IT IS INTERESTING that the Spanish language has an adjective to describe a person from the United States, while English does not. The term estadounidense literally means "United Statesian."
We usually think of ourselves as "Americans," but the term is inaccurate: Literally, any resident of North, Central or South America is an American. Many in Latin America refer to things related to the United States as "North American," which fails to distinguish us from Canadians or Mexicans.
I don't believe these linguistic difficulties in referring to people from the United States are incidental: I believe they reflect a very real difficulty United States citizens have in defining who and what we are.
I believe it contributes to a widespread perception, both among ourselves and others, that the United States is an amorphous, inconsistent and often hypocritical entity that lurches forward into history with no sense of purpose or direction.
We in the United States are tracking uncharted territory. Never before has a nation gone so far based on common political beliefs rather than a common ancestry or culture.
The United States is a union of diverse individuals. Our waters flowed here from many streams: There were indigenous people, colonialists, slaves, immigrants, refugees and exiles. From this stew we have tried to create a new culture, with mixed results. Even if we accept the common usage of "American" to mean U.S. citizen, our concept of the term remains disappointingly vague.
In this country founded with a document declaring that all men were created equal, we've enslaved and segregated blacks, forced Indians onto reservations and imprisoned people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. As late as the 1960s, a person could be born in the United States and still not be entitled to full rights as a citizen. Stated another way, for almost two centuries, we believed that you had to be white to be a full-fledged American.
This sense still persists, if only in our subconscious minds. Many white Americans see census figures showing the growth of the black, Hispanic and Asian populations as a "threat" to their notion of America, rather than shifts among Americans. Many black Americans, burned by generations of exclusion from the U.S. mainstream, are torn between sincere patriotism and distrust of what "America" really stands for. Many Hispanic Americans are content to think only of their own issues. We are unable to think of all U.S. citizens as Americans, plain and simple.
The problems of the inner city or the "barrio" are not seen as American problems, but black or Hispanic problems. We divide unemployment rates, economic data, insurance statistics, even attitudinal surveys, among ethnic groups -- perhaps out of necessity, but it only reinforces our sense of fragmentation.
But the very problem with the term "American" could be our strength. We could make monumental progress as a nation if we could fine-tune our understanding of who "Americans" are.
The term "American" must carry no implied suggestion of ethnicity. To be an American is not to conform to a single cultural standard, but to respect and savor the different cultures, languages, customs, habits and beliefs that make up the American mosaic. That need not undermine our unity, but it requires a much greater intellectual effort than unity based on culture or ethnicity. To be an American should require only two things: the embrace of certain, specific principles of political, social and personal freedom, and U.S. citizenship.
The world will have to learn to disconnect ethnic identity and national identity: The president of Peru is a man of Japanese descent; France's female ice skating champion is a black woman.
We United Statesians still have a chance, despite two centuries of hypocrisy, to show how intellect, reason and law can transcend race and ethnicity without extinguishing it.
Robert L. Steinback is a columnist for the Miami Herald.