Is Mitt Romney a Real American?

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If it's our ideals and not our origins that make us countrymen, Romney's tactics suggest that he's the one whose Americanness should come under question.

Nobody's ever asked to see my birth certificate. But as someone of Chinese descent I have been asked plenty of times where I'm from -- and when I say "Poughkeepsie," I often get the follow-up question that's almost a cliché now among Asian Americans: "No, where are you really from?"

It's always disheartening to get that question, even though I've learned to answer it with equanimity and usually take care to make the inquisitor feel not-stupid. But it's always clarifying, for it reveals the default picture in the minds of some of my fellow Americans about who they are, who we are, and who I am.

That's why Mitt Romney's birther-baiting remarks today are, in a way, welcome. Let there be no doubt: He is the candidate for people who think the name Obama must be Muslim and its bearer indelibly foreign. He is also the candidate for the greater number of people who do not initially imagine that someone with my face, my eyes, my skin could be from this country.

Even in one of his home states (Michigan, the site of today's remarks), Mitt Romney is not some iconic American hero whose patriotism is beyond reproach. The reason no one questions where Romney was born is simply this: he is white. If that's good enough for you, then you're good enough for Romney.

But that's not good enough for America. I have as much a claim to be the image of an American as Romney and his offspring do. So does Barack Obama. So, by the way, does Bobby Jindal or Ted Cruz or Susana Martinez -- nonwhites in Romney's own party who likely have also been asked (no, really) where they are from.

Romney's implicit pledge of allegiance to the birther movement is as revealing of his character as anything else in his campaign of half-deliberate opacity. He appears to lack a core capacity for empathy. He literally cannot see himself as someone not white, as someone accented or a newcomer.

In fact, Romney's tactics suggest that he's the one whose Americanness should come under question. True Americanness is not about how WASPy your surname is, how pale your skin, or how many generations your family has lived here -- or how much you can lord those facts over others. Nor is it about how subtly you can stir up secret prejudices against people who could be deemed outsiders.

True Americanness is about fidelity to a creed that by design transcends color or place of family origin. Yes, we as a nation have often subverted that creed, or averted our gaze, but it still stands in timeless judgment, measuring our willingness to deliver on the promise of equal citizenship. True Americans see in a sea of colored faces a chance to bring everyone into the fold, so that the team is stronger and the creed redeemed. Mitt Romney can prance all he wants but his words today were those of a second-rate American.

And the more he plays his Donald Trump card, the more his becomes a last-gasp candidacy: the inarticulate paroxysm of those who still silently believe, as was once permissible to declare in public, that America is a white nation and that the interests, mores, and preferences of whites should predominate.

Romney may yet win in November. But he and this whole odious line of attack are on the losing side of history. The tide of demographics is irresistible, and soon enough it'll sweep up his birth certificate and mine into a new notion of who is truly from this country.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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