It's a difficult time to celebrate America.
This Fourth of July, the coronavirus pandemic rages nationwide, and the 127,000-person death toll continues to climb. The resulting health and economic crises have left more than 80% of Americans stressed about the future of the country and 75% feeling the nation is "pretty seriously" off track. Civil unrest embroils the nation after the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. And while a majority of U.S. adults still say they are "extremely" or "very" proud to be American, both numbers are at a 20-year low, according to Gallup.
As we prepare to mark the birth of the nation, debate intensifies over what it means to be an American – who qualifies and how a good one behaves. Are protesters good Americans? The Black Lives Matter protesters or the anti-lockdown ones? Are you American if you were born here but don't know the history? Are you American if you've lived here nearly your whole life but don't have a piece of paper to prove it?
Experts say the heart of the debate is whether being American depends on who you are – such as being an English speaker – or on what you believe – such as valuing freedom or equality. This old debate is inflamed by protests over personal liberties amid the pandemic and severe racial disparities, all against the backdrop of increasingly diverse demographics.
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"White Americans have defined the nation, its norms, what it means to be an American for decades. That means that, by definition, some individuals ... have been on the outs," said Efrén Pérez, a professor of political science and psychology at UCLA. "Now things have changed demographically, politically, where some of those individuals are saying: 'Hold on a minute. If I'm excluded by that version of being American, which I view as very narrow, we're going to develop our own sense of what it means to be an American.'"
Experts say this isn't just a fight over who belongs. It's about one version of the United States versus another.
What is American?
Despite the political polarization of the country, there are elements of American identity people generally agree on.
When it comes to being a "real American," 90% said it meant treating people equally and 88% said it meant being personally responsible in a 2018 Grinnell College National Poll of 1,000 U.S. adults. When it comes to being a good citizen, a Pew Research Center survey that year found 74% said voting, 71% said paying taxes and 69% said always following the law.
Republicans and Democrats closely agree on several other aspects of good citizenship, including serving on juries, participating in the Census and respecting the opinions of those with whom you disagree.
But political identity still influences how people feel about the country and how they believe devotion to the nation should be expressed.
Republicans are far more likely to say they are "extremely" proud of being an American than Democrats, according to Gallup. Half of Republicans say displaying the American flag is very important, compared with a quarter of Democrats. While 52% of Democrats say it's very important to protest when government actions are wrong, only 35% of Republicans say the same.
There are also perceptions not about behaviors but about qualities, for instance, how people believe a "real American" looks. Research shows Americans are much more likely to associate Kate Winslet, an English actress, with being American than they are Lucy Liu, an American actress. The Grinnell College poll found nearly a quarter of respondents said real Americans are born in the USA and are Christian, and 44% said real Americans speak English.
"That's why they ask someone who is Asian, 'Oh, what country do you come from?' without thinking 'Oh, this person could actually be an American citizen who's born here and maybe the parents are born here and the grandparents,'" said Leonie Huddy, a professor of political science at the State University of New York-Stony Brook and co-author of the study American Patriotism, National Identity, and Political Involvement.
For those who believe American identity is defined by values, there's potential for a larger tent.
"Some people think that being American means ... I believe in equal opportunity. In that sense it doesn't matter if you're white, black, brown, green, purple. All that matters is that you endorse these bedrock principles," Pérez said.
Liz French, 32, of Severance, Colorado, says that while this is a volatile time for the nation, she's confident America's core values will see the country through.
"I think of Hurricane Harvey in Houston a few years back, and how many people came from all different sides of the country to really help rebuild that community. And that's what America means to me," French said. "We've seen over and over in our country's history, periods of strife and Americans coming back together and realizing we may not have the same ideologies, we may not live the same way, but we're all citizens of this country and we all want to make it better. That's why I'm so patriotic in this moment, regardless of what's happening."
Who is a patriot?
Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick took a knee and eventually lost his NFL career. His critics, including President Donald Trump, said he was unpatriotic.
His supporters and the athletes who joined his protest against racial injustice and police brutality said his actions intended to make the U.S. better.
Time and tragedy have many people rethinking their stances on Kaepernick.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted after the George Floyd protests that the league did not handle the Kaepernick situation properly. He said he will “encourage” any team thinking of signing Kaepernick, adding that he’s open to the former quarterback working with the league on social justice issues.
