One of the many diverse ideas of what it means to be American that has always been present to some degree, consciously or unconsciously, is that it means being white. People of this viewpoint also believe that it is our duty as Americans (i.e. white people) to spread our “superior” ideals and way of life to less developed societies (i.e. other races). This view of racial superiority as an American value can be exemplified by U.S. interactions with other peoples throughout history.
The idea that white Americans are duty bound to spread their way of life to other “uncivilized” races has been present since the beginning of our country. In the first century of U.S. history a common theme was expansion, particularly to the the west. However, the land they claimed was already inhabited by native peoples. As they seized the land of the Native Americans they justified their actions with the philosophy of Manifest Destiny. According to history.com, Manifest destiny was the belief that the U.S. was destined to “expand its dominion and spread democracy” across the North American continent. Therefore, at least in their minds, they were helping the natives by bringing civilized ideas and modern luxuries to them. Because they viewed themselves as superior to the natives it seemed reasonable and, perhaps, inevitable that the U.S. would come to control the territory that once belonged to the Native Americans. In reality, the arrival of people of European descent was not beneficial to the Native Americans. They were kicked off their land and many died from exposure to diseases that they had no previous exposure to. This idea that U.S. expansion was beneficial to the natives as well as the U.S. persisted as the U.S. started to expand off the mainland. At the very end of the nineteenth century British poet and writer Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem directed at the U.S. entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” In this poem he describes how it is the duty of Americans to take action in the Philippines in order to help the natives by spreading their enlightened western ideals. He calls this a burden because the natives (unsurprisingly) do not usually act very grateful for the “help” that is forced upon them. Kipling describes it as “Take up the White Man’s burden—/ And reap his old reward:/ The blame of those ye better/ The hate of those ye guard—”. Convinced of their own superiority and the righteousness of their ideas, white Americans did not consider that unreceptiveness to these ideas might be because of the way they were being imposed on native populations. Instead, they held fast to their value of the white race and western culture and continued forward with what they believed was their duty to “civilize” peoples of other races. The continuation of expansion efforts over the first century of American history shows that there must have been public support for it, and with support for the expansion, a shared value of spreading their culture to people who they viewed as racially inferior.
Even after the world wars, when the U.S. stopped imperialist efforts, the American people still valued efforts to spread their culture to other nations. Specifically, they were interested in spreading democracy to counter Soviet efforts to spread communism. This idea that the U.S. was liberating these peoples gave the Americans a sense of superiority over them. President John F. Kennedy said that the U.S. would “pay any price, bear any burden” to support the formation of democratic nations. This is a very heroic sentiment that appealed to this American value of spreading their culture. However, just as with the Native Americans, this was not really done for the sake of the people in these countries, but for U.S. political interests. During this era the U.S. did not want the territory for itself as it had before, but if it became communist it would fall under the influence of the Soviet Union, rival global superpower to the U.S. One of the major conflicts that came out of this rivalry was the Vietnam war. In this war the U.S. supported the South Vietnamese against the communist North Vietnam. Though the U.S. claimed to be fighting for the South Vietnamese people, they did not seem to have the true interests of the Vietnamese in mind. The U.S. increasingly took control of the war effort, to the annoyance of the Vietnamese who highly valued their independence. The American soldiers “brought deeply entrenched racist attitudes” calling the Vietnamese- friendly or enemy- derogatory names and they “looked down on them and imposed their ways on a presumably inferior people” according to a New York Times article written by George C. Herring. While this was not the case with every American soldier, this attitude of superiority caused much resentment against the Americans. In turn the Americans felt that the Vietnamese should express more gratitude for the help they were being given. The attitudes of the Americans going into this war clearly reflect the earlier values of Manifest Destiny and “The White Man’s Burden”. The U.S. felt that it was their duty to spread democracy to these supposedly inferior people, despite the fact that the Vietnamese did not seem very appreciative of their efforts.
American society has since deemed such racist views of superiority to be false and has become much more willing to acknowledge people of different races as “American.” However, racist values of cultural superiority are still present in different white supremacy groups, and many other white people unconsciously hold these values as well. According to an article published by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that opposes anti-semitism, the white supremacist movement has experienced a resurgence since the 2016 presidential election. This is no doubt because many white supremacists support President Trump. Many of his actions, though I’m sure he’d deny it, have racist implications that echo the value of the white race expressed in the expansionist and imperialist thinking of the centuries before. However, Trump’s actions have not expressed the value of spreading our “superior” culture, but rather protecting the country from becoming tainted by “inferior” people and cultures. This idea that the white race is endanger is what modern supremacy is all about. Some of the specific actions Trump has undertaken that show this thinking are his travel ban and his desire to build a wall along the U.S. Mexico border. Trump’s travel ban would heavily restrict travel from a number of Muslim countries to the U.S. in order to try and prevent terrorist attacks. However, individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks have come from different countries not included in the ban. This muslim ban shows how one group of people has been deemed unfit to be considered American based on their race and culture. Another group of people deemed by Trump and his supporters to be un-American is immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. He has often characterized these immigrants as criminals and he wants to build a wall to prevent illegal immigration. This proposed wall would not really be very successful in reducing the number of illegal immigrants, because the majority of illegal immigrants result from people overstaying their visas, according to a BBC article citing evidence from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. What a wall would really do would symbolize the desire of white Americans to keep their ideal view of their country intact. While modern white supremacy does not value spreading U.S. culture as much as in the past, they still believe that it is superior.
As we can see through the events of American history and the behavior of modern white supremacist groups, white Americans have always valued their supposed superiority and believed that this is what made them truly American. However actions enacted based on this belief have used it to justify behavior toward people of other races for political gain. These actions brought violence and suffering rather than the enlightenment and salvation Americans claimed to be spreading to native peoples. We still struggle to accept that other cultures have aspects that can enhance our own, and that the rights of people of other races are equal to our own.