In the centuries of immigration and other forms of matriculation to US soil, there have been many cases of hyphenated expressions of nationality. Sometimes these were an innocuous affinity for the fatherland and the plight of those still living there. Sometimes these were derogatory terms that sought to single out one or more ethnicities as problems or as something to be avoided or controlled. And, finally, hyphenation became a way of procuring special favor as an underclass. But, only in the last few decades has hyphenation become a force in creating rifts in the America culture.
Before the United States of America raised its unified head on American soil, European powers all had colonial interests in the New World. But one wasn’t inclined to speak of hyphenated people. The colonists were English, overall. Those that had immigrated from other countries were absorbed into the English colonies and not considered to have allegiances elsewhere. Yet they were called what they were, Dutch, German, French, and the like, as a reference to whence they had come. Except for a few that purposely worked on behalf of their home countries, motives for being in the colonies were not in question.
After 1781, all within the boundaries of the new United States, outside of ambassadors and the like, were considered American citizens. Never was any thought given to the land from which they might originally have come and in which they might have had loyalties. There was, of course, one particular group who did not have equal citizenship. It was to take another 80 years to remedy this situation, so that all people, regardless of ethnicity, could simple call themselves, which no strings attached, American citizens.
Once the great American mistake was fixed, and America began to come to prominence, the numbers of immigrants swelled. During this time, one’s country of origin became an issue, and the hyphenating of Americans created a chain of events that would work toward the downfall of the America ideal.
It started with the Irish. For some reason, the Irish were considered to be black and were subject to the same prejudices of American blacks. But, the Irish were not going to acquiesce to such treatment, especially as their ranks swelled and they fought their way (often literally) into political prominence. To help there cause, and also to protect their new-found base for much of their employment, the West, the Irish had to come up with another ethnicity on which to blame societal problems. Along came the Chinese.
The Chinese were wooed to America as America’s Manifest Destiny began to spread out over the Pacific in search of new trade routes. As China was then languishing in the aftermath of the Boxer rebellion and the Opium Wars, promises of good jobs and pay lured many of them to America. Some of them were hired to replace lost black slaves in the South, and treated pretty much like slaves. They subsequently revolted and thus ceased the majority of agrarian Chinese labor. In California and the West, however, they proved to be tireless workers just as the railroad was being stretched to the Pacific. However, they worked too well, which didn’t leave jobs for the Irish. So, the Irish lead the way in halting Chinese immigration. This made the Chinese-America a miniscule minority indeed until the mid 1900’s found us allied with China against Japanese aggression.
It was during this Japanese agression, linked, of course, with Germany in the Axis powers, that German-Americans ceased to worship in German, talk in German, and promote their German heritage. Suddenly, Germans who had been in America for generations, were suspect to be sympathetic to Hitler’s Germany. Of course, that was hardly ever the case. Nor was it the case the Japanese-Americans were suddenly going to rise up en masse and help the Japanese Army defeat America. But, the Japanese could not disappear into the mass of America as the Germans could do. Most of them were stripped of their possessions and placed in camps for the duration of the war.
Italians were also singled out when they started coming to this country. Their response was a lot like the Irish. They fought their ways to respectability. Many of them did so by taking over. It’s called the Mafia. They still have their fingers in everything, including having elected at least two presidents.
Then there are the Jewish Americans. Oi y’veh, wouldn’t they just love it if everyone just let them be Americans already. And yet the Jews are peculiar. Although they don’t practice the same religion anymore, they all still talk of being the chosen people. They are one of the few ethnic groups that retains a nationality despite not having a homeland for 2000 years. They have one now, but hardly any of them want to live in it. Yet they haven’t assimilated as well as they might have hoped over the years. They didn’t just because Russian, Polish, English, German, etc. And they aren’t particularly united in calling Palestine their homeland, since most of them have never lived there. But, when the American flag is raised and the National anthem is sung, they sing right along with the rest of us.
Finally, let’s get back to the blacks. For 100 years after they gained full rights of citizenry, most black only wanted to be Americans, like everyone else. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t so easy to blend in. In the 1960’s just as the blacks were about to finally integrate along with everyone else, along came black power and drove the other way. Even that couldn’t stop most blacks from assimilating until the new segregationists of the 60’s rose to power and demanded that we all re-hyphenate. The American Indian benefited to some degree and is now more correctly labeled a native-American. This, of course, is confusing as well, though. After all, I was born in America, of American citizens, which thus makes me a native American too, even though I am German-American and probably a little Jewish-American as well.
As an American of German descent, I appreciate my German heritage. And yet I have no desire to repatriate nor do I have any affinity for Germany in German-American affairs. I just like bratwurst. I don’t go around calling myself German-American, because I’m not longer German at all. I pledge allegiance to the the United States of America. Only. I think it’s cool that America has so many ethnic groups all thrown together, adding diversity to our culture. I also think it’s cool that we all speak one language and follow one set of laws. I don’t think it’s cool that we make laws that try to separate people into factions. I don’t think it’s cool that, since the 60’s we have tried to tear down our culture in favor of multi-culture. After all, we are not the Divided States of America. Although all this hyphenating (pro-choice, pro-life) is certainly taking us there.
In conclusion, not much good ever comes from hyphenating Americans. It causes brutality, divisions, persecutions, confusion, distraction, and general malaise. It’s where we found ourselves in the 70’s. Then we crawled out of it in the 80’s, only to have spiraled back down into it 20 years later. I hope we can get past hyphenated America again soon, before there’s no America left to hyphenate.