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The Declaration of Independence's words are timeless, "we hold these truths to be self-evident." But in this time of stark divisions, is it self-evident what it means to be American? Ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, we reached out to Americans, some we met on the National Mall in Washington D.C., others who spoke from their homes, to talk about how we see ourselves.
Finally, tonight, the Declaration of Independence, his words are timeless, we hold these truths to be self-evident. But in this time of stark divisions, is it self-evident what it means to be an American? Ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, we reached out to Americans and we met on the National Mall in Washington, DC, others who spoke from their homes to talk about how we see ourselves.
What does it mean to you to be American?
Rachel Dietert, Houston, Texas:
I think to me, being American, is being free to express myself and means community.
Eric Pellegrini, Girard, Ohio:
I think, obviously, you know, hard work is a part of that. I think look out for your neighbor.
Lyric Primo, Tampa, Florida:
I want to feel proud of my country right now. But it's hard to with all the history we've been looking at. It's feeling like we're repeating history, again, like the same struggles I thought we would be over. And as an American right now, it feels conflicting to be an American right now for me.
Ana Peña, Washington, District of Columbia: And we all are American, it doesn't matter where you from, where you came from, because again, everyone's immigrants, unless you're Native American.
Chris Zimmer, Shepherd, Michigan:
American means freedom to me, freedom to have an opinion and to voice that opinion.
Abena Modupe, Arlington, Virginia:
I wish America would heal. And I wish that, you know, everybody can unify, we can all come together. But I don't really see that happening right now. And I see a lot of division.
Charlie Rooney, Wildwood, Missouri:
Everybody says we're divided. But I don't. I see it as kind of the process of the political system. I don't feel as though we're as divided as, you know, the media makes us out to be.
Kevin White, Washington, District of Columbia: You know, we are opportunities. And, you know, if you come to America is that opportunities of being prosperous in United States, and especially thankful and that's all.
Richard Johnson, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:
We still have the ability to live our dreams, pursue happiness. It's not perfect, but it's a blessing to live here.
July 4th 1776 my people and people look like me we're on a plantation so we weren't free. So to me, it's just another day. I don't feel any type of way.
Robert Lamb, Cincinnati, Ohio:
Anybody who looks realizes that it was Independence Day for rich white males who own land. And that has taken us all these many years to actually reach something near independence for people who are not straight, people who are not white, people who are not male.
Burt Crapo, Reno Nevada:
To me, it's a day of remembrance. It's a day of sacrifice. It's the day the sacrifice began to create this country.
Lucy Grimshaw, St. Louis, Missouri:
I don't know how much we have to really celebrate. I for the most part have been celebrating Juneteenth since 2020. And I think I'm going to continue to do that.
Maggie Wheeler, Kansas City, Kansas:
Well. I mean, seeing my family and remembering all those people who fought for us to have freedom.
Kate Ehrlich, Hagerstown, Maryland:
Part of being an American is acknowledging where we have fallen short. And then having that optimism that someday maybe we'll get there, someday we will fully realize these wonderful principles that were included in our founding documents.
For more on what it means to be American, I'm joined by Eric Liu. He's the CEO of Citizen University, a nonprofit organization that teaches Civic Empowerment, and Saadia Khan. She's the host of Immigrantly. It's a weekly podcast that focus on the experiences of people who immigrated to America. Thanks to you both for joining us.
And, Eric, let me start right off the top. You spent a lot of time having this conversation about what it means to be American. Are there things that people agree on right now about what that means?
Eric Liu, CEO, Citizen University:
Well, I think you heard some of that in the clips you just heard from people all around the country. And one of the themes that I think you can draw from that is that on some fundamental level, what it means to be American is to forever be contesting what it means to be American. We are a country that is drawn not from a single bloodline, not from a single faith in a single god, not from a single history on a single piece of soil.
All we have to bind us together is this creed, the set of ideas and ideals and promises, that from the beginning. We were breaking and from the beginning we've never fully lived up to. The point isn't for us to get to some magical consensus that all Americans believe X or all Americans think this way, America is an argument.
And the more that we can get comfortable as Americans recognizing that from the beginning, we were meant to contest the tensions between liberty and equality between strong national government and local control between a colorblind approach to law and the Constitution and a color conscious one.
All these tensions are baked into our whole system. And even though our politics is toxically polarized right now, we don't need fewer arguments right now. We just need less stupid ones.
Saadia, you chose to become an American. I'm wondering what did that mean, when you first became an American citizen being an American? And what does it mean to you now?
Saadia Khan, Host, Immigrantly Podcast:
It's such a difficult question, because, for me, being an American, is reconciling so many different parts of my identity, right? So, reconciling part of my Pakistani identity, my American identity, it's a balancing act. And there are times when I feel more American. And then there are other times when I feel less American. For instance, when I became a citizen, I felt more American. There was a lot of hope. I felt like I had made it could add good merit.
But now, almost nine years after my citizenship, I feel less American because I see so many racial and socioeconomic inequities. And I see that in a way we are regressing, and that is hurtful, and it's painful as a naturalized citizen.
And I'm also trying to navigate my own place in America as a Muslim, Pakistani-American first generation woman of color. And that's becoming harder now than it did say 10 years ago.
I'm curious what you make of this idea of a conversation of Eric is right, that America is an argument. Is that an argument that that is worth having? Or has the argument gone too far into conflict?
Absolutely, I think it is worth having now more than ever before, because there are so many different narratives that we see, right? So people like myself, we have decided that we cannot sit on the sidelines anymore. And we are part of that political and social discourse. We are part of that argument. And to Eric's point, I totally agree because I feel America is work in progress. So absolutely, yes, we need to have more arguments than less.
You know, America is changing. Our demographics are changing, for sure. We're becoming more diverse. We also have a lot of disparity in this country, too. Is there an identity crisis because of these ideas?
Let's look at the three of us right now in this conversation, not only at the beginning of the country, but even 50 years ago, for the three of us to be composing a conversation about the meaning of American identity would not have been the default setting of national media. And here we are, right.
And I think the reality is that we're living through this time where whiteness and americanus are at last decoupling, and people are scared of that, in some ways, people are hopeful in other ways, but the thing that we are forced to reckon with right now, is that we've got to come together to define a notion of americanus that is not based on the default setting that to be American is to be white, and to be American is to be male.
We're not a white monoculture and we're not some multicultural color coded collection of different parts of culture.
We are a relentless, hybrid generating garden that is just yielding all kinds of ways of thinking, believing, praying, eating, imagining, creating, that the rest of the world hasn't yet contemplated. And that is our competitive advantage in the world right now.
I'm the son of immigrants from China. And I will say very simply that as strong as China may be getting and as powerful as they may be, United States retains a deep and enduring competitive advantage which you can boil down this way. America makes Chinese Americans. China does not make American Chinese. China's not interested in trying to take people from other parts of the world, bring them in and integrate them and give them a chance. That is precisely what's happening here in the United States.
And this combination of people like us right now and others who are trying to give new life to the ideas and the ideals of the American creed. That is the essence of both the challenge and the opportunity right now.
Eric Liu, thank you so much, Saadia Khan. Thank you too, for having this conversation this holiday weekend.
Thanks for having us.
Thank you for having us.
Watch the Full Episode
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
Winston Wilde is a coordinating producer at PBS News Weekend.
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