Obama’s America: Transcending Traditional Stereotypes of Americanness

July 18th, 2012 | Categories: Other

For today’s WeBlog Wednesday, Ian Reifowitz, Associate Professor at Empire State College and author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books, 2012) provides The Communicated Stereotype with his insights about stereotypes of Americanness.

His discussion is based on two terms that I’ve used frequently on this blog- ingroups and outgrous. Although he doesn’t use these terms, he discusses how Obama facilitates inclusiveness by embracing many different cultural groups as part of his view of the American ingroup. This is contrasted with a conservative view of Americanness that excludes a large range of cultural groups – within the United States – as outgroup members.

The most interesting and controversial phrase that Ian includes in his post is his idealistic vision for an “America that transcends whiteness.” The stereotype guru lamentably notes that for some whiteness is not something to transcend. For those of you who espouse that view – though perhaps it’s not likely you’re reading my blog- I hope this article makes you think twice. For the rest of you who subscribe to Ian’s vision, I hope you appreciate his insights.

For the first time in our history, more than half the babies being born in the United States are non-white. This milestone signals a new chapter in the centuries-long struggle over who is included in what we call “the American people.” At the time of the American Revolution, only those of Anglo-Saxon origin were considered “real Americans,” in terms not only of citizenship, rights, and liberties, but also in the dominant cultural understanding of the term.

As large numbers of Irish Catholics, Jews, Italians, Russians, and others from all over Europe arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the definition of “the American people” expanded. Soon, our commonly understood notion of ourselves as a people had come to include all whites. Now, in the twenty-first century, we must inculcate a truly inclusive definition of Americanness that transcends whiteness – the traditional stereotype of what it means to be American.

An America that transcends whiteness is one where no citizen feels less American than any other because of skin color.

An America that transcends whiteness is one where those of every background recognize everyone with whom they share this land as fellow members of the American community.

That is what it means to be one people, one nation. Such a development can only occur if we cultivate a strongly inclusive, integrative, and unifying sense of national identity. We must ensure that non-white Americans are able to see themselves as full members of the American community. We must cultivate a strong national unity that brings together Americans of every background.

To be clear, this alone will not solve all our problems. It will not directly educate a single child, provide jobs to the unemployed, or ensure justice for those denied it. Nevertheless, strengthening national unity will enhance our ability to accomplish those all-important goals.

Fortunately, we have a President who not only understands this, but who has made cultivating a truly inclusive American identity one of his highest priorities for two decades.

In April 2008 Barack Obama stated that the most important mission of his life is “insist[ing] that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings.” He highlighted the “need to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race, religion, or region of the country.”

In a June 2008 speech he described how devotion to our democratic principles can forge unity out of diversity. Obama spoke of his own Americanness as being more than “just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America’s ideals….I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one.”

In his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails….You rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind…. So it is with America.”

Conservatives are adept at the language of national unity. However, many of them ignore inclusion, and even speak in an explicitly exclusionary way. The “we” the Tea Party speaks of, for instance, is carefully defined to exclude as much as include.

White anxiety—the negative reaction to our increasing diversity—is one of the main drivers of support for Tea Party conservatism. It is thus a primary obstacle to increasing support for an inclusive national unity, as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson argue in their recent groundbreaking book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Reducing white anxiety must then become a priority, not only for progressives, but for anyone interested in this country’s future. One way to do this is to strengthen the sense of community felt by Americans toward all other Americans. This means invigorating bonds across ethnic lines, in particular between whites and non-whites. The more that anxious whites come to recognize that non-whites are not opposed to their interests, and that non-whites see themselves as members of one national community, the more those whites will be willing to return the favor.

Strengthening national unity across racial and ethnic lines requires both reducing white anxiety and helping non-whites feel fully included in the American community. In fact, these two goals can reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle that feeds on itself. There is plenty that white people could do to make non-whites, both immigrants and native-born, feel more embraced as Americans.

As a country moving toward the day when non-Hispanic whites make up less than 50% of our population, we must deal proactively with this reality.

President Obama has sought to do so by transforming our national identity, making it more inclusive and unifying by helping it finally and fully transcend whiteness. If large numbers of whites believe that only they consider themselves part of “the American people” or, likewise, if many non-whites believe that most whites don’t see them as “real Americans” then our future as a successful, stable society is in jeopardy.

For this country to survive and thrive, every one of us has to both want to be an American and feel wanted as an American. Some see our growing diversity as a threat. I believe it offers us an opportunity to provide a model to the world of a society that is pluralistic yet truly unified.

Barack Obama’s conception of our national identity can help make us that society.

One final note: Political rhetoric, not policy, is the focus of my analysis in this piece, and in my book, also called Obama’s America. However, in the past few weeks Obama has complemented his rhetoric of inclusion with policies of inclusion as well such as his endorsement of marriage equality and his recent move on immigration. In addition to the language we use, policies have a powerful effect on challenging stereotypes and making people feel included in the American community.

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