What Does It Even Mean to Be “American”?

American flag

We live in confused times in the United States. Even fundamental questions evade answer, such as one of the most basic of all:

What does it even mean to be “American”?

This issue is being seriously considered for the first time in decades, certainly for the first time in my thirty-five years. It’s always been assumed that “everyone” knew, but questions lurked somewhere in the national discourse. But this past year, especially, it’s become been a huge part of the zeitgeist.

So . . . what are Americans? What are we? Has this ever been satisfactorily answered in our entire history?

Are we a “nation of immigrants”? Is being an American a set of “beliefs”? Is there an ethnic or racial component? Is it a legal status?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Early immigration laws clearly had a racial component . . . but then again, race-based slavery was legal at this time. These early immigration laws also required an oath and proof of good character.

Obviously, we’ve thankfully jettisoned the racial aspect, but still have the oath of citizenship. But if being American is just adherence to a set of beliefs, what about people that were natural born American citizens? What if they don’t believe in “America,” whatever that means?


Do you see where I’m going with this?

I think about my own family sometimes. All but one of my grandparents was born here, and that one came when he was 17. He is the only one who had to take any kind of oath of citizenship. So, does that make him more American than the rest of us?

If being American means adhering to a set of beliefs, how do you test whether somebody really believes this, or is going through the motions just to get citizenship? Do we really want a state powerful enough to be able to determine this?

Or do you make the requirements so onerous that only the truly dedicated will succeed in becoming a citizen, thereby proving their belief?

If being American means adhering to a set of beliefs, do you have to test everybody, even if they were born here, regardless of how long their family has been here?

This questions seem silly, but they’re relevant in light of an important fact:

We have no agreement about what it means to be an American.

None. Every group, whether it’s political, racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious seems to have its own definition. I suppose this is the result of two powerful forces:

  1. The fact that, save for the American Indians, there is no agreed-upon “American” ethnicity; and
  2. The American idea of individualism: How dare you tell me who or what I am?

Other countries don’t provide great examples for comparison’s sake. No matter how long I live there, if I move to France or Denmark or Saudi Arabia or Japan, I’ll never be “French” or “Danish” or “Arabian” or “Japanese.” In fact, the only place I could move to, get citizenship, and actually be considered “one of them” . . . is Greece!

So do we want a racial or ethnic component here in the United States? It’d be easy, right? If you’re the descendant of the original European settlers, the ancestor of an African slave, or are American Indian, you certainly have more of a racial or ethnic claim to being “American” than I do.

But this feels ikcy, doesn’t it? Nations like Japan and China and Israel are big on things like this. But we’re America, dammit! We’re different!

And a racial or ethnic aspect? Are you trying to tell me that my Korean buddies from law school aren’t “real” American? Or my friend in graduate school whose family was originally from Ghana? Or my wife’s parents, who are from the old-country and became legal citizens?

Remember, it’s not just a light skinned-dark skinned thing: At one time the Irish, the Italian, and yes, even the Greek were considered of lesser, un-American stock. So I’m pretty sensitive to this.

Yet at the same time, we can’t deny that demographics have a lot to do with culture. Witness what’s happening with the changes in Europe. Millions of people from other continents settling in Germany and England and Holland an Sweden will change local cultures, no matter how much you don’t like that fact.

“But we’re better than this!” we like to think. “Being in American changes people for the better!”

Really? I can think of a few recent events that refute this point. And call me what you will, but I do not want to live in a country that is, say, predominantly Islamic or communist.

It seems to me that basing your entire national identity on a “set of beliefs” is a nearly impossible position to maintain. And yet it may be the best that we’ve got.

We pride ourselves on being the most successful multi-ethnic country that the world has ever seen. I happen to agree with this point.

How did we do this? By insisting on total assimilation. This might be the only way to have a multi-ethnic country not fall apart into a collection of tribalistic and hostile ethnic communities. You know, sort of like what we have now.

I can’t see any other solution than insisting on assimilation. This is easier said than done.

Assimilation takes time, but it can be done. This is why the only solution in my opinion is strict border control and immigration enforcement based on limiting how many people can come in per year to give new arrivals time to get used to speaking English and concepts of limited government and the overall American culture, including practices and norms, dos and do-nots. Otherwise, I see no other way to keep this country, already fraying, from completely coming apart.

Social cohesion is difficult to create and easy to destroy. After all, if we all don’t even speak the same langauge, how can we be expected to get along?

