It was a small incident, but it revealed just how a personal bias about who — and what — is or is not an American can run deep. Peggy Hansen has this Perspective.
The hearing was taking longer than we expected, and the case we'd come to hear wasn't first on the agenda. So we sat and listened, marveling at the protracted, painful sausage-making that is county government at work. Citizens against the first petition got up to speak, and we grew outraged on their behalf, angry at the abuses they endured because of the petitioner. Their lives disrupted, peaceful repose shattered, only a few miles from our own homes and yet we'd never even heard about it. Finally, the petitioner's attorney spoke briefly, and then he himself rose to make his case. He'd said but a single sentence when my friend whispered to me: "He's not even American!"
He had an accent, to be sure, and his name matched the flavor of it, perhaps Swiss or German. So, superficially at least, I understood why she'd said it. But something deeper seemed to be at work, and I was stunned. "You don't know that," I immediately whispered back. Maybe he wasn't born here, but he absolutely could be American. She stared back, her face slowly reddening. That this woman, of all my friends, could make such a remark, was beyond comprehension: Her mother was an immigrant, a Jew, a camp survivor. She'd lost family members, their stories abruptly terminated, to unchecked fear and hatred, and she had progressive cred.
A few weeks later, I asked her about it, unsure how she'd react. She sighed, and thanked me for calling her on it. She was embarrassed, and speculated that it was the times we're living in, the rampant rhetoric of fear and bigotry, the general incivility, that made her go to that dark place.
I don't know if she's right, but I do know we've got a lot of work to do, all of us Americans.