Americanism in the 21st Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration

In 2004, the Russell Sage Foundation awarded funds to Deborah Schildkraut to conduct the 21st Century Americanism Survey (21-CAS). The 21-CAS is a nationally representative random-digit-dial telephone survey with oversamples of black, Latino, and Asian respondents in the United States. The analysis of that survey resulted in the publication of Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration (Cambridge University Press, 2011). In it, Schildkraut explores the meaning of American identity and its impact on contemporary debates about immigration. She focuses on the causes and consequences of two facets of American identity: (1) how people define the normative content of American identity, and (2) the extent to which people think of themselves primarily as American rather than primarily as a member of a panethnic (i.e. Latino or Asian) or national origin group. A member of RSF's Working Group on Cultural Contact and Immigration, Schildkraut wrote the following analysis of her results. She also compiled a reading list for more information:

Related RSF Resources

There has been a significant amount of heated rhetoric on immigration, ethnicity, and identity in American society over the past several years. The concerns raised in this discourse -- about citizenship, law enforcement, and a sense of common purpose -- are valid ones for citizens in a multi-ethnic society to have. Given the pace of demographic change in recent years, it would be foolish if we did not think about these issues. But the rhetoric is often devoid of careful empirical analysis, and a major contribution of this study is to fill some of that void, to provide the data that allows us to examine whether the alleged traditional consensus on what it means to be an American is breaking down or whether people increasingly reject an American identity and instead prioritize panethnic or national origin identities. This study takes up beliefs on both sides of the immigration coin, through explorations of the content, causes, and consequences of beliefs about American identity among the white majority and among immigrants.

Regarding the normative content of American identity, the 21-CAS develops wide ranging measures to gauge what people think it means to be American. Those measures are used to investigate claims that the increasing diversity in the U.S. threatens consensus over what being American means. I find that concerns about national disintegration have little merit at this juncture. Most Americans, regardless of their ethnic or immigrant background, have a common, yet complex view of what being American means. Table 1 shows patterns of opinions on some of the measures that capture ideas about what American means. It shows for instance, that nearly all respondents think that believing in the work ethic (“economic freedom”) is an essential component of being American. Likewise, strong majorities across racial and ethnic lines agree that carrying on the cultural traditions of one’s ancestors (“maintaining difference”) is a hallmark of being American.

I then go on to explore how ideas about identity content affect attitudes on policies related to ethnicity and immigration, and introduce the concept of “immigrant resentment,” which is derived from the belief that immigrants violate the norms that constitute American identity (i.e. that they are too focused on their own ethnic group and on sending money back home rather than on becoming “good” U.S. citizens) and generates preferences for stricter immigration policies.

In analyzing identity attachment, I argue that the normative claim that all Americans should prioritize an American identity instead of an ethnic or national origin identity is more complicated than it is typically cast. It has been argued by democratic theorists, social psychologists, and contemporary critics of immigration policy that a psychological attachment to the national community is essential for developing a devotion to the public good and for fostering trust and commitment. Contrary to these claims, I find that non-American identities are often innocuous and that they can even bring about political engagement. Unfortunately, such engagement results only when the non-American identity is paired with perceptions of mistreatment, hardly a scenario to promote. I also show, however, that perceptions of mistreatment yield lower levels of obligation among those with panethnic or national origin attachments.

As Figure 1 shows, Latino and Asian respondents who identify primarily as Latino and Asian have a higher likelihood of saying they have an obligation to donate to charity than Latino and Asian respondents who identify primarily as American, but only when perceptions of panethnic discrimination are absent. Once such perceptions are present, the sense of obligation among these panethnic identifiers drops considerably. A Latino respondent who identifies as Latino but does not perceive discrimination has a 62% chance of saying she owes it to other Americans to donate to charity. When the same respondent thinks Latinos are mistreated, that probability drops to 31% – a precipitous drop of 31 percentage points. Findings such as these raise important questions about when – and whether – a psychological attachment to being American is desirable.

I conclude that national identity within American democracy can be a blessing, a curse, or none of the above. Under some conditions, it can enhance participation, trust in government, and one’s sense of obligation to the American community. I also find that there is a real yearning among the American people for a sense of unity amid our diversity – rather than a yearning for replacing diversity with uniformity. But national identity within American democracy can be a curse for society as a whole when our attachments are so strong that perceptions of deviation lead to threat and resentment. It can also be a curse to members of minority groups who are attached to their American identity but who also perceive that they suffer from discrimination. And still there are other cases where conventional wisdom would lead us to expect to find significant impacts of identity attachments, and yet there are none. The notion of American identity is thus a predisposition that the government has good reason to cultivate, but also good reason approach with caution.

DEBORAH SCHILDKRAUT is an associate professor at Tufts University.

Reading List 

Chavez, Leo. 2008. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Citrin, Jack, Amy Lerman, Michael Murakami, and Kathryn Pearson. 2007. "Testing Huntington: Is Hispanic Immigration a Threat to American Identity?" Perspectives on Politics. 5(1): 31-48. (PDF)
Devos, Thierry, and Mahzarin R. Banaji. 2005. "American = White?" Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 88(3): 447-466. (PDF)
Paxton, Pamela, and Anthony Mughan. 2006. "What's to Fear from Immigrants? Creating an Assimilationist Threat Scale." Political Psychology. 27(4): 549-568. (Gated)
Smith, Rogers. 1993. "Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America." American Political Science Review. 87(3): 549-566. (PDF)
Song, Sarah. 2009. "What Does it Mean to Be an American?" Daedalus. 138(2): 31-40. (PDF)
Theiss-Morse, Elizabeth. 2009. Who Counts as an American? The Boundaries of National Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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