Ever since last September, I've thought a lot about what it means to be an American. What makes us a nation, a people? It's not ethnic background. (Our roots go back to places all over the world.) It's not racial identity. (We come in all colors and blends.) It's surely not religious belief. (The entire spectrum is represented here.) It's not the landscape. (Deserts, mountains, plains, forests, oceans and vast lakes influence but do not define us.) It's not even a cultural tradition. The language, the life styles and the economic conditions in this country could all change drastically, yet one could still be as much an American as anyone has been since 1776.
Being American is not in the tongue, in the blood, or in the skin. It has to do with something we hold in common—our commitment to democracy, our belief in human freedom and our regard for both civil rights and civil responsibilities. Anyone who comes to this country and embraces these same values can qualify as a true "American." In this sense, not all native-born U.S. citizens are such "Americans," and not all true "Americans" residing here have citizenship. Being American is in the heart and in the head.
To be American is to be an idealist but not a utopian. Our failures to fulfill democratic, egalitarian ideals are glaring and disgraceful. The fact that we perceive these shortcomings to be serious defects that demand redress confirms what we are truly about. We believe in progress but are undaunted by the elusiveness of perfection.
Before the law we are equal, but our pursuits of happiness will yield wildly unequal results. The difference depends on individual talent, motivation, skill and luck. Some of our enterprises will be rewarded with profit and success; others will be dismal flops. We are not only reconciled to this disparity, but we also embrace it as the essence of opportunity and freedom.
Superficially, Americans can be easily characterized. The image we project—especially and most regrettably, it seems, when we are abroad—is often worthy of scorn. Likewise the rest of the world seems all too eager to copy the most tasteless or dubious aspects of American life. Yet the essence of being an American cannot be found in any of these projections and stereotypes.
Our national unity is built solely on a common commitment to radical ideas about freedom and equality. In the face of our incredible diversity, we have nothing else to pull us together, to make us American. Nothing else is needed. Nothing else will do.