What does it mean to be American?

by Ankit Jain

In the summer of 7th grade, the kids at basketball camp started calling me the “Indian kid.” This annoyed me. I was born and brought up in America. I had always thought of myself as an American. My belief had never been questioned until then.

With the rise of Trumpism, many people of color are being questioned on the bedrock belief they have held all their lives — that they are fully American. However, it is not Donald Trump’s explicit challenges to our Americanness that should worry us as much as the implicit assumptions made by people like Bobby Jindal about what it means to be an American.

Trump’s outright bigotry has been fanned by the sinister belief that has permeated conservative thought, embodied by Bobby Jindal, that you are either American or you are not. As Jindal said during his failed presidential bid, there should be no such thing as “hyphenated Americans.” He clarified in a campaign commercial,

We’re not Indian-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans. We’re all Americans. When my parents came to America they were coming to be Americans. The folks who want to immigrate to America, they should do so legally, they should adopt our values.

What Jindal was saying was that you can’t have respect for your ethnic identity, to foreground it in your mind, without giving up your American identity. To Jindal, being American might not have anything to do with the color of your skin or the God you worship, but it does have a lot to do with assimilating and accepting an “American culture.” In his eyes it seems, “American culture” is synonymous with “white culture”. Jindal seems to believe that living your life in a similar manner to your immigrant ancestors forfeits your American identity and is dangerous for America as a whole.

Jindal’s ideology is shared by many conservatives. It pushes them to make claims that Islam is antithetical to American values. It animates nativist’s verbal attacks on immigrants.

This ideology is wrong, historically and morally. America was founded as a haven for people fleeing religious and cultural persecution. In Common Sense, the pamphlet that helped launch the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled.” These people, as Paine points out, were welcome in America because it was founded on the idea that everyone should be able to live their lives the way they wish and still have a place in society.

This spirit of acceptance and independence is what animated the Founders when they decided to rebel against the British and form their own country. It was this spirit that engendered the First Amendment’s protections of religion and association. It was this spirit that shone forth in the signing of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, which stated, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Being an American was never about uniting a certain ethnic, religious, or historical group together into one nation. It has never been about sharing a similar culture. Rather, it has been about sharing this similar spirit. Even back in 1776, the Founding Fathers understood that if you believed that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then you were an American. If you shared the belief that men should determine their own destiny for themselves, and that everyone should have the same chance at a good life as anyone else, regardless of birth, then you were an American. Despite what conservatives might tell you, the vast majority of immigrants — Muslim, Latino, Indian, etc. — came to America exactly because of this uniquely American spirit and have adopted it themselves.

Of course, the Declaration of Independence, Paine’s Common Sense, and numerous other founding documents are very reliant on the idea of a Creator. It is undeniable that many of our Founding Fathers saw America inextricably bound to some form of monotheism. Today, however, we have the benefit of over 200 years of progress. We have abandoned other ideas that many of the Founding Fathers believed in deeply (slavery, women’s inequality, and numerous others) but have still not lost our essential American spirit. Moving away from the idea that being American requires a belief in a Christian god or Judeo-Christian values is thus not unprecedented. We must rely on the spirit and ideals that America was founded upon, while still transcending the dated beliefs that tied the Founders to a specific type of religion.

So, when Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump scream about the influx of people from different cultures onto American soil, they are attacking the reality of America’s history. When conservatives talk about “taking back America,” they are trying to take us back to an America that never existed. Even conservative hero Ronald Reagan pointed out, “More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”

After 9/11, America saw a spate of hate crimes against Muslims and people of color. One hate crime was committed against a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was known for giving candy to children and who had just donated to a 9/11 victim’s fund. He was murdered because his killer thought he was a Muslim. At his memorial someone left a note. “I have lived here all my life. I hope I can be as American as you.” That stranger understood that being American is an attitude. It is a state of mind — not a skin color, not a religion, and not a culture. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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