Barack Obama Has Transformed How We Understand Our National Identity -- For The Better

There's no going back.
There's no going back.

This is Hillary Clinton’s time. We are rightfully going to spend the next 100 days talking mostly about her ideas, her record, and why we must elect her the next President of the United States. Given that, let’s talk one more time about Barack Obama, his convention speech, and how he has fundamentally transformed the way we collectively understand our national identity. In Philadelphia he declared:

And most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s what I see. That’s the America I know!

[snip] That’s who we are. That’s our birthright—the capacity to shape our own destiny. That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages.

We are a diverse yet unified people, we are different yet loyal to the same country. We share a history, one whose most profound moments include not only military triumphs in which a mostly white male cast of characters played the leading roles, but also triumphs for equal rights where women and men of every background came to the fore. Each type of victory is just as important as the other. Obama has spoken this way before, and in ways that broke new ground for a president. One example is the inclusion in his second inaugural address of not only Selma but also Seneca Falls and, even more boldly, Stonewall in the pantheon of great place names in American history.

On a related note, although the president didn’t go into detail about racial discrimination and disparities in Philadelphia, he did touch on it, and certainly has done so on many other occasions throughout his career. Right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh love to claim that calling out these problems in America means that one hates America. The president countered that claim in his convention speech by explaining: “acknowledging problems that have festered for decades isn’t making race relations worse—it’s creating the possibility for people of goodwill to join and make things better.”

Furthermore, Obama has repeated over and over the formula he brought to the public for the first time in 2004, one that included criticism balanced with praise for and love of America—recognition of both the progress we’ve made and the distance we must still cover. As he said in Philadelphia: “We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed that all of us are created equal; all of us are free in the eyes of God.” 

By talking along these lines he ultimately has proven Limbaugh and his ilk wrong to millions of Americans, including whites—or at least enough of them to win the presidency twice, not to mention running as strong among whites as did previous Democratic candidates John Kerry and Al Gore, and as strong or stronger among whites than the average Congressional Democrat running in the same national elections he did.

To return to Philadelphia, President Obama also talked about the way we honor our diversity while we come together to form a larger American community. He talked about beliefs, principles, and values that cross lines of race and place, of religion, culture, and ancestry. He spoke about what makes us one people.

And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns. These values could travel to Hawaii. They could travel even to the other side of the world, where my mother would end up working to help poor women get a better life; trying to apply those values. My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race. They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. 

They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab. And that’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own.

While liveblogging the speech, Daily Kos publisher Markos Moulitsas referred to these words as Obama “mak[ing] the case for multiculturalism.” That’s true, but it’s also something more. What Obama said—and has said for decades—about how we define ourselves as a people draws on multiculturalism, but goes beyond merely defining America as a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism means different things to different people. Some define it in a positive way, others use it as a weapon to attack cultural and demographic change. For a consensus on what it means, here’s Wikipedia:

Multiculturalism describes the existence, acceptance, or promotion of multiple cultural traditions within a single jurisdiction, usually considered in terms of the culture associated with an ethnic group….Multiculturalism has been described as a ‘salad bowl’ and ‘cultural mosaic

Obama is talking about something different. He’s talking not only about accepting the existence of different traditions or encouraging people to maintain their ancestral heritage(s). President Obama is talking about integration, of turning the many into one. On the one hand, that’s an idea as old as E Pluribus Unum, but he means it differently from the more traditional definition of the melting pot, one that requires immigrants and minorities to boil away their traditions and melt themselves down in order to be re-formed as one homogenized, uni-cultural people—with that culture being the culture of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

In 2008, Obama got theoretical in talking about these issues. He specifically rejected both the melting pot and the mosaic: “I think the best analogy I’ve heard is a sort of gumbo. It’s not a thin soup. It‘s got these big chunks of stuff in it. But those things are seasoning each other. It’s not tomato soup. It’s something thick.” In The Audacity of Hope he described how a: “constant cross-pollination is occurring ... Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways.”

Whereas the melting pot rejects diversity, the mosaic—in which the tiles viewed together are beautiful but remain distinct and separate from one another—does not include any “cross-pollination” or integration or unity.

In the American gumbo there is an overarching mainstream flavor or culture. That culture—the “thick soup” Obama referred to—has changed over time; it has been influenced by immigrants and other non-dominant groups—the “big chunks of stuff.” But the chunks of stuff have also absorbed the flavor and aroma of the soup. It’s still a piece of shrimp, it maintains its integrity, but it’s not the same piece of shrimp it was before it went into the gumbo.

In terms of the overall equation, each ingredient takes on more from the soup than the soup takes from it. There remains a coherent, mainstream flavor, but adding new spices and tastes does have a effect, creating something new—an American “blend” that is “uniquely our own.” Beyond the theoretical stuff, I nearly jumped out of my seat when Obama said you can be just as American wearing a yarmulke or a hijab as wearing a cowboy hat or baseball cap. That’s poetry. And that’s inclusion.

There has never been a president talk about American national identity in quite this way. On the one hand, certainly the general idea that we are a diverse people who come together as one has been around, even in popular culture, for quite a while.

But think back to 2004, when the president, then a state senator, spoke in Boston. If the conception of American identity he put forth there was already commonplace, why did his speech have such an impact? On that day, and in the 12 years since, he has returned again and again to this particular idea of Americanness. That it seems so commonplace now is due in large part to Barack Obama.