There is no static, essentialist definition of what it means to be an American. The boundaries of “American identity” are permeable and continually re-negotiated. Historically, European males have had significant economic, cultural, and political incentive to guard closely the definition of “American” so that it doesn’t encompass too many people beyond themselves.
This is why backlash inevitably follows African-American racial progress. Emancipation gave way to Jim Crow. The cvil rights movement gave way to mass incarceration. The first non-white president was followed by the man whose name is inextricably associated with birtherism, a modern manifestation of the historical sentiment that black persons by definition cannot be American.
Restrictive and racialized conceptions of “American” are so interwoven with our national history that they influence our cognitive processes even without our conscious consent. The structures of our government have been organized upon the premise that some are more American than others. Access to capital has been controlled by gatekeepers who denied the full humanity and citizenship of the Africans whose forced labor produced that capital.
Such history should compel us to ruthlessly interrogate the racial contours that whitewash our definition of American identity. If we think a naturalized citizen of Somali origin is somehow less American than a white citizen of German descent who coddles neo-Nazis, perhaps it means our definition of “American” is more racialized than we think. Or, perhaps it just means that white normativity is about as American as grandma’s apple pie on the fourth of July – in which case, it raises the question of why we’d even be eager to claim American identity for ourselves in the first place.