As the United States prepares to celebrate the inauguration of its first African-American president, it showcases again one of the best aspects of its national identity. Though it took more than 200 years to reach this point, foreign observers, especially in Europe, marvel at Barack Obama’s ascendancy. They recognize from their own relative marginalization of people of color or of immigrants that no French, German, Italian, or British Obama is on the horizon, and they wonder: how does America do it?
America certainly has its flaws and its struggles over race and national identity, but it also has much to be proud of in terms of how it assimilates those with foreign or minority backgrounds. Obama’s example – and that of his newly formed cabinet, which includes many accomplished leaders from ethnic or racial “out-groups” – holds useful lessons for other nations, particularly in Western Europe.
So what is it that America is doing right?
First, America’s national story is different in essence from those of Western European nations. The French story is that of French-ness, the British story one of British-ness; by definition, newcomers are “less than” or “outside of” this narrative. But the American national drama is the drama of immigration: everyone, except Native Americans, came from somewhere else. All who are now part of the national elite have ancestors who came, often bedraggled and harassed, from somewhere else.
Indeed, in America the qualities that lead people to become immigrants – initiative, ambition, risk-taking – are lionized. Immigrants are seen as arriving on a journey of continual reinvention, driven to exceed their opportunities in their countries of origin. By contrast, immigrants in Western Europe were invited to fill low-status jobs, creating a built-in incentive for natives to see them and their children as a servant class, incapable of entering, let alone leading, the larger society. Moreover, unlike America, Western Europe must live with the uneasy conscience stirred by immigrants whose very presence serves as a reminder of a history of colonialism. In this sense, the relationship between native-born and new Americans starts out “cleaner.”
Second, Americans don’t demand that immigrants regard their cultural or ethnic background as being in contrast to or in opposition to their American-ness. Everyone gets to be hyphenated. By contrast, when identity is presented as being a stark choice, people often do not choose the identity of the host country that is being so inflexible.
As a result, Britain, France, and The Netherlands contain deeply entrenched subcultures of alienated, radicalized Muslim youth. But, while they and other radical Muslims around the world may hate Americans, it is hard to imagine a more Americanized, suburbanized immigrant subculture than Muslim immigrants in the US. Rather then listening to radical clerics, they are busy assimilating, sending their kids to law and medical school, barbequing on weekends, and going to (American) football games – all while still maintaining devout ties to their religion and community. That has not changed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, despite rising hostility toward US Muslims among native-born Americans, based the assumption that they could not assimilate (a charge often directed in the past at Jews in various countries).
More generally, Americans view immigrants as being welcome to combine their culture of origin with their new American-ness, while immigrants see no conflict between their ethnicity and religion and their embrace of America. And, most significantly when it comes to assessing the ease of integration over time, they fully expect their kids to be completely, unhesitantly “American” – a promise that, by and large, is readily fulfilled.
How different it is in Western Europe. Three generations after West Indians began immigrating en masse to the United Kingdom, Caribbean-descended Britons still doubt that their children or grandchildren will ever be seen as fully British. Turkish Gastarbeiter are still, two generations later, not seen as fully German. And the unrest of the children and grandchildren of Algerian, West African, and Moroccan immigrants in the French banlieues attest to France’s failure to assimilate its immigrant population, despite the Republic’s official egalitarian rhetoric.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Americans separate Church and State. As long as there is a Church of England, if you are Jewish or Muslim or Sikh, there is a subtle level at which you will simply not feel fully English. But because the US Founders – many of them descended from people fleeing official religious persecution – guaranteed that there would never be a state-sanctioned religion, no religious group in America, no matter how small, is made to feel marginalized.
It is for this reason that Americans are not alarmed by visible symbols of different religions in public settings. It is assumed that since religion is a private matter for everyone, personal religious symbols are just that – personal. A Muslim girl who wears a headscarf in a public school is simply wearing a headscarf, not provocatively challenging a hegemonic social order.
Fourth, America is defined in terms of a set of values that everyone can share, not as a lineage, a specific history, and a geographical area. Immigrant kids who go to US schools learn that America – ideally – is about freedom, aspiration, and tolerance. The history that they learn about their new home illustrates how the US fulfills (or falls short of) those ideals, whereas an immigrant schoolchild in Europe learns less about ideals and more about a monarchical lineage, a set of historical events, and a roster of “great men.”
If Western Europe took a leaf from the US, it would be more peaceful within its own borders and better able to use the talents and leadership of its Turkish, Algerian, Caribbean, and other immigrants. Only then would we see a British, French, Dutch, or German Obama.