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The Sept. 11 attack on the United States has led to an unprecedented outpouring of patriotism from immigrants and native-born Americans alike. The local five-and-ten-cent store can’t keep American flags in stock for more than a few days at a time. The pizza boxes at a nearby Italian restaurant no longer carry the shop’s logo, but instead are printed with the words “God Bless America.” Local newspapers write about Russian immigrants who speak no English, but who proudly hang American flags from their apartment windows; Vietnamese refugees who rally in favor of President George W. Bush; and owners of Spanish markets who have begun selling religious candles emblazoned with an eagle and the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” All of these images serve as important reminders that, despite our ethnic, racial and religious differences, we are all Americans — and we are Americans above all else. The tragedy, of course, is that it took a catastrophe of the magnitude of Sept. 11 to awaken these feelings of patriotism and remind us that, while it is perfectly appropriate to celebrate our distinct cultural backgrounds, the glue binding us together is not our diversity — it is our common love of freedom, devotion to democracy and respect for the rule of law. How can we capture the patriotic sentiment that today envelops our country to inculcate future generations of Americans with a sense of unity and common purpose? To begin with, we must help newcomers become true stakeholders in the American dream. Prior to Sept. 11, many self-proclaimed progressives had come to regard assimilation as a dirty word — a politically incorrect term associated with nativism and xenophobia. Over the years, the popular image of America as the “melting pot” — where immigrants from different nations fused old traditions with American values to create a changing but common American culture — was replaced by the image of America as a “tossed salad” — with each ethnic group fully preserving its distinct linguistic tradition, values and cultural identity. Many on the political left have encouraged newcomers (and even many native-born Americans) to define themselves primarily by their race or ethnicity and not by their American nationality. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, this approach is not only outdated, but also suicidal. We must reverse course. Rather than encouraging ethnic segregation, we must help immigrants become part of the American fabric. We can start by providing all legal immigrants with intensive language immersion classes (as Israel and many European countries do). And we should require those who seek citizenship to pass a standardized test of proficiency in both English and American civics. In addition, those who seek the benefits of U.S. citizenship must give up all claims to citizenship in their country of origin. American citizenship — like marriage — should require monogamy. Of course, assimilation does not mean eliminating cultural differences. But it correctly implies that those who seek to become U.S. citizens must become American. To ensure that our young people — those who were born in the United States as well as those who immigrated to America — understand the significance of Sept. 11 and what is at stake in the war on terrorism, we must move beyond moral relativism in our nation’s classrooms. Unfortunately, American students today often spend more time learning about the cultures from which American immigrants fled than they do learning about the country to which they have come. Our nation’s schools must redouble their efforts to teach American history, American government and Western political thought. Young people need to have an understanding of the principles upon which our nation was built. They should be familiar with the Constitution, the basic structure of American government and our electoral process, and the events (the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement) that have helped shape the American identity. And all Americans need to understand why for centuries persecuted peoples, from the Pilgrims to the Sudanese “lost boys,” have sought refuge and freedom here, and why generations of American immigrants have been willing to fight — and die — for their adopted homeland. Our schools also should regularly provide students with the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Doing so would foster not only patriotism and respect for our flag but also a sense of community. And it might actually encourage students and teachers to think about and discuss American ideals. These proposals are more than symbolic. They are a way to help newcomers enter the mainstream of American life while helping all Americans — native and foreign-born — to forge a common identity. Most important, these proposals can help ensure that, in the years to come, our citizens will view themselves not simply as part of particular ethnic enclaves, but as individuals dedicated to the common enterprise that is America. Related Articles: Harvesting Progress From Disaster Jennifer C. Braceras is the John M. Olin Fellow in Law at Harvard Law School and serves as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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