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Southern Cultures 13.4 (2007) 119-137

"In My Heart, I'm an American"
Regional Attitudes and American Identity
Larry J. Griffin
Katherine McFarland

As the essays in this issue of Southern Cultures confirm, it is now old news to point to the changing demographic face of the South. We all know that immigration is transforming the region, that newcomers—new southerners, to be sure, but also new kinds of southerners—are introducing novel ways of speaking, of eating, of worshiping. These cultural innovations bring new diversity to a place long noted for its starkly black and white biracialism, its ethnically homogenous Anglo-Celtic whites, and its Christ-haunted Protestantism. Of course, as any number of Chinese in Mississippi, French-speaking Cajuns in Louisiana, Jews in South Carolina, German Lutherans in Texas, and Catholics in Maryland will tell us, the South has always housed more cultural diversity than the above generalizations allow, and it is much too simple to say that southerners are entirely unfamiliar with the voluntary and involuntary flow of people into the region from near and distant shores. Yet these generalizations nonetheless hold much truth: even today, the ancestry of most southerners points to Africa or the British Isles. Still, for most of its history, Dixie lagged way behind the rest of the country in terms of attracting immigrants and thus has far less experience with such perennial "American" themes as ethnic and religious nativism, assimilation, and pluralism.1

That all of this is now rapidly changing raises huge questions about both public policy and public morality—questions about Americanism and southernism, about inclusion and exclusion, questions, ultimately, about that most elemental of national matters, who "we" are and who "we" permit to become part of "us." Past South Polls have explored these questions of southern exceptionalism using the Southern Focus Poll, an annual survey of the UNC Odum Institute for Research in Social Science conducted between 1992 and 2001. Recent public data, taken largely from the General Social Surveys (GSS) in 1996 and 2004, offer new information on the attitudes and opinions of representative Americans, differentiated by region, about these issues. Because many of the same questions were asked in both years, the GSS is especially useful for gauging change in how Americans answer the question about what it means to be an American and in their opinions of immigration and immigrants. Comparing southerners with nonsoutherners also reveals the degree of regional divergence or convergence in these attitudes.2 [End Page 119]

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According to the idealistic political understanding of America, part of the nation's mission—however insufficiently realized in practice, policy, and law—has always been as beacon and magnet to the world's downtrodden and despised. No other country has become home to so many immigrants, and to so many different kinds of immigrants. New arrivals at Ellis Island, New York, 1908, from the Records of the Public Health Service, courtesy of the National Archives.

What Does it Mean to be American?

No fixed consensus exists as to what it means to be an American because the definition of America and thus of American identity itself are the subject of heated debate, negotiation, and conflict. On the one hand, liberal, idealistic definitions of America assert that the United States, unique among modern nations, is not premised on a common ethnicity, race, language, religion, or even homeland, and what makes Americans "Americans"—that is, why we have the particular national identity we do—is not rooted in any of these things, either. Rather, these definitions hold that both the nation and American identity rest on an explicit ideological understanding of a people and the state they created. America and Americans, then, are assumed to be defined politically—that is, by a set of political ideals assumed universal in their applicability—rather than culturally, or, in the words of historian Arthur Mann, by "the bond of common paternity."3

Vernacular or "folk" definitions of American identity, on the other hand...


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