America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.