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That Coke Ad & What it Means to be American

Social media gives us a great cause. “Boycott Coke!” But the reason for this boycott, not the one that this author would prefer. In this piece, Bridget Welch discusses the legal and social construction of what it means to be American and how Coke, for once, got it right.

“BOYCOTT COKE!” started trending after the Super Bowl. Usually a hashtag I could get  behind. But what was the reason for this call to social media arms?

Is it the realization that Coca-Cola takes all the water from nearby farmers in India and leaves them to struggle with drought-like conditions? How this has been argued to be linked to an increase in suicide rates by Indian farmers? The extremely high rate of pesticides in their soft drinks? Similar situations in Mexico, where locals need to drink Coke because the companies’ practices means the population doesn’t have excess to water? MORE accusations of Coca-Cola hiring paramilitary groups in Columbia and Guatemala to kill workers to block unionization? More countries charging that Coca-Cola is dumping toxic waste? Or was it just that someone finally realized how HORRIBLE the drink is for our bodies?[1] Turns out, not so much.

This boycott, the one that got covered by national news was based on a negative reaction to children singing “America the Beautiful” in several different languages.

Why the negative reaction? Perhaps Michael Patrick Leahy on Breitbart captured it best when he argued that Coca-Cola was providing a different view of America … one that is “no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution and American traditions in which English is the language of government” nor a nation “governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty.” His message is that this is a bad thing (seemingly disgusting really) that Coke should be ashamed of. As he concludes, “When the company used such an iconic song, one often sung in churches on the 4th of July that represents the old “E Pluribus Unum” view of how American society is integrated, to push multiculturalism down our throats, it’s no wonder conservatives were outraged.”

Let’s ignore for a minute that the US actually has no official language. And, let’s forget Latin and assume instead of “From Many, One” the motto actually means “For People Like Us, By People Like Us.” And, for goodness sakes, let’s ignore the fact that when he says “Anglo-American tradition” he is really talking about White European male traditions forged at the cost of the genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery (and other horrific acts). Instead, let’s look at where he’s right.

He argues that it is a rejection of the Constitution to have a multilingual version of America the Beautiful. It’s safe to assume that what he is saying is that America the Beautiful should only be sung to represent US citizenry. And, he would be right that many of the languages included in the song (besides English of course) are sung by children who could never be US citizens. Well, circa 1952 anyway.

The Constitution as originally adopted did not follow the dictate that “all men are created equal” given in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it restricted even the right to be considered a human with blacks officially equated to 3/5s of the worth of a free-person. While the document itself would not define citizenship, this state of affairs would not last long in the new nation. The Naturalization Act of 1790 made sure that those less than humans (even if born here) would not get right to citizenship. It was only available to “free white person[s]” of “good character.” The result was that those who could actually be citizens were the “Anglo-Americans” referred to by Breitbart.

As the years would pass, there would be some additions to who would be allowed to be citizens – but these expansion would mostly prove relevant only to those born in the US (for example, the 14th Amendment was a response to the Civil War that allowed freed slaves to be citizens.) One exception was the 1870 decision to allow immigrants from Africa or of African descent to become naturalized. So, how did you become a US citizen if you weren’t born in the U.S.? The answer was that you now had two options – you could be defined as “black” or as “white” by law. All others either could not be citizens, or had to become legally determined to fit into one of those two categories.

One of the most famous cases to challenge this narrow definition of citizenship was brought by Takao Ozawa in 1922 who was of Japanese descent. He argued that Japanese should be categorized as “White” and thus eligible for naturalization. He argued that he was, by character, a “true American” and that his skin was White. His plea for citizenship was denied on the basis of science. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland wrote the decision that argued that Japanese, even as light skinned as they may be, could not be categorized as White because White is scientifically of the Caucasian race.

In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind would make his argument based on science. He would point to anthropological categorizations of people from India as members of the Caucasian race to say he was, indeed, White by science. The Supreme Court here would back away from their Ozawa decision and say that Thind was not a “white person” as used in “common speech” or in the “understanding of the common man.”

The message? It doesn’t matter how “White” you seem (like Ozawa who went to US colleges, spoke English, was successful in business – fully assimilated if you will) or what science says about who is “White” – you don’t belong unless those of us who already belong think you should.

You know, I really didn’t like the Coke commercial, probably as much as Leahy didn’t. Coca-Cola played on American ideals of multiculturalism to whitewash (ironical use) how the company itself actually PRACTICES multiculturalism. And that is, if you aren’t a “first world consumer” and are instead one of the unlucky locales that have its factories, you are expendable — literally. And that company practice is in full swing in many nations that speak Spanish and Hindi — two of the languages in the commercial.

Indeed, there is nothing in the constitution (or law) that keeps someone who speaks Mandarin (and doesn’t speak English) from becoming a US Citizen (at least anymore). This has been the case since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that got rid of the overt racial restrictions in US immigration policy. What does it mean to be “like us” in a nation of “Anglo-American” traditions? The answer is more than just singing American the Beautiful in English. You don’t have to go far on the internet to find some overt ideas who is an American (war vets) and who isn’t (Muslims) and you can find examples of people claiming that showing a woman in a hijab is not only unAmerican — it’s an act of terrorism.

Defining who can be a part of “us” and who cannot is an age old tradition in the United States with roots in institutions such as slavery. But in a world that is supposed to be “colorblind” those same claims take on a new form. Instead of naming race as a component for who belongs, we point to speaking English as indicating who belongs. But in the global reality who who is likely to speak English, and who is not, this is revealed as simple code that has the same result of the overt racist laws of old.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Throughout history people have argued that to become a U.S. citizen you must first assimilate to American culture. What does assimilation mean? How does Jon Stewart argue that this ad actually indicates assimilation has occurred? What do you think of his argument?
  2. Above I mention that “[t]he Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that got rid of the overt racial restrictions in US immigration policy.” Why do you think I used the term overt? Look up naturalization statistics (e.g. here). What nationalities are most likely to become citizens? Least?
  3. Which images/languages do you think the public had the most negative reactions to? Why were these images/languages viewed so negatively?
  4. Read this article that discusses racially coded language. Explain what racially coded language is and how “speak English” is an example of it.

[1] Despite all of this, I have to admit I struggle with my own personal addiction to Coke. I am, after all, a true American.