The way George Floyd's death catalyzed nationwide protests and tapped into rage and frustration centuries in the making shows that the U.S. is in a different place than it was just a few years ago.
"It's clear that we're divided, not just on racial lines, but there are splits within the white population. I think that's what is different," Huddy said. "Seeing solidarity across racial lines suggests it's a fight for the country itself, what it means and what its values are."
Johnna James, 42, was raised in Anadarko, Oklahoma, a predominately Native American community, and says she is proud of her country but doesn't ignore its history.
"As a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an Indigenous woman, I'm very proud to ... (see) lots of people from diverse backgrounds coming together for the common goal of peace and even some correction in the original framework of this country that was no doubt built on systems of oppression," she said.
Public protests are protected by the First Amendment, and experts say they can be deeply patriotic. "Constructive patriotism" maintains it is appropriate to expose when the country does not live up to those values. It differs from "blind patriotism," which conveys that "my country does no wrong" and can bleed into nationalism.
"This country was founded on dissent. Think about who the founding fathers were. They were dissenting against British rule," said Christopher Parker, a University of Washington political science professor. "A real patriot is about criticizing the country when it needs to be criticized in order to bring the social practices in alignment with the values on which the country was founded."
There is strong agreement on founding American values, but there are important distinctions in how we interpret them. White Americans, for example, generally think of freedom as being free from the central government, Parker said. When people of color think about freedom, they think of it as freedom from discrimination and racism.
"Liberty can be a very capacious term depending on who you are," he said.
Who is American?
Alycia Kamil, 19, is a Black activist in Chicago who recently co-organized an anti-racism protest in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood. Being "American," she said, is not a central part of her identity.
"As Black people, as people of color, it is incredibly hard to love a country that historically has oppressed us," she said. "When we're fighting for our rights, it's not even necessarily as an American. It's as a human."
For her to feel pride in America, she said, there would need to be widespread recognition that the systems upon which the country was built are inherently violent and racist, and that they have to be dismantled for Black people to feel safe.
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Moises Rodriguez Cruz, 22, has also organized and protested racial injustice in several U.S. cities. Cruz's relationship to national identity is complicated.
Cruz – who identifies as queer, Latinx, "poor" and a DACA recipient – is a community organizer for Semillas, a social justice organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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"When you grow up undocumented, you grow up in a world that tells you that you're illegal. There's no way that you fit into the American narrative because you don't have this magical paper that validates your existence and your identity in the country," Cruz said.
And yet, Cruz's presence is well-documented. Cruz went to school, goes to work, has relationships, walks the same streets as white Americans, attends the same health clinics. Cruz wishes that when people talk about what it means to be an American, they would do more to acknowledge its diversity without whitewashing its past.
"When we talk about America and what it means to be American, what we really should celebrate is queer people, trans people, black people," Cruz said. "This country was founded on colonization. This country was people arriving on this land and stealing from Indigenous people, from Native Americans. Let's talk about the realities of the world."
Cruz said he doesn't feel pride in a "nationalistic project" but is often proud of the people who make up the United States.
Young people are more familiar with diversity, and many are using activism to edge the country closer toward a version of America they feel embraces different identities. Generation Z or the “post-millennial” generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse, according to Pew. Today’s 6- to 21-year-olds are projected to become "majority nonwhite" in 2026, according to Census Bureau projections.
"People can understand, even if they don't articulate, that things have changed. Some Americans, some of them who happen to be white, will tell you, 'America doesn't feel like the America I knew,'" Pérez said. "Exactly. It isn't."
American identity is a powerful concept. It animates people's behavior and sets norms for what's expected. Some argue that in a culturally diverse nation, this identity is the glue that keeps people together. Without it, there's worry the country can't cohesively operate.
"Even those that have disagreed with a given policy or administration have been able to look at the United States and see an example of a country that is not homogeneous, full of different people from different backgrounds and countries, but that collectively makes democracy work," said Jack Petroskey, 29, of Royal Oak, Michigan. "It is such an incredible legacy, and I am personally so proud of it."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fourth of July 2020: What's it mean to be patriotic amid COVID, BLM?