We can see this change in how people feel about America and their Americanness in the sentiments expressed by folks, including Norma above, who spoke to The New York Times on the day Biden and Kamala Harris took the oath of office.
“It’s a relief,” Norma Luna [age 49, of Killeen, Texas] cried as she watched the ceremony. “I didn’t think we could get here. We’re proud to be Americans again.”
In Annandale, Va., Isra Chaker, 30, an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers at Oxfam America, felt unburdened of the need to justify her “Americanness” during the Trump administration — even though she was born and raised by Syrian immigrants in Boulder, Colo.
“Today I know that I belong here,” Ms. Chaker, a Muslim who wears a hijab, said. “It was reaffirmed that we are all America and America is all of us.”
We can all certainly understand why Luna, Chaker, and others feeling the way they do. Going further, I want to encourage every American to separate their feelings about the country we share from the policies its leaders may implement in any given period of time, no matter how horrid. (To be clear, that can also include when Democrats in charge act in ways with which we disagree.) Consider Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of The 1619 Project, a publication that offers a valuable corrective to our public discourse on the history of racism in America—and which, only slightly less satisfyingly, manages to drive Republicans completely batty.
In addition to overseeing the Project, which was published in The New York Times in August 2019—when four more years of Trump in the White House seemed at least a 50-50 proposition—Hannah-Jones penned the introductory essay. She opened the piece with a straightforward statement: “My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard.” Hannah-Jones then traced 400 years of American history, including the story of her own family—specifically her father, his relationship to America, and how her view of that relationship changed over time. Of course, the relationship was not so straightforward.
Hannah-Jones goes on to explain that her father was born at the end of World War II; he joined the army in 1962, aspiring to advance and earn a better life for himself and his family. He’d also “hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.” That didn’t happen, Hannah-Jones related; the discrimination he faced mirrored that of so many African Americans of his time—as well as too many today.
Despite this mistreatment, Hannah-Jones’ father never wavered in his patriotism, his feeling of connection to his country, and his pride in being American. She explained how this made her feel.
When I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this Black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused Black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours.
That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Later on, however, Hannah-Jones developed a different understanding. After years of reflection and experience, she came to see things the way her father did. She owned her birthright as an American, and proclaimed the centrality of Black Americans’ experience and struggle to our country’s uneven journey toward equality.
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights … Black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers’ … No people has a greater claim to that flag than us … It was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
Hannah-Jones offers an important lesson. Democrats must not let Republicans—Trump or any others—own love of country, or define what it means to be a proud American, or patriotic in a way that precludes calling for change and fighting for greater justice. Awareness that our country isn’t yet at the place it should be—and determination to make it better—should not prevent us from feeling part of the American community, and identifying with the country as our own. We don’t have to perform patriotism in a way that mimics the blind worship too many Republicans display as part of declaring themselves patriots, or “real” Americans. True patriotism demands a lot more of us than a flag-printed shirt.
Progressives like to say that it's patriotic to criticize and to protest—and we're right! It's important for us to live up to both sides of that statement. We must proclaim our dissent and our patriotism. In fact, we speak out because we are patriotic—in the way Hannah-Jones and her father define the term. Another American defined patriotism in the same spirit, just four weeks before Hannah-Jones’ essay was published.
Although he’s far from the first Republican to claim a monopoly on love of country for his party, Trump’s efforts were especially divisive. Many Republicans want to define Americanness, patriotism, and how one expresses pride in being a part of the American story in a very limited way—as Trump tried to do with that ridiculous, false, and ahistorical “report” spit out two days before the inauguration by his so-called “1776 Commission.”
One of the very first actions President Biden took was to consign that ideologically diseased body and the pablum it published to the dustbin of history.
On that same day, our country’s first youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, spoke about pride and our history in a manner that couldn’t differ more from what was contained in the aforementioned Trumpist manifesto: “being American is more than a pride we inherit, it's the past we step into and how we repair it.”
Gorman also took note of the very recent past—events that took place two weeks prior—before speaking with optimism about our future: “We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” Looking forward again, Gorman characterized our country as “a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished.”
None of the women quoted here are going to let anyone take their patriotism and feeling of Americanness away from them. But it is reasonable to question the degree to which America writ large embraces these women’s inclusive vision of who is an American and what America, in broad terms, should stand for. Certainly, there is a large bloc that does not, and it managed to hold power for four long years that, for the most vulnerable among us, likely seemed unending.
Yet I would argue that the results of four consecutive presidential elections held over the past dozen years indicates that, yes, more of America agrees with the women of color quoted above than not. In each contest, diversity, inclusion, and democratic pluralism were on the ballot in a more direct way than they had ever been before.
In 2008, by a robust margin of almost 10 million, or 7.25%, Americans declared their preference for an African American president who placed a conception of a unified, multiracial democracy at the core of his campaign (as well as his presidency). Four years later they did so again, by a still-impressive margin of 5 million.
And in 2016, a woman, Democrat Hillary Clinton, ran by putting anti-racism out front, and declared that we are “stronger together.” Her opponent slandered as “rapists, murderers, and drug dealers” those human beings coming to our country from Mexico. American voters chose the anti-racist by almost 3 million. The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (Twice) became president not because his vision of America garnered more support, but because our deeply flawed, undemocratic system of electing presidents overweights white, rural parts of the country.
And last fall, after four years of terror under a white nationalist president who played and preyed on white racial and cultural anxiety about our country’s shifting demographics, Americans decided, by a healthy margin of 7 million, to toss him out in favor of a ticket that not only included a Black and South Asian woman, but that centered its campaign around pointed opposition to that white nationalist hatred.
We’ve had four national referendums since 2008, and each time the inclusive vision of America won the most votes, defeating opponents at the top of the ticket who in the first two instances were often indifferent or worse toward it and, in the last two, expressed violent hostility toward it. As Chris Hayes wrote this week in The Atlantic, right now “our politics (are) shaping up as a contest between the growing ideological hegemony of liberalism, and the intensifying opposition of a political minority that has proved willing to engage in violence in order to hold on to power.”
Do we have unanimity in favor of inclusion? Far from it. Nevertheless, I’m cautiously optimistic that we have a critical mass of Americans standing on the right side of things, so that we’ll be able to continue to make progress. Think of how much progress we’ve made just since Obama took office, even while considering how far we've yet to go. The newly inaugurated President Biden spoke in similar terms about progress on Jan. 20.
Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.
The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured. Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our “better angels” have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.
I loved Biden’s formulation: “enough of us.” It’s realistic in that he recognizes we may never convince everyone, yet it reminds us that we don’t have to in order to move forward, toward finally bringing our founding ideals to life for all Americans. But while the struggle continues, I hope that those who want to deny the American birthright or the status of “real American” to some of us based on their race, religion, country of origin, or background don’t succeed in convincing anyone to surrender their rightful place as Americans.
How we identify ourselves may sometimes seem like an abstraction, an idea that happens just in the mind; how we talk about our identity may sometimes seem like just words. But ideas and words matter because they motivate us. What a person thinks and says about themselves shapes the actions they take, and helps inspire others to take actions as well. Regardless of whether you want to fly the American flag like Hannah-Jones’ dad, I hope we can all follow the example he and his daughter set of embracing our membership in what President Obama called, back in 2004 and many times since, the “single American family.”
The deniers, the exclusionists, and the Trumpists are the minority, and they know it; they are stuck in a dark past they can never bring back. The majority see all Americans as full members of the national community and want to join together in a shared future based on justice and equality. Now is the time to make America the great country it absolutely can be.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)