How Do We Define American Nationalism Today?

By Celeste Kimimila Terry

How do we define an American today, are we relying upon a civic or ethnic definition of nationalism? Which do you believe should be the determining factor for an American? Why?

“American” without the hyphen connotes “white” whilst all others are hyphenated people of color, this assumption of ethnic nationalism is very alive and well today. It is a protected way of thinking by terms like Civic nationalism, to hide or distract American citizens from realizing that even if they preoccupy their beliefs in politics with involvement, institutionally we have already been categorized by our ethnicity/race. This has been done each time we check our ethnicity in surveys at school, work, the doctor’s office, and the census. Terms like African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, European-American, American-Indian, and of course the check box of “More than one”, and the ever so sly, “check all that apply”. America still tracks the blood quantum of indigenous people counting down our diminishing bloodlines in hopes of the loss of sovereignty and treaty obligations. Race continues to be a constant heated discussion in the U.S., even in 2016. Ethnic nationalism is seemingly a driving force in American society, but it has taken shelter behind words like diversity and individual rights, which shows our Civic nationalism protects the systemic and institutional racism this country has been built on.

Taking into account the mistreatment and discrimination of the hundreds of millions of people who’ve moved to the U.S. over the years, and before the colonization of the ‘New World’…I am reminded that freedom, free labor, and entitlement are all things that, when written into our constitution was meant for the ‘white’ American. This ties deeply back into ethnic nationalism …hiding behind benevolent racism that if acknowledged implies one is sensitive or weak.  ‘Americans are defined by blood and political allegiance’, that has remained true for at least 100 years, as we see familiar family names remain in the wealthiest of American demographics, and steadily maintain a Euro-American ethnicity (ex. Huber, Walton, Rockefeller, Koch families). Lincoln felt the constitution, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belonged to all of mankind, this did not apply to non-white members, as they were not considered members of American society.  And, while speaking out on racial discrimination and mistreatment is referred to as ‘squeaking’, someone who is ‘white’ and feels intimidated by the race conversation often quickly reclaims their ethnic roots (no matter how unfamiliar they are), to minimize or justify the inequality among Americans by race.

Now, since over the years more and more minorities were free to become citizens (all the while leaving out the indigenous people until 1924), hyphenated Americans had been on the rise every time the U.S. opened up for citizenship or immigration. However, in recent months I have found out through our federal Title VII program for Indian education, if a student checks more than one ethnicity for identification their selection of American-Indian, is not counted. Meaning if you are mixed American-Indian and claim that you are mixed, you are not considered an American-Indian in academia. For me, this meant that when I selected White/Caucasian and American-Indian/Pacific Islander the only choice that was put into my school records was White/Caucasian regardless of my blood quantum. The same blood quantum that matters enough to provide me with a roll number, and grants me a pedigree of the past 7 generations in my bloodline, but not enough to uphold a treaty obligation for my equitable opportunity in public education. The American-Indian is still to this day, a 2nd class citizen in the sense of disregard to identity in academia and many other institutions. As Foner mentions in his article “Is America a White Country, or What?”, “Race had replaced class as the principal criterion of citizenship.” And “Racist ideology gained broad acceptance”, as by the latter this practice is clearly still in play. America has relied on a 2nd-class citizen stereotype since the beginning, and in this day and age it is upheld by ethnic nationalism.

Lest you assimilate to American society, you cannot be considered American. But it’s a catch 22 if you have a dark phenotype because no matter your political allegiance, the color of your skin is constantly hindered by the nagging ignorance of systemic and institutionalized racism. Until our society acknowledges this imbalance, and works to educate the population on the dark nature of our history. We cannot move forward equally as Americans. We can only continue on as hyphenated Americans, separated by our Ethnic nationalism. Although we are unified by civic nationalisms’ responsibilities, minority Americans are fighting for recognition and reconciliation with people who have never experienced the same discrimination or social and economic challenges impeded by race. Civic nationalism is a dangerous determination of what is American when compared verbatim to our initial constitution, since it excludes our many hyphenated Americans. Ethnic nationalism is equally as dangerous when used to classify humans, but if practiced responsibly allows the potential for a more embraced cultural growth among Americans due to exposure, dialogue and a mosaic like structured society of diversity vs. a melting pot structured society of assimilation.

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