In 1916, progressive President Woodrow Wilson led a parade of 60,000 from the Capitol Building to the White House in Washington,D.C. He was extolling the virtues of Flag Day, then June 14, and was also seeking re-election.
In his speech then, he called for all Americans to abandon hyphenated Americanism. That is, identifying Americans by their country of origin. For example, Japanese-Americans or African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. It’s currently “in-vogue” to do so, but it’s also wise for progressive President
Wilson’s admonition that doing so likely diminishes a person’s heritage as an American citizen, instead calling attention to a person’s ancestry.
Yes, it’s a change, but using hyphenation benefits the listener’s understanding of a person’s background, but also unfairly reinforces one’s prejudices or biases perhaps against an interest group. Anyone’s bias against any interest group identified by ancestry is enhanced by such hyphenation.
Is it not better to simply identify someone as an American, thereby reserving judgment simply because of one’s heritage or ethnic background?
Wilson once said about hyphenation, speaking of his appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brandeis — identified as a Jewish-American — “I cannot speak too highly of his impartial, impersonal, orderly, and constructive mind, his rare analytical powers, his deep human sympathy, his profound acquaintance with the historical roots of our institutions … .”
Though Brandeis retired from the court in 1939, he was used as an example of the kind of hyphenation Wilson deplored, and called upon all Americans to end.
Color blindness is laudable. Hyphenated Americanism compels us to ignore color blindness, by drawing attention to a person’s heritage.
Theodore Roosevelt, who sought the presidency in 1916, deplored hyphenation, called it a “split identity.”
In a 1915 speech to a Catholic audience, Roosevelt said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans … . The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of it continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to be a nation of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preferring its separate nationality, each heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic … .”
Those who defend hyphenation do so arguing that lack of hyphenation disrespects someone’s heritage, their origins and how they shape us today. Hyphenation creates unity, particularly among hyphenated groups, they argue, and doesn’t detract from a hyphenated person’s patriotism or allegiance to the U.S., instead magnifying loyalty as it identifies one with an interest group.
While the fear of Wilson’s era was for unity on the eve of World War I and the need for Americans to feel united as war approached, there’s no fear today like over 100 years ago.
Immigration was increasing as the new century brought many Europeans who sought American citizenship, though the new citizens were not fully or immediately integrated into American society.
Even though there’s now national uncertainty about the threat of war, from Iran, Russia or North Korea, and whether the American government is prepared or not, there is no compelling need to continue to hyphenate Americanism — today’s world is different than the world that existed in 1915-16.
At immigration ceremonies in America’s federal courts, citizenship applicants (unless they seek dual citizenship) give up their allegiance to their former country in favor of American citizenship and pledge their allegiance to their new country. There is no reason to hold on to their heritage except for the social identity it affords citizens.
Their heritage, to the extent it is relevant or they wish it otherwise revealed, can be presented in ways other than hyphenation in order to prevent the kind of division that currently exists. America doesn’t need additional means of social or cultural division.
America is at a different place culturally than it was on the eve of World War I, but even so.
Americans should be united in their search for color blindness. Hyphenation by its very nature divides us. Our federal courts have sought color blindness and society should now reject hyphenated Americanism as divisive and counterproductive to unification. Now is the time that the American public should do so, too, and strive for color blindness as a society.
Perhaps an enterprising congressperson will see fit to offer legislation banning hyphenated Americanism.
George R. Nethercutt Jr. served five terms in the House from the 5th Congressional District as a Republican after defeating House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat, in 1994, Nethercutt is the founder and chairman of The George Nethercutt Foundation.