02 May 2006

Hyphenated America

I’ve tried for a long time to accurately put into words what I thought about hyphenated America. I struggled to encapsulate my thoughts into easily digestible pill form that even the most casual reader could understand. And I still do.

I decided to start doing some research to find out what had already been written on the topic rather than thrash about blindly in the darkness hoping I come up with a stroke of brilliance that becomes a point of reference for other interested parties.

I don’t recall where I heard the term “hyphenated American”, but I found out that there was actually quite a lot of writing already done on the topic. After doing a Google search I found that the term went all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt in 1915. Noticeably absent from his text is African-American, Mexican-American, or Asian-American. Based on my casual search of history, I’d guess that this was done in much the same context as when Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” despite being a slave owner himself. Through the magic of interpretation civil rights leaders have been able to use that same line as a rally cry for their cause even though that wasn’t the original intention.

Unfortunately, the cause stopped at winning the same legal rights as Americans who were white. Now that legal barriers have been overcome, let’s take a big step towards overcoming cultural barriers. Rather than focus on what comes before the hyphen, why don’t we focus on what comes afterward. American.

A person doesn’t need to scorn their heritage in order to do this. Many people are proud to be associated with the country or continent preceding the hyphen and to try and compel them to ignore or be ashamed of this would be wrong. There is a difference, however, between being proud of where your heritage lies, and using that heritage to separate yourself from the society that you’re now a part of.

What does it mean to be American? How can someone come to call themselves American? I did some quick research on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) webpage and found that there are four primary criteria that need to be satisfied in order for someone to become an American.
1. Be or intend to live in America

2. Not be a criminal

3. Survive in American culture

4. Pledge allegiance to the Constitution
Steps 1 through 3 are obvious, logical requirements for a person to meet in order to become an American. Without these, a person would fall flat on their face. It could easily be argued that having these requirements is done in the immigrant’s best interest making sure that he or she is set up for success. These three requirements, whether or not it’s written down on paper, apply regardless of which country a person would be immigrating to.

It’s the fourth requirement that makes the difference. Pledge allegiance to the Constitution. This step has three parts to it; 1) renounce foreign alliances, 2) support the constitution, and 3) agree to serve the US (in case of a draft just like a native born American). These three steps are accomplished when the oath is read:
I hereby declare, on oath,

1) that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;

2) that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;

3) that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

People don’t have to scorn their heritage in order to be an American. They just need to agree to abide by the Constitution like every other American.

Next question; what’s so bad about hyphenated America? It divides America along cultural and racial lines. It creates barriers where none should exist. If all a person hears is "whatever-American," every time they interact with a whatever-American they'll think, “He’s a whatever-American, I’m a thiskindof-American so we must not be equals.” This is just a small example of one symptom of the larger problem though. The larger problem is that these divisions result in a segregated and weakened America, exactly what the civil rights movement was trying to prevent.

My urgent cry is not that people renounce their past, but that they embrace their future. If you’re a person who agrees to live in a country governed by the Constitution, then let’s all be Americans.

Department of Homeland Security

Pres. Roosevelt's Hyphenated American
Google search "Hyphenated American"


Blogger Larry L. Bradley said...

Ben, outstanding. Here's a headline today from the Drudge site, speaking of hyphenated Americans. Worrisome deal. http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-gangs01.html

Anonymous Lisa said...

Amen! This is the same kind of thing I would have liked to get across to all my classmates in my "Multicultural Teaching & Learning" class this past semester. Too bad the semester is pretty much over....

Blogger Miriam said...

Hi Bandit! Very interesting post, this one. As I've commented in our conversation thread in my blog, it seems odd how modern Americans are not only embracing their ancestors' heritage, but are in many ways required to do so. It's part of American identity to be hyphenated: it gives you a dual identity which in itself is valued in the U.S? I'm a European, by the way, and have never been to the U.S. I'm a badly informed Americophile.


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