An American Editor

June 9, 2010

Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation?

Today’s paper New York Times had a front page article spotlighting the Republican primary in South Carolina that described Nikki Haley, candidate for governor, as “an Indian-American,” as if this was a reason to vote for or against her. USA Today reported today that Hispanics — both illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens — are leaving Arizona in anticipation of the new anti-immigration law becoming effective in a few weeks (see Documenting Me).

Hyphenation is a tricky topic because people want a group identity, but unlike anywhere else in the world, Americans are hyphenated. I haven’t yet met a hyphenated British, Jamaican, Algerian, German, Mexican, Brazilian person, only of hyphenated Americans.

We speak of ourselves as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, even though our connection to Mexico, Ireland, or Africa is really tenuous. If someone tells me they are Mexican-American, I wonder whether that means they are immigrants just recently naturalized as American citizens or that they are Americans of Mexican descent (and if the latter, are they Mexican on both sides and for how many generations have they lived in America).

Here’s my question: If they were born in the United States, or were naturalized, aren’t they simply Americans?

Okay, I understand that this is an attempt by some of us to keep a link with a past with which we really have little familiarity or solidarity. And I also understand that it is an attempt by some to have a handy way to categorize others — either favorably or unfavorably. But if my paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia, my paternal grandmother from Poland, my paternal grandfather from Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my maternal grandmother was born in America (but her father emigrated from Germany and her mother from Spain), and both my parents and I were born in the United States, what am I?

What link should I keep? Why choose one link above the others? Does it matter that, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer exists? If I emigrate from the United Kingdom, is my hyphen United Kingdom, British, English, Scotch, Welch, Anglo, Saxon, Celtic, Irish, Jute, French (remember 1066)? If from my hodgepodge background I choose, say, Russian and declare myself Russian-American, what am I really saying about myself? What useful (and accurate) information am I really conveying to someone when I respond by saying “Russian-American” — especially as I have never been to Russia and only know it by what I read?

How many generations back should I go to establish my hyphen? I suppose we could all claim to be African-Americans if science is correct that our first ancestors did come from Africa. How tenuous a connection is acceptable?

I am not suggesting that we should not appreciate or celebrate our roots; after all, somewhere along the line those roots made us what we are. But for those of us who were born in the United States or who became naturalized citizens, isn’t it enough to simply say we are Americans?

“Why,” you ask (I’m sure), “are you raising this issue? Is it really an important matter?” Good questions; let me see if I can provide satisfactory answers.

When we classify ourselves by hyphenation, we separate ourselves from other hyphens. After all, we all know that a Mexican-American is not the same as an Irish-American. When we hear the hyphenated identity, we conjure up specific images. We group ourselves, and our interests, in accordance with the left side of the hyphen rather than with the right side. And this is tragic. We see the tragedy in, for example, the discussions regarding immigration. No one views the struggle to solve America’s immigration problem as solving an American problem; it is viewed as solving (or addressing) a hyphenation problem. For example, Mexican-Americans and Latino-Americans view the troubles in Arizona as being discriminatory against them.

But without hyphenation the perspective changes. The solutions, or where someone falls in the spectrum of solutions, may not change, but the perception of the problem changes. No one asks now why it is okay for other countries to limit the immigration of Americans (no hyphenation) but it is not okay for the United States to limit immigration of prehyphenates. Mexico objects to our limiting Mexican immigration but no one objects to Mexico’s limits on American immigration. Why? Because of hyphenation. The problem gets mischaracterized into a problem of hyphenation rather than of America. The problem is viewed as a restriction on the Mexican part of Mexican-American.

Are we electing presidents and governors and senators and other officeholders based on their hyphenation or on their qualification. I think if the former, it is a sad commentary on us.

Isn’t it offensive that Americans and legal immigrants believe they must flee Arizona, a state they have a right to live in, just to avoid being harassed. It certainly offends me to think that Americans have to flee America to avoid being harassed for being American or where they have a right to be.

Hyphenation does have a role to play today and certainly had a much larger role to play not so many decades ago. But hasn’t the time come when we should all just be Americans and unhyphenated? Yes, we should continue to celebrate ancestral days with parades and festivals and cultural organizations and activities — after all, what makes America great and different from everywhere else is the variety of nationalities that melded together, and continue to meld together, to create America. But perhaps we should just be Americans, without hyphenation.

