Who’s a Real American?

A new poll gives insight into what Americans think makes “a real American.” Surprise! It’s not being born in America or spending most of one’s life in the United States.

The Grinnell College poll asked 1,000 adults across the U.S. for opinions on a range of subjects.

Here are the characteristics respondents considered most important for being a real American, with the percentage considering the quality “very important”:

  • Treating people equally (90%)
  • Taking personal responsibility for one’s actions (88%)
  • Accepting people of different racial backgrounds (81%)
  • Supporting the U.S. Constitution (80%)

Even though accepting people of different backgrounds and treating people equally both ranked very high on the list of essential traits for real Americans, respondents recognized that people in the U.S. face discrimination. 58% said Muslims face discrimination in the United States, and both LGBT people and African-Americans were identified by 52% as facing “a lot” of discrimination. 45% of respondents said that white men faced “virtually no” discrimination.

Those numbers tell us that almost half of respondents felt that white men faced at least some discrimination and that African-Americans faced little or no discrimination. This almost 50/50 split is in striking contrast to the high level of agreement on the importance of treating people equally.

The survey asked whether speaking English was important for a “real American.” 44% considered this an important part of being an American. Just 16% said it was not important at all. This compares with being born in America, which 49% said was not important.

Still, a spokesman for the college says, “A pretty significant minority of respondents believes that you need to have been born in the U.S., be Christian and speak English to really be American.”

The poll also asked about hope, fear, and hate.

54% felt hopeful about the nation as a whole, while 27% felt more fearful.

Half of respondents said they hated someone: top categories were a politician or a political party, but there were respondents who hated a sports team, a reporter, or a religion, too. 68% said it was not acceptable to express hate in public, including in social media — but 26% thought it was okay. The younger the respondents, the more likely they were to think expressing hatred was acceptable: 35% of those 18-34 thought it was okay.

Indeed, the answers to most questions showed strong differences of opinion. This makes it even more striking that respondents were so strongly in agreement on what makes a real American: treating people equally.

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