On this Independence Day, we will gather (finally!) with friends and family to celebrate our country and what it means to be American. But what that actually means continues to be the source of much debate.
Some who have pledged to “make America great again” desire to take the country back to a time before many nonwhite immigrants had arrived (and before African Americans, women and members of the LGBTQ community had gained any power or influence). Their definition of “American” is narrow, defensive and exclusive.
We’ve been here before. Xenophobia — our fear and hatred of foreigners — is as American as apple pie. And across the centuries, self-proclaimed patriotic citizens have blamed immigrants for all that is wrong in America — all that is un-American — while proclaiming their version of America and “American” to be the truest.
In the 1850s, anti-immigrant activists formed a new political party devoted to curbing the rights and influence of Catholic immigrants and naturalized citizens. They called themselves the American Party and promoted a new definition of Americanness that named white Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers as the true “natives” of the United States. “Americans must rule America” was one of their slogans. By the early 1900s, some of America’s most influential thinkers and politicians were increasingly defining Americanism through the lens of white supremacy.
In 1925, eugenicist Madison Grant reported that an “influx of foreigners” would “submerge” U.S.-born white Americans and rallied others to his cause with the cry “America for the Americans.” The Ku Klux Klan fanned fears, claiming to speak for “all true Americans” when it condemned the “flood of foreigners” entering the country and pushing the “native-born” aside. Those (white) immigrants who continued to be allowed into the United States were exhorted to fully assimilate, abandon any loyalty to former homelands and reject hyphenated identities, as former President Theodore Roosevelt urged in 1916.
A century later, Americans elected a new president, Donald Trump, who labeled Mexicans “rapists” and criminals, who pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and who called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He spent his term working to achieve these goals and more.