2015.02.25 Identification - and why it matters

Did you know that at least 50% of U.S. Americans don't think of themselves as Americans?

According to this Economist article and the U.S. Census Bureau, 46 million people listed themselves as being of German ancestry.

Combined with the few other nationalities, Irish, English, and various Hispanic not specifically listed, the article easily reached half the U.S. population thinking of their ancestry as non-American. We are the hyphenated population.

I know, that is not the same as thinking of one self as not being American but it raised quite a few questions for me.

Let us take one step back and ask what it really means that 46 mill Americans list German ancestry?

Does it mean
  • that all their known ancestors originated from Germany?
  • that their family name originated from Germany even if other ancestors came from other countries?
  • that they feel mostly aligned with a German-American subculture regardless of name or mix of ancestry?
  • that somebody in their family originated from a geographical place now situated in Germany regardless if the place was German at the time the ancestor(s) left?
  • that somebody in their family originated from a geographical place now situated in Germany regardless that the ancestor(s) left before Germany existed?
  • that somebody in their family originated from a geographical place German at the time, regardless that the place is no longer part of Germany?
  • that the ancestors originating from Germany for a long time were more "politically correct" to identify with than ancestors coming from the Soviet block or other "less desirable" countries?
  • that they refer to themselves as German-Amerians?

I am not trying to question 46 mill people's ancestry. I am asking the more general question of how we - immigrants and children of - form our identities?

In my "storybook", immigrants to the U.S. shed their original nationality gradually, insisting their children should speak English. Grandparents and grandchildren could perhaps not speak to each other because the old language was lost by the 2nd generation. The pride and desire to become Americans through and through facilitated the famous "melting pot".

So what is happening here: "German fests and Oktoberfests have sprung up all over the country, and they are not only about brats and beer, but also about tracing genealogy and displaying traditional dress and craftsmanship."

Is this a special German-American phenomenon of renewed ancestral pride, perhaps facilitated by Angela Merkel giving Germany an international profile like nothing we have seen for generations? Or is it symptomatic for root-seeking behaviors where insecurity in the ever more globalized world makes us behave in more tribal ways?

What happened to the melting pot? Did we fool ourselves to believe assimilation was easy because we looked at it with a time horizon of three generations+? Did it seem easy because the countries we referenced were open for the taking (if we didn't mind removing/relocating the original population)?

What will it look like going forward? There is no such thing as a peaceful removal/relocation of existing populations and more and more people are - voluntarily or as refugees - living in other counties than where they claim ancestry. So if the melting pot and the ease of assimilation were just part of a myth, we better hurry and find a better model for immigrant integration.

Just one more question: Why does the U.S. Census Bureau even want to know?