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.