Perhaps once we all think of ourselves as simply Americans, we will discover that we can, together, solve America’s problems — the universal problems that affect us all as Americans — and overcome the rancor that now pervades the political process. I do my part: When asked what I am, I always answer “American” — no hyphenation needed!


April 26, 2010

Documenting Me

As you know, this is not a political blog. But sometimes I just have to stray into the political arena, which is where this article is headed.

For those who follow the news, Arizona’s legislature has passed and its governor has signed a new law that is supposed to discourage illegal immigration. The law authorizes law enforcement officers to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship. And to make sure law enforcement does its job, the law authorizes citizens who believe officers are not diligent enough to sue the government agencies to force more vigorous efforts.

I’m canceling my vacation to Arizona.

I have lots of problems with this law but I’ll focus on the fundamental flaw that compels me to sidestep Arizona: How do I prove I’m a citizen?

We do not have national identity cards. Last I looked, New York, where I live, doesn’t issue New York Proof of Citizenship cards. I have a driver’s license, but all that proves is that I’m licensed to drive, not that I’m a citizen. My Social Security card? We all know fake ones are readily available and the real ones don’t carry any personal identifying information.

Would a birth certificate do it? Mine doesn’t have any identifying information on it so what does showing it prove? That I have a piece of paper that says somone with my name was to born to my parents on such a date in such a place. Doesn’t seem to me to prove anything.

I suppose I could carry a passport, but as a citizen I object to being forced to obtain a passport to travel to Arizona. Arizona is still part of the United States, isn’t it?

My New York accent would immediately identify me as a foreigner in Arizona. Under the law, that’s probably probable cause enough to demand proof that I’m a citizen — we all know that New York is a magnet for immigrants. I’d sure hate to be stopped by one of those stereotypical southern sheriffs whose got a bug up his behind about New Yorkers.

Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve our union, but Arizona may be onto a way to bust it apart. Imagine if every state enacted a similar law and erected a perimeter of border guards to check citizenship at every entry point. Suddenly we’d be citizens of a state rather than of a nation, but it sure would be a great way for one state to keep out the riffraff of another state.

Even more problematic is how the Republican vanguard in Arizona has done a 180-degree turnabout by enacting this legislation. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republicans of the west and southwest led the fight opposing a national identity card. Who wants big government to be able to identify its citizens! Imagine what our federal government could do to us, its citizens, if we had national identity cards — it might be able to find tax scofflaws and those who flee parking tickets. (Of course, it might also better enable us to fight terrorism and locate child abductors.) There is no unthinkable abuse that we citizens would/could not suffer — at least that’s what we were led to believe by the anti-ID Republicans.

But as is typical of politicians, Republican doublespeak here is really a roundabout way for the Republican party to support national identity cards without having to come right out and say so. The best way to stop illegal immigration is through use of a national identity card. Clearly the enhanced driver’s license idea isn’t working.

Arizona Republicans have given the federal government the perfect excuse/reason to require national identity cards — to prove citizenship — and to require that they be carried on one’s person 24/7/365 — in case one has to prove citizenship to an Arizona law enforcement officer. (Do you think Arizona will have special citizenship-checking lines at airports? What about trains as they pass through Arizona on the way to California? If you are going to insist that only citizens and legally present folk can use Arizona facilities, shouldn’t you do this right? Hmmm, perhaps this is really a full-employment law in disguise. How many more law enforcement officers will it take to check the identity lines at the local burger joint? Oh, those sneaky Republicans — no bailouts for them, just backdoor employment opportunities.)

I’m not personally opposed to national identity cards; what I am opposed to is political doublespeak, something that Arizona politicians seem to have mastered with this law. They demand you prove something that you really can’t easily prove under our current system. Under our current system, we work on the basis of trust.

We trust that the birth certificate I display really is mine and that it is legitimate. We trust the political agency that issued it and that the information was recorded correctly (well, except in the case of Hawaii, whose birth records are awful suspicious thus Arizona’s other new bit of legislation requiring presidential candidates to prove they are natural born citizens — or is it just in case John McCain runs again?). We do a lot of fundamental trusting — unless you live in Arizona and your name has a non-American flavor to it or your skin color is non-American.

Now if only Arizona could explain what makes a name or skin coloration non-American (a country and state of immigrants, it should be noted), I’d sleep better at night — but I still wouldn’t travel to Arizona. Who knows how long I’d be there trying to prove I truly am a citizen.

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