Ghavri: Tunnel Vision

by Anmol Ghavri | 5/18/16 5:30pm

For all of its flaws and weaknesses, the United States is still an exceptional country. Despite over two hundred and thirty years of change, America is arguably the greatest country in the world now, just as it arguably was back in 1776, when it began as a democratic republic in an age of empires and kingdoms. The world looks to Washington, D.C. for leadership and strength in times of war and peace, in times of darkness and prosperity. In my opinion, Americans are the most diverse, industrious, innovative and hopeful people on earth. Our real GDP and GDP per capita are among the highest in the world, education is widespread, our economy is robust and our society is stable and secure, and Americans pride themselves on having freedom of speech, opportunity for upward mobility and welcoming immigrants from around the world throughout our history.

The defining feature of the American people is that we have constantly rethought what it means to be American as new people from around the world immigrated to the U.S. Today, as in the past, many Americans view immigrants as inherently “un-American” and use them as scapegoats for the challenges facing the country. In reality, there never has existed a form of “pure” American culture that was not always rethought and reshaped – and we will never solve our problems by blaming immigrants for them.

The U.S. has always been a country of immigration, assimilation, change and progress. When imagining an “American,” the image that usually comes to mind is one of a white person, generally of European descent. Yet even these people have ancestors who were immigrants at one point. In 1776, most of the American population consisted of western Europeans and slaves. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a huge influx of Irish and German immigrants. Starting in the late-nineteenth century, southern and eastern Europeans moved en masse to America. This was not without backlash — indeed, nativists saw the new Catholic and Orthodox-Christian immigrants as foreign despite the fact that they themselves had been immigrants until just recently.

Despite this initial backlash, Italian, Polish and Greek cultures are seen as fundamental aspects of the ‘melting pot’ that is America today. Enclaves of Americans who still practice the cultures and speak the languages of their homelands exist in most American cities, and many immigrants have intermingled and assimilated over time with others. We have had a Catholic and a biracial African American president. Some of America’s greatest entrepreneurs, inventors and politicians come from immigrant families. Throughout American history, progress, assimilation and inclusion have won out over conservatism, stagnancy, nativism and isolation.

Yet today we see these same nativist arguments used throughout history leveraged against new immigrants. “They do not have the same values as us.” “They do not speak English.” “They do not look like us.” “They will steal ‘our’ jobs.” More recently, now-Republican Party nominee for president, Donald Trump, added to the fray his own criticisms of Hispanics, saying that “they’re bringing drugs...they’re bringing crime...they’re rapists.” This sort of rhetoric “otherizes” immigrants using the qualities of their worst cases, and the fact that such rhetoric has seeped even to the upper echelons of government is disturbing.

Nativist, essentialist and tunnel vision views of what it means to be American — what it means to be “foreign” and who “can” and “cannot” be an American — only hurt the U.S. in the long run. We live in an increasingly globalized world. Spanish and Chinese are more widely spoken worldwide than English, and Spanish, in particular, is quickly catching up to English in the U.S. Yet there has been significant pushback against this in the U.S., which has implications for American foreign relations. Conservative politicians often treat speaking Spanish as taboo. To appear more “American,” conservatives like Ted Cruz have claimed to speak lousy Spanish, only later to be revealed to actually be fluent. Evidently, those who desire a “pure” form of “American” culture see speaking a foreign language as an indicator of suspect national loyalty or limited intelligence. This has consequently led to the suppression of Spanish speaking in favor of English in some cases, as in the American southwest. Such measures and attitudes have woefully left Americans behind the rest of the world in multicultural awareness and multilingualism – despite America’s melting pot culture.

This tunnel vision worldview still exists today even among many influential Americans. I have hope that progress will ultimately win, and that new immigrants will be welcomed and allowed to contribute fundamentally to American society, as they have in the past. I have faith that, as my generation grows older and more politically aware, the old guard of “pure” American culture and values will move aside for a more inclusive, mixed and diverse American society. Being American is not simply valuing “freedom,” speaking English exclusively and being white — it is being hopeful that each generation will be better off than its parents. It is valuing the freedom of speech and assembly, and contributing to America’s melting pot culture. It is speaking multiple languages and being multiethnic or multiracial. We must recognize that there never has existed a single type of “American” or “American culture,” and understanding the nuances and complexities of immigrants and foreign cultures is increasingly important as the U.S. continues to dominate global affairs and attract a global community.