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Who Counts as an American?

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by Roberto Rodriguez


It appears that an all-points bulletin has been issued in search of this nation’s soul. It is no secret that the current administration’s policies, including its budget priorities, have triggered a profound questioning of this nation’s beliefs and ethos.

In effect, it is war, over people.

This is not metaphorical, but actual choices being made by the current administration: the Pentagon, Wall Street and the Border Wall versus Meals on Wheels and Sesame Street. Translation: Bombs, prisons and profit versus the needs of human beings, seniors, children, and education.

And yet, it is not so much these anti-human policies and choices, but the very existence of this administration that has caused people to profoundly question everything regarding the roots and foundation of this nation, including what it means to be an American.

Without question, the face of this nation is now officially pro-war, White supremacist, misogynist, and anti-grandpa and anti-grandma. It is also anti-science, anti-clean air and anti-clean water. And yes, both the president and the GOP hates puppies, too. One truly cannot make this up. And that’s why the question of what it means to be an American in the age of a so-called fake president has come to the fore.

But even this question is wrong. In effect, what is already being asked by this administration is, who is an American? The easy answer, as we are seeing, is a throwback to the 1950s. On the surface, the color brown is out, but so are all other colors other than White. Therein is the embodiment of what “Make America Great Again” alludes to. It is “Leave it to Beaver” America. A large part of the U.S. electorate wants to go back to that era, to those times.

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Yes, those were the good old days. That was the America that was officially segregated. It was when this nation’s major colleges and universities were all-White. The good ol’ days of Jim Crow. It is the America that conservatives speak of, regarding the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution and their “original intent.” It is the one represented by former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and now the president’s choice to succeed him, Judge Neil Gorsuch. It is the America they wish to return to, but that would also now include Jose and Juanita Crow.

This is now a government that seeks to leave out and exclude brown people from this nation that wants to hunt them down and imprison them the way it has always imprisoned its Black population. Make America White again. That is not a slogan, but a pathway toward apartheid America. We are already there politically, but now fast approaching it racially and religiously. Yes, the hallmark of this administration is to keep Muslims out also.

That’s why people are truly beginning to question the fundamental character of this nation. But asking the question what does it mean to be an American? That in itself is part of the problem. Before answering such a question, what should never be forgotten, ever, is that every square inch of this nation sits stop indigenous land. In fact, every square inch of this continent remains indigenous. Let that sink in. That in part is what Standing Rock represents and what should be taken into account when answering these profound questions about the future of this country.

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If it cannot be acknowledged that this nation was founded upon genocide, land theft and slavery, then asking the question about what it means to be an American is less than useless and actually pompous. It is to willfully ignore the true roots of this nation. They are uncomfortable and, often, invisibilized truths.

The question that instead needs to be asked is: what does it mean to be a human being? This is the question that needs to be asked in relationship to both the fragile planet that we live in, but also in relationship, not simply to all other human beings, but to all other living beings. If we cannot do that, then we might as well continue to believe that Americans are at the center of the universe and that the needs of this country are the only priorities that are important on this ailing planet.

Answering this question should be a challenge to students at all levels, including every college and university in this country. What it means to be a human being is a question that should continually be asked, and actually, no one should be excluded from providing the answer. That is the problem when asking the other question: who gets to define?

At the moment, outlaw and illegitimate billionaires, crony capitalists and militarists, hell-bent on worldwide war and American worldwide domination, are defining both what it means to be an American and what this nation should look like.

The same actors should definitely not be in charge of answering the more important question regarding the meaning of what it means to be human. Besides, they both do not know the answer, nor do they care to engage in such a dialogue.

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Dr. Roberto Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona.

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