America is a nation with a complex and undefined history of its origin and the identity of its citizens. Different historians and scholars have different views of the American history and its identity. In a bid to find the answer to the question who is an American?, many scholars have tried to define an inclusive statement of the identity of an American and the attributes that make up the American culture. However, this has not been simple owing to the fact that the nation has diverse cultures and people of different origins who have settled and are claim ownership of the American identity. The controversial outcome of the result of trying to identify the identity of the American nation is that people tend to concentrate on the issues that separate the citizens rather than those that unite them.
Role of race in the definition of American identity
Racial classification is the grouping of individuals on the basis of their skin color, this is a vice that was predominant in the ancient identification of origin. The history of America is based on the influx of slaves from Africa and other continents who found their place in the country by virtue of forced labor. These people formed a recognizable population which gave rise to the need to define who an American is. Many debates erupted to define who is entitled to get the benefits of citizenship according to the constitution. However, the implication of the African American and the immigrants posed a challenge to the definition of American identity with some of the scholars arguing for their exclusion from the definition of American citizenship. Hector St. John Crevecoeur in his definition of an America say, “America is a mixture of English, French, Dutch, Scotch, Irish, German, Swedes…He is either a European or a descendant of a European” (Foner 428). This definition is racial in nature because it excluded other non-white from being recognized as citizens of America despite them being members of the society with no other place to call home. The constitution, on the other hand, did not clearly define who an American citizen is and what benefits and immunity are gained from this citizenship, however, individual states were given the mandate to determine their boundaries. Further, the Senate had the ability to make laws that would define the requirements to be met in order to gain citizenship, this made it possible to uncover the mystery of determining who an American is. In 1790, the Senate passed legislation that allowed white immigrants to be registered as neutral citizens of America (Foner 428).
American identity, therefore, for a long time remained a benefit to be enjoyed by the whites and white immigrants, the blacks and other people of Asian origin were excluded from reaping the benefits of being Americans. This was a show of racial discrimination against the non-whites a situation that shaped the politics and the American society during that era. Further, the discrimination was a factor in the distribution of wealth and resources, whereby the non-whites were not entitled to benefits of owning property. This is what shaped the disparities being experienced in the current America where there is unequal distribution of wealth and resources among different races. American identity changed in the 1870 when the blacks were allowed to register as citizens, this was a new dawn to the nationhood and the definition of who an American is. However, this was not good news to some people who were against the inclusion of blacks in the definition of an American because they believed that this group of individuals lacked the qualities that were essential for a republican citizen. In his argument, Jefferson narrates that, “blacks lacked the qualities partly due to natural incapacity and partly due to the bitter experience of slavery which had made them disloyal to the nation” (Foner 429).
Despite the milestone achievement that had been made in the definition of American identity, the exclusion of people with Asian origin from being recognized as citizen was still a setback. However, in the 1940s, this group of people were allowed to register as citizens of America, a move that changed the understanding of American identity. The new definition had put aside the racial and ethnic barrier and opened gates for the recognition of Asians and blacks as part of the American history. American identity has therefore, evolved from being that which identified only the whites and excluded the non-whites to being a nation that recognizes the people who built it regardless of their race. In the story of the The One Who Walks Away from Omelas, the author narrates that “the horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit”, this indicates the freedom enjoyed in the society that is free with no discrimination and boundaries (Le Guin 531).
American identity, has a long history that dates back to slave trade and the beginning of immigration. Through the different times, the history of America has changed and evolved from being a society that recognized the white and excluded the non-whites, to a society that is all inclusive and free from racial inequality. This has defined the politics and the economics of America making it one of the greatest democracies in the world.
Foner, Eric. “Who is an American? The Imagined Community in American history.” The Centennial Review 41.3 (1997): 425-438.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” (1973): 531-535.