I suspect most of you reading this have heard about the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Arizona's immigration law.
I want to focus here on President Obama's statement reacting to the ruling. This statement shows Obama doing something he does constantly, at every opportunity where it is remotely relevant. What he did was to define America and our national identity in an ethnically inclusive way. After reacting to the specifics of the Court's ruling, Obama stepped back and discussed immigration more broadly. The language where Obama defines our national identity by talking about "what makes us American" is in italics:
I will work with anyone in Congress who's willing to make progress on comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our economic needs and security needs, and upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. And in the meantime, we will continue to use every federal resource to protect the safety and civil rights of all Americans, and treat all our people with dignity and respect. We can solve these challenges not in spite of our most cherished values -- but because of them. What makes us American is not a question of what we look like or what our names are. What makes us American is our shared belief in the enduring promise of this country -- and our shared responsibility to leave it more generous and more hopeful than we found it.
On the one hand, it's easy to gloss right over this language as standard fare. This, I believe, is a mistake. First of all, one reason it seems so familiar is that Obama, by repeating it over and over again, has helped make it so. This language, this definition of our national identity as explicitly inclusive of all heritages, is crucial to Obama's political worldview, his belief in the importance of empathy, and even to his conception of his own identity, at least as described in his public writings.
Here (and in more extensive remarks made on countless occasions) Obama has stated that it doesn't matter "what we look like" (skin color) or "what our names are" (country of origin), when it comes to our Americanness. We choose to be Americans together by believing we are part of a community that shares democratic values.
This language, coming from a sitting president, speaks to people who have felt excluded because of their ethnicity or another aspect of their identity, and helps them to feel included when they think of "the American people." Feeling more included can lead such people to identify more strongly and more publicly as Americans and as part of our national community. That, in turn, can lead people who have, at times, doubted whether certain people in this country really "wanted" to be Americans to change their minds and do more to embrace folks different from themselves as Americans. These changes build on one another in a virtuous cycle.
All this from one statement? Of course not. No one would be naive enough to suggest that. However, words, especially when combined with policies that promote inclusion, do matter. These words heard over and over again from President Obama, and spoken by the rest of us to our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and children have a powerful, cumulative effect.
I've spent the last few years working on a book called Obama's America that analyzes Barack Obama's push to transform our national identity, to make it fully inclusive while simultaneously strengthening our sense of unity across ethnic lines. The closing sentences of the above statement show Obama doing exactly that.
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