Last week I heard about what I believe to be extremely disheartening results to a recent Gallup poll: Fewer than 4 in 10–38% — of adults said they were “extremely” proud to be Americans. The 38% of proud Americans is well below the average of 55% since the question has been asked. In fact, prior to 2015, Gallup had never found those expressing “extreme” pride lower than 55%.
I’ve been speechless since first learning of these results. Certainly, I do not want to be political in trying to share my thoughts. Maybe what I’m missing is a clear understanding of what it means to be American? No, that’s not it. I believe I know it all too well. But possibly I’m just thinking of my own beliefs, and my own interpretation of being American. One that is based upon tradition and what has been reinforced in my mind from my early years.
I reflect upon the many conversations I’ve had with individuals that have become U.S. citizens after immigrating to the U.S. All had expressed their love for America and the opportunities that have been repeatedly put before them. Opportunities that they’ve made sure to capitalize on.
Many of them own their own homes. Several own multiple homes. Many own their own businesses with a few owning a number of locations. Their children have gone on to complete college or have established businesses themselves. I have found most are community leaders — community being within a residential area, within a business group, within a church, within their extended family, and within their ever-expanding network of friends and acquaintances.
Regardless of their ethnicity, I have found them to have similar thoughts, and similar thoughts about being American. That got me thinking… What is the consensus across our country? Not from a poll or survey but from a pointed question about what it means to “be American”. So, I researched it using Google Search with the question, “What does it mean to be American?” Here are some of the results:
What Does It Mean to “Be American”?
In 2014, New York Times reporter Damien Cave traveled the length of highway I-35, which runs south to north through the middle of the United States, for his “The Way North” project. Along the way, he asked 35 people, “What does it mean to be American?”
- Becoming American means following the rules. It means respecting your neighbors, in your own neighborhood. — Francine Sharp, 73, retired teacher in Kansas (born in Kansas)
- If you work hard, you get good things in life. — José, college student/roofer; immigrant without legal status in Tulsa, Oklahoma (born in Mexico)
- Being American is making a change and making good changes. Being American is being welcoming, being caring about other people, being proud of the country. And it’s forgiveness. It’s not holding grudges on anything — I mean, where’s that going to get you? — Natalie Villafranca, 14, in Texas (born in Dallas)
- Being American means protection by the law. Anyone can say whatever they want and, even if I don’t agree with them, they’re still protected by the law it’s my job to enforce. That’s their freedom. That’s their right. — Sean Larkin, 40, sergeant with Tulsa Police Department’s gang unit in Tulsa, Oklahoma (born in Virginia)
- Being American is red, white and blue and being free. It doesn’t matter what language you speak; if you’re born in America, you’re still American. No matter what you look like, no matter what. — Sebastien de la Cruz, 12, student who gained attention, and backlash, when he sang the national anthem during the 2013 NBA finals in a mariachi outfit (born and lives in San Antonio)
- I want all girls, especially girls of color, to know that they can be a part of science. And more than that, they can be leaders in science. I want them to know that, because I know that I am America. That I am science. I’m just the part that people refuse to recognize. — Taylor R., 13, speaking about her ambitions at the March for Science in April 2017
Writing about the relationship of ethnicity and American identity, the historian Philip Gleason put it this way:
To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus, the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.
A high school student shared:
To me, being American is much more than just being an American citizen or living in American. It seems people in America have a responsibility, and an obligation to be the best person they can be. It’s part of being an American, and another part is doing your part to keep society running properly. One of the best things about this place we call home, is that the country is basically run completely by the people inside it. Another great thing about being an American is the ability to have the American dream. In an American Creed article by Forbes, the American dream is described as “anyone, through gumption and hard work, can achieve any degree of financial success.”
America was built on the idea that all men are created equal, and that there shall be liberty and justice for all. However, today our country is split into multiple sections, from our politics, races, and lifestyles. In the past, we still had close to the same diversity, but we were closer as a nation, and didn’t let problems split us apart, rather bring us closer together. Junger, in Tribe, also says, “intact communities are more likely to survive than fragmented ones.” Our nation needs to get back to how people lived community wise, at the beginning of time, where there were tight knit communities.
Being American means to be free and have equal opportunity. Also, to have the ability to do what you want, how you want, and where you want. The amendments are what give us those freedoms, like the freedom of speech, and the freedom of religion. We’ve strayed from our ideals created by the founding fathers, and became more individualistic, and selfish. America needs to get back to the idea that everyone is created equal.
As outlined on USVisaGroup.com:
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “American” as “of or relating to America” or “of or relating to the U.S. or its possessions or original territory. A web search for “the definition of American” reveals similar results — “relating to or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants.” Or “a native or citizen of the United States.”
Defining what it means to be an American isn’t limited to a birthplace but rather a shared set of cultural values and responsibilities. In contrast, an American citizen refers to the legal status that entitles Americans to specific governmental rights and privileges.
