National Identity

In 1980, I got into a conversation with the student sitting next to me in freshman English class.  I noticed that he had a T-square in his knapsack.  I asked Patrick if it belonged to him.  That may seem like an odd question – and it was, given that the T-square’s cover had his name on it – but the cover contained additional information: Jamaica, West Indies.  Given that we were attending school in New York, I would not have expected to see a Caribbean island address.  However, that was not what I found most unexpected.  If he were to claim a home outside of the United States, I would have expected to see People’s Republic of China.

Patrick assured me that despite his Asian appearance, he was, in fact, Jamaican.  He refused to speak in a Jamaican dialect when I requested that he do so because I was not Jamaican.  Several months later, I did hear him speak in that dialect with other Jamaican immigrants.  As a 13-year-old, I found this puzzling because I had always “known” that Jamaica was populated with people who descended from Africa.  I had no idea that ethnic Chinese lived on the island.

I thought of this high school experience recently in light of our current national debate on immigration.  I offer the following thought experiment.  Let’s say that in the year 2000 the Jamaican and Chinese governments had agreed on a particular arrangement.  Among the terms of the agreement was that each year 125,000 Chinese citizens (men, women, and children) would emigrate from China to Jamaica.  Given that China is a country of well over one billion people, this migration would have negligible effect on its population.  However, Jamaica, an island with three million people, would be greatly affected by such a migration.  If this agreement had gone into effect in 2000, there would likely be approximate parity between the Chinese and African populations on the island by now.

Let us assume that, like Patrick, the Chinese migrants would assimilate into Jamaican culture: learn English and the Jamaica dialect; learn Jamaican history; eat the same foods; and listen to the same music.  The children, and some of the adults, would, by 2017, be fairly close to being culturally Jamaican.  I wonder about reactions of a black Jamaica-born person, who has lived in the U.S. since the 1990s, visiting Jamaica for the first time since leaving the island?  I suspect he would feel that he was visiting a country he did not recognize.  Jamaica would still have much of the same architecture and infrastructure.  The music on the radio and the streets would be the same.  The food would be much like he remembered.  The language and culture would largely be unchanged.  Still, the island with a 50% Asian population would not look like the home he left two decades ago.  The fact that the ethnic mix of the island had radically changed, would likely make him question whether or not he was actually visiting Jamaica.  “Where did my country go?”

Jamaica has a particular climate (tropical) and terrain (mountains inland and beaches on the coast).  It has a diverse economy (coffee, sugar, bananas, fishing, mining, tourism, etc.).  Most of its residents are Christians with their own dialect and cuisine.  Those things help define the country.  However, a key characteristic of what makes Jamaica Jamaica is the fact that Africans populate and run the place.  Without that characteristic, the island would lose an important trait of what defines it as a nation.

This thought experiment could help shed some light on how we in the United States view ourselves.  We have in our country people who descend from all over the planet.  A person from anywhere in the world can come to America and become a good American.  This includes the beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  We, as Americans, should proceed with caution with the question of legalizing the status of those here in this country illegally.  DACA recipients total about 800,000.  If we legalize them, there will be political pressure to legalize their relatives (parents, siblings, etc.).  If we legalize the relatives, the number will easily be in the millions.  There will be further pressure to give amnesty to just about anyone who is in the country unlawfully, which may total tens of millions.  If we do this – and I believe we should not – we will live in a different country from the one I grew up in.  In the United States, we already have bi-lingual education in some jurisdictions, affirmative action for Hispanics in college admissions, Congressional voting districts designed to guarantee a plurality of Spanish speakers.  We have “press-one-for-English”.  If we accommodate the migrants who did not come here legally, we will have a separate people living here who are unconnected to the founding of the nation.  These are people whose ancestors were not present in significant numbers to fight in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, or World War II.  They were not here during the Great Depression.  In short, these are people who are absent from our cultural memory.  If they are here in significant numbers, the culture will change, the language we speak will change, and the politics will change.  Given their higher birth rates, they will be in a position to take the majority of leadership positions in our government, and possibly change the direction or the future of the country.

This does not have to happen.

Can the citizens of a nation decide what it wants to be?  Can we as a nation decide who we want in the country?  Can Jamaicans decide that they want an African supermajority?  Can the Japanese decide what kind of population it wants?  Can the people of Iceland decide its ethnic character?  Can Americans decide that we do not want to radically change the demographics of our nation?  Can we do so without charges of being racist, xenophobic, or nativist hurled at us?

The charge of racism is a powerful weapon.  The source of this power is the shame felt by white Americans over the historical mistreatment of blacks.  While the history of this mistreatment is ugly and the resulting shame is appropriate, it is a unique circumstance having to do with whites and blacks.  Africans were brought here against their will.  By the time the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865, Africans in this country had no connection to Africa, especially those whose family members had been here legally since the early 1600s.  Blacks were here to stay.  America owed something to blacks and amended the U.S. Constitution and enacted civil rights laws to correct the situation.  Blacks who descend from slaves in America have a legitimate claim to be in the United States.  Discrimination against blacks on account of being black constitutes what we all know to be racism.  America owes nothing to foreigners who come to live here of their own volition, especially those who enter the country unlawfully.  And if the immigrant is of an ethnicity different from those who have occupied this land since the 1600s, Americans have the legitimate authority to limit the number of people of that ethnic group from entering the country.  The stigma of racism in the U.S. should not apply to its immigration policy.

The United States, like other nations, has a cultural identity.  Religiously, we are a nation where the majority of the population practices some form of Christianity, from which our general sense of right and wrong come, which makes its way into our laws.  Linguistically, we are an English-speaking nation, though many speak different languages at home.  Ethnically, we are an Afro-European nation, though throughout much of American history we’ve had other groups smaller in number.  That other has grown to the point in recent years that it should concern us about how it will change America.

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