I remember several years ago, I was watching the news with my Grandfather and a story came on about a robbery and that the suspects being taken into custody were Italian-Americans. The next thing I knew, my Grandfather, a first generation Italian-American himself, was livid. “Why does being Italian have anything to do with committing a crime,” he asked me. I was confused as well, for mentioning the robbers’ Italian heritage had no link to the crime they committed. To be fair, this was the only time I personally had ever heard a news correspondent remark on someone’s European ancestry in regards to a crime. And yet, not a day goes by without the news commenting that an Asian-American did this, or an African-American did that. It begs the question: when do certain groups of people become truly assimilated into the “American Melting Pot?”
Today in a history course I am enrolled in, we discussed the challenges many of the Southern, Eastern, Jewish, and Catholic European immigrants faced when they first entered this county in during the 19th and 20th centuries. They all certainly faced hardships, and were for a time given the title “Italian-American”, or “Irish-American.” But, within a generation or two, these groups had lost that prefix and are now simply Americans. Other groups, however, are still prefixed-Americans.
Americans of African descent have been in the United States almost as long as any European American has been, though they did not come freely; they came as slaves. For over five hundred years, people of African descent have lived and moved across the United States for as long as their European counterparts. And yet, more often than not, though they have been in what is now the United States since the beginning of the American Republic, Black Americans are rarely given the short title of American. Instead, they are called African-Americans. This may sound like an odd thing to write about, but it makes me wonder if by separating “Americans” from “African-Americans” and other “-American” groups, if there is an implication that there is an inherit “un-Americaness” about these groups of Americans.
Americans of Asian descent, too, have lived in the United States, particularly the West Coast, for centuries. Yet despite the long time they have spent as a part of American society, Americans of Asian descent, like Americans of African descent, are rarely referred to simply as Americans, but as Asian-Americans. Both these groups of prefixed Americans have face discrimination, violence, and even death because of their heritage. In World War II for example, thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, many of whom had lived in the United States for generations, were forced into internment camps in the name of national defense. Despite the fact that the United States was also at war with other members of the Axis, namely Germany and Italy, few Americans of German or Italian decent faced the level persecution that so many Americans of Japanese descent did, despite the fact that the United States viewed Nazi Germany as the greater threat to the American way of life.
I wish I could explain why some groups of Americans, such as those of Irish and Italian decent, have lost their prefix and had an easier time integrating into American society, while others, such as Americans with African or Asian heritage, are still prefixed. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers. The whole concept of “the melting pot” seems inaccurate, as so many groups of people that make up the United States are still treated as “the other”. I still wonder what it will take before we are all one day just Americans.