What does it mean to be an American?

Since 1965, Pew Research Center estimates that 60 million new immigrants have come to America — many of them non-white. Such “browning” of the country appears to have prompted certain panicked politicians to raise the specter of tribalism, nativism and even fascism in the U.S.A.

These politicians urge that we take back our cities and make America great again. But their notion of “we” is quickly becoming obsolete.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of all Americans will belong to a minority group by 2044 (any group other than non-Hispanic White alone), and by 2060, one in five of the nation’s total population — 20 percent — will be foreign born. It’s time we redefine what it means to be an American.

American identity initially was based not on race or ethnicity but ideology. Race become central to the discussion in the late 19th century, and differences were even embraced for a time in the early 20th.


In 1909, Israel Zangwill wrote his play "The Melting Pot," during which the hero cries out: “America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming ... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

A few years later, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the author and said he would always count the play “among the very strong and real influences upon [his] thought and my life.”

And in 1915, American philosopher Horace M. Kallen introduced a concept that would come to be known as “cultural pluralism.” His concepts of race and culture were ambiguous, but he believed that true democracy required a population of multiple cultures because democracy meant freedom and self-realization. In his view, any forced assimilation was anti-democratic and un-American.

By the 1920s, however, an Americanization movement gripped the country and favored immigration only from North and Western Europe. The country restricted immigration and implemented quotas.

Then the Nazis shook the world with their false claims of a superior master race and forced Americans to evaluate their beliefs. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt declared: "Americanism is not and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." And as the war came to an end, scholars denounced racism as unscientific and urged the United States to clean its own house.

An atmosphere incrementally emerged of liberalism and greater tolerance for diversity and ethnicity culminating in the 1965 Civil Rights Act granting greater rights to African Americans. That same year, the Immigration and Nationality Act retracted the quote system implemented in 1924.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s it actually became chic to have an ethnic background. Michael Novak affirmed this “new ethnicity” in his 1972 book "The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics." As a white ethnic of Slovak origin, he had this sense of two-ness, of belonging to a marginalized ethnic group and a larger American society.

Today, the ethnic revival of the ‘70s is behind us, and greater appreciation of cultural pluralism in America is still beyond our grasp. How then do we reconcile our different ethnicities in an increasingly diverse society? Is America a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethnic state? Or is it a Kallen-esque mosaic of subgroup ethnicities? Is it a concept or a state of being?


What does it mean to be an American? And is it possible that it means all of the above?

Javed Amir is a retired diplomat and former Washington Bureau chief of “The Frontier Post” daily newspaper. Earlier, he was editor of “The Pakistan Review” a monthly cultural magazine published in Lahore (Pakistan). His email is