American national identity is not based on shared ancestry or common ethnic heritage. Though it has become a dirty word in the past few decades, assimilation -- in which people of different backgrounds come to consider themselves part of a larger national family -- has long been the basis of citizenship. Because America is a nation of immigrants, its history was a constant struggle by outsiders seeking to become insiders. Yet America's very diversity always made it particularly uncomfortable with the idea of the "other."
Now, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington are making Americans more wary of outsiders than they have been in decades -- and are having profound implications for the debate over what it means to be American. Assimilation was long viewed as a process of subtraction -- newcomers displayed their loyalty by discarding the language and customs of their native lands. Immigrants were criticized for congregating and finding mutual support.
Not until the 1960's was it permissible for immigrants to adhere to their cultural heritages. This new understanding tested and broadened the nation's collective notions of what it meant to be an American. The definition of citizenship shifted from the belief in a common culture to following shared ideals. Since the 1970's, multiculturalism helped nurture an unprecedented level of public tolerance of ethnic and racial differences and new respect for hyphenated identities.
In some quarters, a rigid form of multiculturalism also arose that challenged the need for immigrants and other minorities to identify with America at all. By the end of the 20th century, some scholars speculated that being American simply meant participation in the search for wealth and stability.
Now, however, after the attacks, not only is the drive for unity bound to tilt the nation's ethnic balance back in favor of the American side of the hyphen, it could permanently undermine the more extreme forms of multiculturalism. In the worst-case scenario, it could also dampen the nation's recent appreciation of diversity.
Historically, war and the crises associated with it have been instrumental in terms of nation-building," said Gary Gerstle, a historian at the University of Maryland. Before the Civil War, for example, Americans spoke of the United States in the plural ("the United States are"), because each state was considered a discrete unit. Only after the crucible of the war did the public begin to refer to the nation in the singular ("the United States is").
The United States is currently experiencing a greater sense of national unity across racial and ethnic lines than it has since the early 1960's. External threats to any country tend to crystallize the collective identity and encourage citizens to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Yet while wars and other national crises have served as catalysts to unite a diverse population, they have also incited some of the worst incidents of repression against minorities the public associated with the enemy.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a notable number of hate crimes against Arab-Americans and Muslims. Frightened by a wave of violence, American Sikhs are explaining to the public that despite their turbans and beards, they are not Muslims. President Bush visited a Washington mosque on Monday, in an attempt to discourage retaliation against Arab-Americans. He showed that, at the very least, wartime repression this time around would not be government-sanctioned. But Muslim leaders are already discussing plans for Muslim women to change the way they dress, perhaps exchanging head scarves for hats and turtlenecks. On Monday, a woman trekked to the New York Health Department headquarters trying to change her son's surname from "Mohammed" to "Smith."
The catastrophe in New York and Washington and the talk of war is already hastening the assimilation -- in both negative and positive ways -- of immigrants into American society. Many of the newest Americans, some of whom may have considered themselves marginalized just weeks ago, are going to great lengths to show solidarity with their adopted nation.
Pakistani taxi drivers in New York are displaying the Stars and Stripes in their cabs. Last Saturday in Los Angeles, two Spanish-language radio stations hosted thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrants at one of the city's largest solidarity rallies. The widespread sense of a common fate is giving many immigrants a sense of belonging to a national community.
But the hardening of the national identity also induces subtle shifts in the country's racial and ethnic hierarchy. On Tuesday, at an alternative school in Washington, eight black teenagers who were not strangers to the criminal justice system expressed their anger and fear of Arab-Americans, and for the first time spoke for the other side of the racial profiling debate. In Southern California, a dark-complected Morrocan immigrant comforts himself with the fact that many people assume he is Mexican, a group that felt itself under attack only a few years ago.
"Pearl Harbor made Chinese into Americans for the first time since the 1880's," said Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "But it excluded the Japanese-Americans regardless of how long they had been in America." In some crude way, the reforging of American identity under fire produces winners and losers.
Perhaps in their desire to establish their credentials as insiders and to distinguish themselves from the enemy, minority Americans are sometimes the most zealous in excluding whoever has been deemed the new outsiders. The Arizona man arrested last week for allegedly murdering a Sikh gas station operator has a Spanish surname. He asserted to police as he was arrested, "I'm a damn American all the way." During World War I, Poles and other Eastern Europeans were particularly active in their repression of German-Americans. In World War II, there were incidents of Filipinos attacking Japanese-Americans.
The most egregious example of an American minority being targeted because of its association with the foreign enemy was the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans (two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens) during World War II.
Earlier, the outbreak of World War I intensified Americans' already strong suspicions of foreigners, which, in turn, gave rise to a campaign to rid the country of foreign influences.
Because they shared the same ethnicity as the enemy and because many Teutonic organizations lobbied heavily to keep America neutral in the early years of the war, German-Americans suffered one of the most dramatic reversals of fortunes of any group in American history. The German language, its culture, customs, and even food came under attack. In 1918, nearly half the states had restricted or eliminated German-language instruction; several stripped citizens of the freedom of speaking German in public.
But while national solidarity during World War I was characterized by coercion, World War II engendered what one scholar has called "patriotic assimilation." "By the end of the war," writes Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, "the new immigrant groups had been fully accepted as ethnic Americans, rather than members of distinct and inferior races."
On the level of everyday life, the war was a great common experience, particularly for the 12 million men and women who served in the armed forces, but also for the much of the rest of the population, which shared the losses, privations and ultimately, the joys of victory. Wartime "fox hole" movies didn't seek to deny ethnic distinctions but affirmed the Americanness of the Irish, Jewish, Polish, and Okie soldiers who were "all in it together."
African-Americans, of course, have fought in every war in American history, and were still not recognized as full Americans when they returned. But it was at the end of World War II that blacks first saw the beginnings of integration, a process that accelerated in the postwar years. Still, just as the Japanese-American units in World War II became the most decorated in American military history, many black soldiers have sought to express and prove their "Americanness" through valor. "It is a refusal to be left out of the definition of whatever it is that comprises American identity," said Debra Dickerson, a writer and 12-year Air Force veteran.
But wartime can also reinvigorate the public's appreciation for the country's most cherished values. "It compels an articulation of American ideals, those things that America stands for," said Professor Gerstle. Just as the need for tightened security will at times conflict with the nation's belief in broad civil liberties, the quest for unity is bound to clash with another American ideal: tolerance.
Copyright 2001, The New York Times