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When “Being an American” Means “Being White”

Have you ever considered what it means to be American? The concept of “America” might seem concrete, but people clearly have their own ideas about what it means. People who have championed Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make American Great Again” clearly have a very particular idea about what America is and what it should be.

Recently, psychologists have been examining what people associate with the concept of America. Try this–think about “a typical American.” What do you see? Is it a man or a woman? Is the person wearing particular clothing? Is he or she from a particular region? And more central to the recent research…is that person White? Black? Latino?

Some People Implicitly Associate “American” with “White”

what it means to be an AmericanThe United State constitution provides a clear definition of what it means to be an American: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No mention of race or ethnicity…simply a clear definition of what it means to be “American.”

Most people get this definition, and when you ask them (as some researchers have) “what it means to be an American,” they tend to endorse a relatively inclusive definition of “American.” However, even though some people might be perfectly happy to say that “American” covers a wide variety of people, it’s still possible that they really tend to think of Americans as White, rather than other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Other research using sophisticated measures, such as the “implicit association test” have been able to assess whether people actually associate “American” with “White.” Results from these techniques have shown that on average, people are quicker to associate American symbols and institutions with White people than with BlackAsian, or Latino people. That is, people tend to show a “American = White” bias.

Implications for Discrimination

It’s not that everyone has an implicit association between “American” and “White.” What’s important, though, is that some people do, and the question becomes “how do those people perceive non-White American citizens?

One recent set of studies examined this question, focusing on the possibility that people who have an “American = White” bias perceive racial and ethnic minorities as less loyal the United States. As a result, people with this bias may make choices that discriminate against minority groups when it comes to matters of national security.

Iamerican02n one of their studies, researchers measured how strongly people associated American patriotic symbols (e.g., the flag) with White (vs. non-White) individuals. This measure picked up on people’s automatic associations–ones they might not even be aware that they have.

Later they asked these people some simple questions about White and Asian Americans, including how patriotic most White and Asian Americans are, how loyal they are to the country, and how likely they are to defend America when it’s criticized.

Even though overall, people tended to rate Asian Americans as less loyal to the U.S., it was people with the strongest “American = White” associations that showed the biggest effect. That is, when a person closely associates the concept of “American” with White individuals, he or she is more likely to view Asian Americans as less loyal to the U.S.

This perception has an important implication: employment discrimination. This study also gave participants the resumes of apparent job applicants for the National Security Agency. These resumes clearly stated that all candidates were American citizens, but some applicants had traditionally “White” names (like “Allen McMillan”) whereas some had traditionally Asian names (like “Sung Chang”). The participants were asked to rank these applicants (who were equally qualified) in worthiness of hiring.

The results showed that people with the strongest “American = White” bias ranked Asian American applicants lower on the hiring list because they perceived less loyalty to the U.S. Interestingly, in another study, the same researchers showed that this hiring bias happened when the job was at the National Security Agency, but not when it was for a standard corporate job. Why? Because the corporate position was less relevant to national loyalty, which is the key consideration when it comes to the American-ness bias.

What it Means to Be American

barack-obama-1129156_640This evidence from psychological science points to a compelling bias that people have when it comes to what they think of as “truly American.” Although people openly believe that an American can be a person of any race, gender, ethnicity, or religion, there exists a subtle underlying bias whereby some people tend to think that an American is Caucasian. It’s that belief that can produce other biases in judgment and behavior.

It all reminds me of the many criticisms lodged at President Obama. I catch myself reading Internet comments more often than I care to admit, and I often see people saying things like “Obama hates America.”

It’s that kind of sentiment that’s reflected in the “disloyalty to the U.S.” that this research has considered. To the extent that people have an (implicit) association between “American” and “White,” then a non-White individual in a prominent national position might raise those kinds of doubts.

Of course the story is always more complicated than what a single research finding can offer, but these studies on people’s impressions of what it means to be American raises an interesting avenue to explore.

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