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The Changing Perception of America’s National Identity with Regard to Ethnic Diversity

Seminararbeit 2012 23 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. America’s National Identity

3. The Difficulty of Finding an Overarching National Identity
3.1 Immigration
3.1.1 The First Wave: Colonial Immigration
3.1.2 The Second Wave: Old Immigration
3.1.3 The Third Wave: New Immigration
3.2 Today’s Racial and Ethnic Demography of the USA
3.3 First Roundup: Immigrants, Heterogeneity and National Identity

4. Concepts of National Identity in the Past
4.1 Assimilation trough Ethnic Blending: The Melting Pot
4.2 Assimilation through Americanization
4.3 American Nationalism and Anglo-Saxon Racism
4.4 Cultural Pluralism and the Salad Bowl

5. Second Roundup: U.S. National Identity Today

6. Final Note

7. References

“Fortunately, the time has long passed when people liked to regard the United States as some kind of melting pot, taking men and women from every part of the world and converting them into standardized, homogenized Americans. We are, I think, much more mature and wise today. Just as we welcome a world of diversity, so we glory in an America of diversity - an America all the richer for the many different and distinctive strands of which it is woven.”

(Hubert H. Humphrey)

1. Introduction

The United States of America are often called the land of the immigrants, have been named the promised land and the Latin term e pluribus unum, which still can be found engraved in U.S. coins, is often related to the USA as the nation’s motto out of many, one. Every year there are thousands of people from all over the world migrating to the United States of America. Some of them have to escape war or poverty, others are politically persecuted and many come to live the American Dream that they maybe have heard rumors about and see the USA as a safe harbor where all their hopes could come true. All these hopes and dreams have formed the myth of the American Dream over the decades and centuries since the first settlers have arrived in New England.

Over the last centuries America has developed to a multicultural society, for all those different nations are living together in one country. This idea is often reflected in the term melting pot, which describes the idea of assimilation of diverse nationalities into American life. In this regard all the immigrants are supposed to merge with the people who have already been there, regardless of the fact that those “old” Americans were immigrants themselves at some point of time in the history of America, and they are required to give up their lifestyles and cultures to form one nation. The opposing idea is often defined with the term salad bowl. The concept in this regard is that all the different nationalities do not melt into one country, but together form the nation without losing their own backgrounds and cultures.

Ever since the settling of what is the USA today, people came to live in a new world where they were able to have a better future than in their countries of origin.

In a nutshell the USA is a country that accommodates more than one ethnic group and a huge variety of different nationalities. Therefore America’s racial structure is very heterogeneous and its composition is changing permanently. This is the reason for the problem of the American people to define their very own unique national identity.

This term paper deals with the reasons for the challenging task of defining America’s national identity and will introduce several historical concepts of defining this terminology. The aim of the following pages is to answer the question if the terms melting pot or salad bowl are truly reflecting a multicultural American society, if the myth of the American Dream includes all the various ethnicities living in the USA and if there is a unique national identity that is shared by the whole population of the U.S.

2. America’s National Identity

The term national identity is often used in connection with the USA to describe what it really means to be an American. It describes a person’s identity and sense of belonging to one nation and includes not only ethnicity, politics and economics but also education, social services, the media, religion, language, arts and sports. Therefore, the expression combines characteristics of a whole nation and tries to set these apart from other cultures or states. The idea is to come up with a concept of identification for every single inhabitant of one nation. It is obvious that this attempt is hard to manage for every person living in one state.

“A significant historical dilemma for the USA has been how to balance the need for national unity with the existence of ethnic diversity and, thus, how to avoid the dangers of fragmentation.”[1] All the different ethnicities, nationalities, cultures and religions in the USA are difficult to combine under just one definition of national identity. Therefore there have been different concepts of forming identities for the American people in the past. Americanization was initially the first attempt to join the various people living in the US under one roof of definition. It meant the assimilation of different ethnicities into a shared identity and the metaphor of the melting pot was born. There have been more approaches of trying to find one definition of the American identity and some of the concepts will be mentioned in this work.

Americans have tried to construct a sense of a single fitting national identity and unity in the past and it often seemed to be impossible to achieve this aim. Nevertheless, the ethnically diverse population of the USA today is at least bound to central images and symbols of Americanness, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, the pledge of allegiance to the flag, the Declaration of Independence, the US national anthem and the Constitution. These symbols provide common cultural images, ideas of what it means to be American and they define American citizenship. These common known signs avoid the elements of ethnic differences, social class, politics and economics and therefore they are universally applicable.

