Barack Obama, and The Shattered Myth of White American Citizenship

Photo by Antonieta Mercado. Televised Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, Summer 2008. Campus Café, UCSD.

Antonieta Mercado

As a newly minted U.S. citizen, I voted for the first time in a Presidential election this past November 4th. When I became a U.S. citizen, some friends from Mexico, my home country told me jokingly: “now you are güera [blond].” I could not help to think that the image of this country to the outside world, as well as the internal foundational myth is that of a white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant nation. Latinos (especially Mexicans), and other recent immigrants, have been subjected recently to several tests about our capacity to “integrate” into American society. For most part this integration means to adopt the set of values associated with whiteness, to cut links with your home country, and family or friends left there, as a proof of your loyalty to these American values.

The predominant notion that the United States is white, called for a dichotomized counterpart: the black person. Under this dichotomy, whites (especially males) had full privileges as citizens, and blacks had none, not even their freedom under slavery. Even after abolition, conceptions of citizenship, property and privilege had remained linked to being white. Here the horrid years of the “separated but equal” doctrine come to my mind. This constitutional “doctrine” was partially shattered by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and it did not officially ended until the civil rights movement took matters further than public education in the 1960´s. For newcomers, imitating whiteness became an implicit cultural model to aspire to, in order to feel part of this nation and achieve the American Dream of upward mobility.

For example, after the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, many people with Mexican decent claimed their whiteness, because they remained in the territories that the U.S. annexed, and suddenly they faced the possibility of losing their property and rights as citizens because they were not considered white (a requirement for full citizenship under slavery). Some Mexicans with direct European blood could claim their whiteness, but mestizos and more indigenous-looking ones could not. German, Irish, Italian, Jews and other white European immigrants were classified as non-white too, and their process of incorporation has a lot to do with the broadening of the white category to include them, not with the changing of citizenship as a white institution.

Although there is no longer sanctioned lawful discrimination against non-whites as it existed under the “separated but equal” doctrine years, the cultural forces that equate full citizenship as whiteness are strong. The conception of the “melting pot” was implicitly to aspire to imitate the notion of white success and values, and become what this nation ought to be: a culturally homogeneous nation that embraces white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant values. Even recently, there is a wide discussion about Asian-Americans being the “model minority,” this meaning most of the time, that they are perceived to be closer to white than Blacks or Latinos. The extreme version of the white American myth is called “nativism,” and, instead of calling for broadening categories of whiteness, it refers to the willingness of some white citizens, that this country should restrict the incorporation of non-white people because of different notions of “contamination” that can cause whites to lose their purity. Some of this nativistic notions are not reserved to white extremists, but are embedded in popular culture as well.

During the past presidential campaign, Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin used the idea of this mythical white America, embodied in the pure, small town, homogeneous place where “Joe the Plumber” lives. However under contemporary demographical conditions, it is more likely that “Joe the Plumber” is an African American, or an immigrant from El Salvador—or even if he is white he may live in a small city or in a town that is not a hundred percent white. The mythical Joe is very likely to have friends and acquaintances that are not white, or not even American citizens. The racial composition of this country is also varied, having about 65 percent of whites, almost 15 percent Latinos, almost 14 percent African American.

Barack Obama’s victory, not only questions this myth of a dichotomized America, but he, the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white woman from the Midwest, embodies an arrangement of statuses that are difficult to dichotomize. Obama is not only an African American, but also a second-generation immigrant, and the son of a white family from the Midwest, were the prototypical “small town America” is supposed to exist. Obama is the child of a less affluent single woman who traveled the world and taught her son to be open to other cultures. Symbolically Obama is not a dichotomy between black and white, but a cosmopolitan being, a politician that has direct family connections across several continents.

As we swear-in Barack Obama this coming Tuesday, The United Sates is once more, thinking about itself as a pluralistic and culturally diverse nation, not a country divided both structurally, and symbolically in black and white where everybody competes to be considered culturally, economically, and socially white as a sign of upward mobility and normalcy. Obama certainly has opened the possibility to re-think the cultural foundations of this country, and more than two hundred years later, re-constitute the myth of this nation as a pluralistic, diverse and cosmopolitan place, the greatest democratic experiment on planet Earth, where inclusion is the rule, and not the exception. The Bush administration taught us however, that even the greatest democratic experiment, can go awry if citizens do not engage in daily practices of symbolic and institutional enactment in order to keep this democracy as inclusive as possible for its inhabitants, without having to anguish over how white one looks, acts, or has become.

Antonieta Mercado is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication, at the University of California in San Diego. She studies immigration and citizenship.


Greg Gross said...

Absolutely, positively completely on-point. This gets to the root of the racial divide in America, and says clearly what Barack Obama himself could not during the campaign.

America thrived during the previous century as a nation that was able to impose its "whiteness" not only on its own citizenry, but elsewhere around the world, a kind of cultural hegemony with a decidedly racial foundation. Consider the implications of this line from the Vietnam war film, "Full Metal Jacket," spoken by a Marine officer:

"Inside every Vietnamese is an American, trying to get out!"

There are increasing indications, mainly economic but also political, that this model will not be viable in the new century, a prospect that fills more than a few white Americans with a consuming dread. And as history has repeatedly shown us, the distance between fear and loathing is dangerously short.

It doesn't have to be this way. Indeed, it can't be. If the great experiment that is America is to succeed, and that is by no means a given, it will need to embrace a different self-vision in this new century.

That new and better vision will stake out clearly what it means to be an American, an American based not on the ethnocentrism of Europe or any other region or ethnicity, but on the universal values on which this country was founded.

That America will embrace the notion that newcomers are now merely free to maintain their original cultural heritage, but encouraged to add it to the American cultural mix to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its diverse cultural parts.

What they will be called on to embrace are those universal American values -- democracy, individual liberty and shared responsibility, equality of opportunity, freedom of thought and expression, the right to conduct one's spiritual life in their own way to the extent that it does not interfere with the right of their fellow Americans to do the same.

When we can do this as a nation, we will truly have connected with "the better angels of our nature" and have become the nation that we were always capable of being.

Antonieta said...

Thank you Greg. This is a very generous comment. I took a while to write this article, I wanted to include so many things on it that I have both, learned and experienced. As I said, this country is the greatest democratic experiment on Earth. Hopefully we can learn to be more tolerant and inclusive.