Tomorrow morning I am giving that 90-minute lecture on American identity. I will start by soliciting characterizations of the US and throw some stereotypes out myself (both good and bad). Then I am presenting data on the diversity of the American population (ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual orientation, dietary choices, political views, etc etc). I introduce the idea of creedal and primordial nationhood, talk about the American creed and the narrative of the “nation of immigrants.” I talk a bit about contemporary immigration and Chinese immigrants in particular. Then I say that consideration of the historical Chinese immigration elucidates the fact that the US is not open and welcoming to all. The US is, in fact, a gatekeeping nation (Erika Lee, At America’s Gates) that seeks to limit access to “the American dream.” Restrictions on immigration have usually been racist – often explicitly so. I run down the key facts and laws from Chinese Exclusion in 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1965 that largely eliminated racist immigration quotas and talk about the significance of the ’65 act when it comes to understanding modern America from Obama’s immigrant narrative to Sarah Palin’s “real America.” I then suggest that, in the face of the mess I have just laid out, the US does not self-destruct for 4 reasons:
1. Belief in the creed (implicitly, of course).
2. A political process that provides regular “regime change.” 3. The continued belief in the chance for economic security and prosperity.
4. Opportunities for social engagement and activism within the civil sphere.
I wanted to include a more microsociological point about how it stays together because we just keep on doing what we do every day – the national/political imaginings being to some extent irrelevant to daily life- but I have decided to leave that out for this audience (undergrads and Chinese scholars of American culture) even though it likely trumps the others.