For the first time
in our history, more than half
the babies being born in the United States are non-white. This milestone signals a new
chapter in the centuries-long struggle over who is included in what we call "the
American people." At the time of the American Revolution, only those of Anglo-Saxon
origin were considered "real Americans," in terms not only of citizenship, rights, and
liberties, but also in the dominant cultural understanding of the term. As large numbers of
Irish Catholics, Jews, Italians, Russians, and others from all over Europe arrived in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the definition of "the American people"
expanded. Soon, our commonly understood notion of ourselves as a people had come to
include all whites. Now, in the twenty-first century, we must inculcate a truly inclusive
definition of Americanness that transcends whiteness.
An America that transcends whiteness is one where no citizen feels less American
than any other because of skin color, and those of every background recognize everyone
with whom they share this land as fellow members of the American community. That is
what it means to be one people, one nation. Such a development can only occur if we
cultivate a strongly inclusive, integrative, and unifying sense of national identity.
We must ensure that non-white Americans are able to see themselves as full
members of the American community. We must cultivate a strong national unity that
brings together Americans of every background. To be clear, this alone will not solve all
our problems. It will not directly educate a single child, provide jobs to the unemployed,
or ensure justice for those denied it. Nevertheless, strengthening national unity will
enhance our ability to accomplish those other all-important goals.
Fortunately, we have a President who not only understands this, but who has
made cultivating a truly inclusive American identity one of his highest priorities for two
In April 2008 Barack Obama stated
that the most important mission of
his life is "insist[ing] that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans
and as human beings." He highlighted the "need to all recognize each other as
Americans, regardless of race, religion, or region of the country." In a June 2008 speech
he described how devotion to our democratic
principles can forge unity out of diversity. Obama spoke of his own Americanness as
being more than "just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is
also loyalty to America's ideals....I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming
with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one."
In his 2012 State of the Union address
said, "It doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal;
rich or poor; gay or straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the
person next to you, or the mission fails....You rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation,
leaving no one behind.... So it is with America."
Although conservatives are adept at the language of national unity, many of them
ignore inclusion, and even speak in an explicitly exclusionary way. The "we" the Tea
Party speaks of, for instance, is carefully defined to exclude as much as include. White
anxiety--the negative reaction to our increasing diversity--is one of the main drivers of
support for Tea Party conservatism. It is thus a primary obstacle to increasing support
for an inclusive national unity, as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson argue in their
recent groundbreaking book The Tea Party and the Remaking of
Reducing white anxiety must then become a priority, not only for progressives,
but for anyone interested in this country's future. One way to do this is to strengthen
the sense of community felt by Americans toward all other Americans. This means
invigorating bonds across ethnic lines, in particular between whites and non-whites. The
more that anxious whites come to recognize that non-whites are not opposed to their
interests, and that non-whites see themselves as members of one national community,
the more those whites will be willing to return the favor. This process must also be
carried out in the other direction, i.e., there is plenty that white people could do to
make non-whites, both immigrants and native-born, feel more embraced as Americans.
Strengthening national unity across racial and ethnic lines requires both reducing white
anxiety and helping non-whites feel fully included in the American community. In fact,
these two goals can reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle that feeds on itself.
As a country moving toward the day when non-Hispanic whites make up less
than 50% of our population, we must deal proactively with this reality. President Obama
has sought to do so by transforming our national identity, making it more inclusive and
unifying by helping it finally and fully transcend whiteness. If large numbers of whites
believe that only they consider themselves part of "the American people" or, likewise, if
many non-whites believe that most whites don't see them as "real Americans" then our
future as a successful, stable society is in jeopardy. For this country to survive and thrive,
every one of us has to both want to be an American and feel wanted as an American.
Whereas some see our growing diversity as a threat, I believe it offers us an opportunity
to provide a model to the world of a society that is pluralistic yet truly unified. Barack
Obama's conception of our national identity can help make us that society.
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