Who Is an American?

group of peopleThroughout American history, from the moment our country was created right into this Presidential campaign, people have argued about who is an American. The great political discussion that resulted in the Constitution resolved that some immigrants to these shores were American and others were only partially human, and thus certainly not American.

The great men who came to political power in the Revolution modeled this exclusive answer: 8 of the first 10 Presidents owned slaves. These beginnings are among the most powerful answers to those who say that we must try to get back to the America of our founders. That America was wonderfully progressive for its time and but would be horribly racist in ours.

For two centuries, the argument about who is an American revolved around race. Slavery was the most contentious social issue over the next half century. Because the existing political parties agreed not to touch slavery, a new party was brought to life by men with a different answer to the question. The Party of Lincoln, the Republican Party, grew out of the idea that slavery should not exist in a democracy. The first Republican to win the Presidency, a Congressman from Illinois, converted that idea into government policy.

At the same time, the deadly expulsion of Native Americans from land that other Americans wanted, and the creation of a special legal category for millions of people who had always been here, was not nearly so divisive. Indians were not recognized as people in the US until the 1879 Standing Bear trial.

The victory of the Union in the Civil War destroyed the institution of slavery, but did not defeat those who continued to enforce a racially exclusive idea of who could be an American. After the failure of Reconstruction to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, the federal government just looked the other way as most states redeveloped racial separation and prevented black Americans from being full Americans.

The 14th Amendment still excluded Native Americans from citizenship, which was not granted until 1924. When black and Native American soldiers returned from fighting in World War II, they still could not vote across the US. Only the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally affirmed that race could no longer be used to exclude some Americans from being Americans.

steve hochstadtRacism is based on fears about others, nightmarish fantasies about what they will do to us. The irrationality of fear leads to a harshness of behavior that can be itself frightening. Lynching was meant to be frightening to anyone who challenged the conventional racial hierarchy. Lynching depended upon the cooperation of law enforcement; it was the enforcement of racially separatist laws, some written down, some not.

The role of law enforcement in still maintaining the line between “real Americans” and others has made the news recently in East Haven, Connecticut, and New York City. Some police in East Haven systematically persecuted Hispanic residents to enforce the idea that they were unwelcome. The Chief, Leonard Gallo, “cultivated a racist and dishonest police force,” said a local Catholic priest. When the mayor, Joseph Maturo, was asked what his reaction to the Justice Department’s accusation that four police officers repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and unlawfully searched Latinos in East Haven, he said he “might have tacos”.

In New York police practice, American Muslims who originated in the Middle East became the official enemy of other Americans after 9-11. After seeing a training film in which the Chief of Police appeared, that argues that American Muslims are potential terrorists, NY police have routinely infiltrated Muslim organizations, spied on Muslim worship, and followed Muslim leaders.

Those who have argued for excluding some Americans from full rights, who have urged some Americans to leave because they weren’t American enough, who wanted to separate and classify and dominate people, have always been wrong. They posed as true Americans by claiming others were not.

The idea that race should determine who is an American has been defeated over the past half century. Another Congressman from Illinois, this time a Democrat, has fulfilled the promise that Lincoln first made by becoming the first black President.

But just as race seemed to lose its potency as a way to divide us, ideology has become the weapon of choice for those who want to exclude other Americans. Following the path forged by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and widened by many conservatives since then, Congressman Allen West of Florida told the guests at the Palm Beach County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner that President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should take their liberal politics and “get the hell out of the United States of America.”

Steve HochstadtWe can reject the divisive ideas of our founders, still playing out in conservative politics, in favor of another idea they developed. On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to design a seal for the USA. In August they submitted a design with the motto “e pluribus unum”, “out of many, one.” We still have a long way to go to make this inclusive motto an American reality. We must fight the racial, ethnic, and ideological dividers for the soul of our nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives 

Published by the LA Progressive on February 7, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."