest findings and multicultural concepts of American identification. Thus, his book seems to be very conservative and old-fashioned. Besides Huntington, there exist even more conservative voices. In his essay Institutionalizing our demise: America vs. multiculturalism, Roger Kimball calls immigration without assimilation “a dangerous demographic trend that threatens American identity in the most basic way” (8). He claims to foresee that Americas multicultural society will end in “anti-American tribalism” (9) and “imperfect loyalty” (11). His manifest against immigration glorifies Huntington’s writings, and is right next to paranoia because the majority of immigrants who enter the USA still keep their ancestral roots. It becomes obvious that, until today, some people are afraid of a heterogeneous county caused by the diverse cultural backgrounds of the immigrants. Some Americans think that a multicultural nation could split and weaken the country. A good example is Arthur Schlesinger’s book The Disuniting of America. Like Huntington and Kimball before, he justifies Americanization and wants to keep and protect America’s Anglo-core culture. Schlesinger fears that the current “multiethnic dogma abandons historic purposes, replacing assimilation by fragmentation, integration by separatism. It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus” (21). He is convinced that immigrant Americanization is necessary for the cohesion and stability of the whole country. Without such a policy, he predicts the disuniting of America. “If the republic now turns away from Washington’s old goal of ‘one people,’ what is its future?—disintegration of the national community, apartheid, Balkanization, tribalization?” (124)


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What does it mean to be an American?
Changing Concepts of National Identity
University of Duisburg-Essen
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America, USA, United States of America, National Identity, immigration, melting pot, americanization, anglo-saxon racism, cultural pluralism, transnationalism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, postethnicity, The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith, Crash, Paul Haggis, american creed, constitutional faith, american symbols, Barack Obama, American Dream, U.S. Constitution, American history, diversity, conformity, American identity, racism, Ku Klux Klan, KKK, U.S. demography, pluralism, assimilation
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Katrin Appenzeller (Author), 2009, What does it mean to be an American?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/139733


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