What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


America Needs an Integration Policy

We Can't Take For Granted that Our Country Will Continue to Successfully Incorporate Newcomers

By Richard Alba and Nancy Foner
September 29, 2015

The United States takes in far more legal immigrants each year than any other nation on Earth, more than a million. We Americans have a great deal of confidence in our ability to welcome and integrate these newcomers and their children. Indeed, we consider it one of our defining traits as a people, and as a nation.

But our successful integration of immigrants is less exceptional—whether we take that word to mean unique or excellent—than we often think when compared …

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America’s Immigration Policy Needs Less Emotion and More Reason

U.S. Policymaking Should Be Rooted in Geographic, Demographic, and Economic Considerations, Not in Our Hopes and Fears

By Douglas S. Massey
September 29, 2015

Whether you agree or disagree with America’s current or past immigration policies, it’s hard not to shake your head at one distinctively American aspect of immigration policymaking—how it tends to disregard social and economic dynamics that drive migratory flows and patterns. America’s immigration policy seems to be set in some aspirational abstract, focused on the type of country we want to be, but detached from real-world considerations.

Such was the case in 1965 when Congress undertook a major overhaul of …

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The Contradictory Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act

A Law Designed to Repair Flaws in the Fabric of American Justice Also Created New Ones

By Erika Lee
September 29, 2015

At a time when immigration has become a polarizing and toxic topic in our politics, it’s worth remembering that 50 years ago this week President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Part of the trilogy of civil rights acts that outlawed discrimination in American life, the 1965 Immigration Act transformed America. Record numbers of new immigrants have arrived in the subsequent five decades—along with border fences, detention …

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Was the 1965 Immigration Act a Failure?

Maybe, Maybe Not, but It Certainly Didn't Do What Its Authors Intended

September 29, 2015

For as long as America has proclaimed itself a welcoming country of immigrants, policies have been in place to keep specific classes of people out. Naturalized citizenship was limited to “free white persons” until the 1860s, and Asians, for instance, weren’t allowed to be naturalized citizens until as late as the 1950s. From 1924 to 1965, immigration was controlled by ethnic quotas with per-country limits, which favored western Europe, and even certain countries in western Europe, and restricted almost everyone …

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When Americans Understood That Weather Was Connected to Larger Forces

Two Hundred Years After New England's First Great Hurricane, We Ask Very Different Questions About the Nature of Storms

By Sean Munger
September 22, 2015

Two hundred years ago this week, the Great September Gale struck New England. The “gale” swamped the coastlines of five states with storm surges up to 15 feet. It reduced dozens of ships in Boston, Providence, and other harbors to matchsticks, and destroyed houses, churches, and barns from Long Island to New Hampshire. Forests were leveled, with trees torn up at the roots. High winds hurled broken glass, bricks, and slate roof tiles through the streets of urban areas. The …

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Is Hawaii a Racial Paradise?

Races, Ethnicities, and Cultures Mix More Freely Than Elsewhere in the U.S., But There Are Limits to the Aloha Spirit

September 15, 2015

Early in the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segal, playing a guy who travels to Hawaii to get over a breakup, drunkenly pours out his feelings to two people in his hotel, a newlywed man and a bartender. The new husband encourages Segal to think there’s still hope for the relationship, but the bartender, Dwayne, has no sympathy for Segal’s sadness.

“You’ve gotta move on,” Dwayne says. “It’s that easy, I promise you it is. I lived in South …

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Are Presidential Debates Reality TV, Sunday Talk Show, Or Both?

The American Civic Rite Is Distinctive for Its Blend of Boisterous Theater and Genuine Substance

By Matthew Dallek
September 10, 2015

The first Republican presidential debate was a veritable blockbuster, with 24 million viewers tuning in last month. Its sequel next week at the Reagan Presidential Library in California may attract even more viewers curious about the large field of candidates and the possibility of a lively clash. But the more intriguing question is why were so many Americans in this age of digital communications willing to watch 10 men on a debate stage making mostly canned remarks, charges, and countercharges? …

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How the Mexican-American War Gave Birth to a News-Gathering Institution

The Associated Press Was Built for Speed and Straight Facts

By Valerie S. Komor
September 4, 2015

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States during 1831 and 1832, he was struck by the fact that the young republic had no overpowering metropolis, that “the intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country.” While New York City was the hotbed of innovative newspapering, much of that innovation was in the service of disseminating the news to the broadest possible audience. The New York Sun, established by Benjamin Day …

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Richard Nixon Considered Optimism His Patriotic Duty

The Naturally Gloomy President Thought It More American to Be 'Joyful’ and ‘Serene’

By Evan Thomas
August 10, 2015

Richard Nixon saw himself as a true patriot, and he considered it his patriotic duty to strive to overcome his darker impulses and moods to exude an upbeat, optimistic outlook—an outlook he considered quintessentially American. He often didn’t succeed, but it was this struggle that made Nixon so relatable to what he called America’s silent majority. Most of us who aren’t natural-born, back-slapping politicians have also been there, struggling against our own shades of negativity.

Whatever you think of …

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Vaccinations Have Always Been Controversial in America

While Creating the Polio Vaccine, Jonas Salk Had to Deal With Critics Like Walter Winchell, Who Warned, "It May Be a Killer"

By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
August 4, 2015

In 1952, Americans suffered the worst polio epidemic in our nation’s history. As in prior outbreaks, the disease spread during the summer, mainly attacking children who had been exposed to contaminated water at public pools or contaminated objects in other communal places. The poliovirus entered the body through the mouth and multiplied in the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms started innocently enough—a sore throat, a runny nose. As the virus moved throughout its victims’ bloodstreams, the pains soon began—electric shocks darting through …

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