That’s how my high school Spanish teacher taught us to declare our nationality. That was the way that we could tell people that we were from the United States. I never questioned or thought much about this until last year in my immersion program where I learned to say “Soy Estadodunidense” instead.
It was a revolutionary moment. I’d never considered how U.S-centric “Soy Americana” is. It never even crossed my mind that South, Central, and other North Americans might think of themselves as Americans (in the same broad manner that Europeans considered themselves as such). There are two whole continents (or one connected continent depending upon the model you use) named “America.” The people in Canada as well as those in Argentina and Honduras are in that sense “Americans” as well. In fact, whenever I hear the immigration debates about “Mexicans,” I always want to throw this geographical grenade in the conversation: but, they’re already Americans.
But seriously, on a scale of North Korea to George Washington riding a water buffalo while eating an apple pie with a bald eagle, how American is it that we took the name of our continent and used it to refer only to ourselves (while excluding other people)?.
Which brings me to the question of today: who actually gets to be an American?
According to John Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, in this NPR interview:
Most of the rest of the world, for example, gives people citizenship based on a concept known as jus sanguinis, literally “by right of blood.”
“The idea there is that the nation, the people are bonded together through ancestry,” Skrentny said. “The other notion of nationhood is generally understood as a civic notion of nationhood. And this is the idea that folks are bonded together by where they are, by locality and by the ideas that they might share. And that’s what we have in the United States. There are folks who say that, you know, to be an American is to embrace an idea.”
The second idea can be considered jus soli —right of the soil– or birthright citizenship. It’s seems that everyone who was born here and believes in baseball and apple pie should be considered a full-blooded American. But like most everything in America, it’s rather complicated. If we trace the trajectory of African-Americans in this country, you’ll see what I mean.
The first law that even defines the term “citizen” is the 1790 Alien Naturalization Act which limits naturalization to “a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” This obviously didn’t apply to African-Americans.
Justice Robert B. Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case further solidifies that Blacks are not citizens. Taney holds that the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal” did not, in any way, apply to Blacks; and that Blacks have zero right in courts because they are not citizens, but rather, property of citizens. (If you’ve never read the Taney decision, click the link, it is fascinating).
In the opinion of the Court the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument….
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race….
No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling, in relation to this unfortunate race, in the civilized nations of Europe or in this country should induce the Court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted….
And upon a full and careful consideration of the subject, the Court is of opinion that, upon the facts stated in the plea in abatement, Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States and not entitled as such to sue in its courts….
The concept of “birthright citizenship” eventually gets codified under the 14th amendment, adopted after the Civil War as a means to curb the South’s use of Black Codes. It states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. African-Americans received “citizenship” under this ratified Amendment in 1868.
This citizenship, however, didn’t seem to translate into any type of protection under the law. It was a “name only” citizenship that didn’t prevent lynching or Jim Crow or discrimination in public and private arenas. Nor did it bestow the right to vote. It seemed nothing like the citizenship that White Americans enjoyed.
In fact, for another century, African-Americans would reside in the country of their birth , and that of their ancestors going back generations, without the stated protections of the Constitution until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
You could trace the trajectory of almost every other ethnic minority group and find a story of legalized exclusion from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the eugenics-sponsored Immigration (Johnson-Reed) Act of 1924 which barred Asian immigration and was based on a quota system determined by country of origin so as to lessen the number of “undesirables” — mostly southern and Eastern Europeans (read Catholics and Jews) in preference of more immigration from Northern and Western Europe. According to the Department of State Office of the Historian, “in all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Even Native Americans, the indigenous people of the US, didn’t receive citizenship until 1924.
It seems that “being American” is more than a question of birth place or citizenship. It’s even more than the notion of “shared ideals.” White skin seems to be the defining — maybe even only –prerequisite in who gets to call themselves an American. This is why a presidential candidate, himself the son of an immigrant, can question the ability of a judge to do his job, despite said judge being born and raised in the U.S., because of the birthplace of his parents. Or why, Americans of color are often asked: but where are you really from?
These laws haven’t just shaped our population demographics, but our very ideas of what an American — and her ancestors — should look like and their country of origin. Our conception of who is, and is not an American, is inextricably linked to our history of racism and exclusion. And many want to maintain this idea of “homogeneity” that has literally never existed in the United States since its inception due to the presence of Native and African-Americans.
When people shout “go back to where you came from” or even “make America great again,” they are speaking of maintaining this “ideal homogeneity” where the United States remains a white-dominant country in all areas (politically, economically, socially, and culturally).
Which makes me think: you know what might be as American as Apple Pie? Racism.