I’m anticipating a flood of angry and nasty comments in reaction to this post. Oh well. Another thing that many think–me included–goes into the definition of being American is respectfully stating what you believe and engaging in the free exchange of ideas.

You can see I’ve thought this through and have come to a logical conclusion. I’d love to hear yours.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade

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6 thoughts on “What Does It Even Mean to Be “American”?

  1. This is a difficult issue to discuss in polite society, but it’s a conversation we have to have if we wish to preserve anything that can be called American. The fact is that you can have multi-ethnic countries. Historically they don’t do so well because diversity + proximity = war. What you can’t have is multi-ethnic nations. A nation is intertwined with race, religion, language and culture. A nation is a much more cohesive unit and much better suited to sustain people.

    In short, your Korean friends from law school are not American – they are Korean. But that’s not an insult to them. I would expect them to be proud of their heritage. I know I am proud of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      It’s an interesting point, and one that lots of Americans, me included, never questioned for so long until recently. We treated the “magic soil” philosophy like a shibboleth. But the more I think about it…the more I realize *I* don’t meet the dictionary definition of “American,” which is crazy because I sure feel American.

      Like I said in my post, the European-Americans–primarily English and Dutch with some French, African-Americans, and American Indians are more American than me. Which is mind-blowing to think of!

      All this said, I have no plans to leave. This is the greatest country ever and I sure hope it stays this way!


      1. I think we can agree that the founding fathers intended their new government to secure the blessings of liberty for them and their posterity. However, we also need to figure out what that means today, in practical terms. That’s where it gets difficult. Your family has been in this country for a few generations at least. Parts of my own can be traced back to the Revolution, and yet other parts are of much more recent European emigration. Yet others lie somewhere in between. So, were the blessings of liberty secured for my arm, but not the rest of my body?

        I think the overriding point behind all of this is that the unique kind of individualism and liberty conceived of by our forefathers is very definitely British and there is no way for us to return to an America comprised solely of 100% British lineage.

        So what, then, does it mean to be American? When we are honest about the question of race, I think can safely say that it plays a big factor in the cohesiveness and strength of a society. Mixing of races is a nice idea, but in practicality it doesn’t seem to work out very well. People tend to do better when they are surrounded by people like themselves. It’s just part of being a human being.

        I think the most humane solution would look something like modern Switzerland, where the different nationalities are very strictly segregated. Here it would have to be done by race as white America is largely a hodge-podge of the various European nations as black America is largely a hodge-podge of the various African nations. We are new nations, but we are separate nations.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The Daytime Renegade says:

        An interesting and sobering take. It does make me sad to think about this, as I personally don’t really have animosity towards any one race. But things aren’t governed by my own personal opinion, or how I wish things could be. It’s obvious that many people increasingly hate others based on race and would want to be segregated!

        What hurts more is that I think this is all by design. Keep us angry and distracted so power can be taken piece by piece.


      3. I agree! I know for a fact that by modern standards, I am considered a racist, and I am ok with that. I am ok with that for the simple reason that I believe that word has been given magical superpowers that cause people to turn off their brains once the label has been applied and automatically cease thinking. I think that is stupid and I want to rob the power from that word. So if your readers call me a racist, I’m ok with it.

        I am considered a racist because I recognize that there are differences among the various races. There are differences in IQ, strength, quickness, endurance and various behavioral predilections too numerous to list. Human bio-diversity is scientific fact and anyone who denies these things is a science denier. I am also considered a racist because I recognize the fact that people are happier and healthier when they live among people of their own race.

        What you will find missing from any part of that explanation is any claim that the white race is objectively superior to any other race. I am white and I am proud of my race and its collective accomplishments, but I don’t believe we are objectively superior to any other race. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses.

        Lastly, I don’t hate anyone either. This type of thing makes no sense to me. My faith commands me to love, and that is what I do. What I don’t do is think that loving people means I should lie to them, nor do I conflate loving with being nice.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. The Daytime Renegade says:

        I think everything you’ve said is well-reasoned and thoughtful. Admitting something is so, or that human biodiversity exists, is not racist. As you say, racism is the belief that one group of people is superior and the other or others are inferior. The word has sadly become meaningless, or at best wildly unevenly applied.

        This is where God comes in to me. We are all His children no matter what, which is why many of us do our best to let go of our dark feelings. The truth, as you say, is not a dark feeling, and confronting certain truths can serve to help us–America, the world–arrive at better solutions for everybody.


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