The national symbols form a sense of unity for all American citizens but they leave out individual differences. A complete national identity can therefore not just be expressed by central images and still it is complicated to find a single and simple definition for America’s national identity which is shared by all American citizens. To understand how the nation’s citizens, largely consisting of immigrants, formed the population and society of the USA and how they established the country’s identity, it is necessary to answer the questions of who came when, where from and what was the citizen’s attitude towards the newcomers in different periods of time throughout the history of the state.

3. The Difficulty of Finding an Overarching National Identity

3.1 Immigration

Ethnic diversity in the USA is not just an occurrence of the present. Ever since the settlement of North America, the US has been a country with diverse ethnicities. As a so called immigration country, it is said that “the state arose from a […] nation shaped largely by immigration”[2]. Believing in the American Dream, which has always meant to create a better life for them, millions of people have come to the USA. They changed their homelands, America itself and their histories forever. Immigrants strengthened the idea of America being a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted and made the US the nation of nations. These thoughts are even presented inside the base of the Statue of Liberty, where one can find the famous sonnet “The New Colossus”, written by Emma Lazarus. Her lines represent the idea of the American nation as a safe haven for refugees:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

However, the huge number of immigrants has not only defined the American Dream and everything good it stands for, but it has also brought social disorders. Discrimination, political and economical exploitation, debates over unity and equality and last but not least the difficulties of specifying the national identity are the result of immigration since the early settlement of American land. In the American country, whose history started off with the encounter between Native Americans and European settlers and continued through the bringing of African slaves and various periods of immigration, there has never been a single national culture and on that accounts no overarching national identity.

The American colonial settlement was largely composed of immigrants arriving from Great Britain and they shared the new world with existing Native-American communities and other Europeans. Until 1776 more than half of the population came from the British Isles. These people integrated other early settlers into a white, mainly Anglo-American, Protestant culture.

“Within only twelve years of the first successful Virginia settlement in 1607 the colonists began importing blacks to increase their labor force […] and they called for continuing numbers of immigrants – at first from Great Britain, and later from the rest of Europe as well.”[3]

All together they formed political, social and religious institutions, which produced a first American identity and created values that are nowadays still up to date. The first settlers left their mother country to escape religious and political persecution and to find freedom of both religion and politics in a new world. They saw the opportunity of freedom, social uplift and success and they reached out for it. Each new member of the population of the new-found country had the same chances, regardless of their religion, their former nationality or their social status. This situation changed over the history of US immigration, which happened in three waves.

3.1.1 The First Wave: Colonial Immigration

Although most scholars agree on the idea that there were three major waves of immigration to the USA, there are different dates set by them for the first wave of immigration. Some leave out the period of the early settlement and start in the 1680s[4], others include this period in the first wave of immigration and offer the time span from 1607 to the 1790s[5] to count as the first wave.

As written before, most of the immigrants in colonial times arrived from England, but also other European countries were represented in the first wave of immigration, including for example France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Wales. By 1650 there were about 20,000 European settlers and descendants of Europeans living in New England and the number increased rapidly to 90,000 European settlers and their descendants by 1700. New England’s population grew up to a population of 1.25 million in 1800.[6]

The welcome that immigrants received in the time varied from the extremes of largely hostile New England to the more tolerant middle colonies. It was in 1782 when Crèvecoeur wrote his famous lines in his work “Letters from an American Farmer”[7] that “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of man”[8].

Crèvecoeur, however, stated that the people living in this melting pot had to turn their backs on the cultures of their homelands and included only the Europeans in the new settlements. Also he was aware that the frontier to the wilderness would turn the people living there into savages, as a consequence he counted them only as a protective cover against barbarism.[9]


[1] Mauk, David; Oakland, John: American Civilization: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. p. 8.

[2] Reed, U.: An Immigration Country of Assimilative Pluralism. Immigrant Reception and Absorption in American History. In: Bade, K.; Weiner, M., eds.: Migration Past, Migration Future. Oxfort: Berghahn Books, 1997. p. 39.

[3] Dinnerstein, L.; Nichols, Roger L.; Reimers, David. M.: Natives and Strangers: A Multicultural History of Americans. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 3.

[4] Cf.: Mauk, David; Oakland, John: American Civilization: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. p. 53.

[5] Cf.: Archdeacon, Thomas J.: Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York: The Free Press, 1984. p. 1.

[6] Daniels, Roger: Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. p. 51.

[7] Cf.: Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John De: Letters from an American Farmer. In: Gunn, Giles B.: Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994.

[8] Ibid.: p. 476.

[9] Ibid.: p. 476ff.



Titel: The Changing Perception of America’s National Identity with Regard to Ethnic Diversity