Regardless of if you are an American or an American citizen, there are no official definitions that define an American as someone who looks a certain way, practices a particular religion, or speaks one specific language. As a result of shifts in society viewpoints, evolving international relationships, and economic developments, what it means to be American has continued to evolve since the first reference in 1568.
The American Dream
What often draws millions of immigrants to the United States and drives Americans’ ambition is the belief in the American Dream. The American Dream is the idea that everyone has the same opportunity to achieve their goals if they work hard. This idea captures the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize the United States and creates an attractive society for those aspiring to a better life.
Collectively, Americans believe in a standard set of ideals — democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that guide the possibility of achieving the American Dream. According to Wikipedia, the American Dream represents “the freedom and the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”
In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” This belief reflects the shared set of cultural values that define what it means to be an American.
A Shared Set of Values
The belief in the American Dream and living by a shared set of values are deeply embedded in the United States culture. Commonly held values help drive what it means to be an American, set a standard of what’s good and fair in society, and are critical to upholding a culture’s shared beliefs.
While not all Americans share the same views, most Americans share a common set of values. L. Robert Kohls, a renowned author dedicated to research on cultural values, developed a list of 13 commonly held American values:
- Personal control over the environment: Americans believe that they are responsible for taking control of what happens to them. Fate or destiny does not play a part in how their lives turn out but rather hard work and initiative to pursue a better life.
- Change is seen as natural and positive: Change is good and often associated with progress and improvement. To Americans, it’s essential to development and growth.
- Time and its control: Time is considered an important commodity and needs to be used wisely. This philosophy has enabled Americans to be highly productive, and productivity is highly valued in the United States.
- Equality and fairness: Americans believe that all people are “created equal” and should all have the equal opportunity to succeed. People are important as individuals, not from which family they come from.
- Individualism and independence: Americans view themselves as highly individualistic in their thoughts and actions. They believe in the right to express their opinions anywhere at any time. Each person is a unique individual, and a high value is placed on personal style and action.
- Self-help/initiative: Americans take pride in what they can accomplish as individuals, not a part of a collective or as a right of birth. Getting ahead requires individual effort.
- Competition: Competition is seen as bringing out the best in an individual, and free enterprise leads to progress and produces success.
- Future orientation: The past is devalued, and Americans believe that the future will be better and happier. They believe that “the best is yet to come.”
- Action/work orientation: Americans emphasize “doing” and regard what one does for a living as part of their identity. Active engagement and planning are seen as valuable. “Don’t just stand there, do something” is a basic American attitude.
- Informality: High emphasis is placed on a casual approach to many things, including social interactions, clothes, and communication styles.
- Directness/openness/honesty: A preferred approach to negative information is directness, and Americans consider anything other than openness as dishonest and insincere. Honesty is equated with being blunt, and “telling it like it is” is often admired.
- Practicality/efficiency: Practicality is given the highest priority when making important decisions. Americans try to avoid being “too sentimental” when making decisions.
- Materialism/greed: Higher priority is given to obtaining, maintaining, and protecting material objects than developing and enjoying relationships with others. Material objects are viewed as benefits of hard work.
How Americans define “real Americans”
According to a poll by Grinnell College, when asked what it means to be a “real American,” most of those surveyed defined it as the belief in treating people equally and taking responsibility for one’s actions. Accepting people of different racial and religious backgrounds also ranked high, while only 23% of the respondents believed that “real” Americans are those born in the United States.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2044, more than half of all Americans will belong to a group other than non-Hispanic White alone. By 2060, one in five people in the United States will be foreign-born. As time goes on, inclusion will play a key part in what it means to be an American. It no longer makes sense to define “American” as someone born in the United States. As President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1943 and still holds true today, “Americanism is not and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”
The River Reporter, a newspaper based in New York, once asked its readers to define what it means to be an American. Charles A. Rubin, from New York, perfectly captured the ideals of the American Dream, core American values, and the benefits of the immigrant experience in his response,
“To be an American, you need to believe in change. To be a successful American, you must believe that you can be part of that change. America is about debate and differences. It’s new ideas and retaining old traditions. America is the story of immigrant success and hard work. It is sacrifice and building on dreams. America is an experiment still in its early stages that people all over the world are eager to participate in. To me, the appreciation of being an American can only be fully realized by living somewhere else first.”
Is being American the same as being an American?
I’m sure this question can be debated for years to come. Essentially, it comes down to what each of us believes AND how we are committed to making it true. Talking the talk is definitely different than walking the walk.
To me, Lee Greenwood defines it best in his great song, “Proud to be an American” which I believe could just as easily be titled, “Proud to be American” and have similar meaning.
And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend Her still today. ’Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land. God Bless the U.S.A.
Independence Day is all about the U.S, but it’s also about US… for you, me and for US, for all of US.
Have a great day. Make it happen. Make it count. And please stay safe!