A Nation of Immigrants?

Barack Obama ran for President in 2008. He won, became the 44th President of the United States and served two terms. In this lesson, students will analyze some of Obama's comments about immigrants. Students will also examine their history textbooks to see how the books shape America's view of the immigrant narrative. In the speech, then-Senator Obama made in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, he said of white Americans, “Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they're concerned, no one has handed them anything." Obama's observation points to a complex reality of American culture: The classic immigrant story — of overcoming hardship, working hard and succeeding — is often invoked by white people who recognize the migrant story in their own history. Despite that, many still reject new immigrants to this country.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • discuss the meaning of “A More Perfect Union,” a speech about race made by then-Senator Barack Obama, during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.
  • examine and assess how textbooks position groups differently in our national historical narrative — and how this positioning affects our understanding of ourselves.
Essential Questions
  • How are white Americans today similar to immigrants coming to the U.S. today? How are they different?
  • Why might some white Americans reject new immigrants to the United States?
  • Enduring Understandings
    • Every white citizen of this country is the descendant of immigrants — people who left their home country found a home in the United States often faced hardships and challenges.
    • Some American descendants of immigrants, now well established in this country, have a hard time identifying with new immigrants to the U.S. Other Americans feel a deep connection to new immigrants.


assimilate [ uh-sim-uh-leyt ] (verb) to take in and incorporate as one’s own

immigrant [ im-i-gruh nt ] (noun) a person who leaves one country and migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

monolithic [ mon-uh-lith-ik ] (adjective) exhibiting or characterized by uniformity in qualities; having a single unified source

natural born citizens [ nach-er-uh-l bawrn sit-uh-zuh n ] (noun) people born subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, including, those born in the United States, those born to U.S. citizen parents in foreign countries, and those born in other situations meeting the legal requirements for U.S. citizenship


Suggested Procedure

Part 1: Analyzing a speech

1. Ask students to read "A More Perfect Union" individually or as a class. When students have finished reading, ask them for general impressions: “What did you think of the speech? Were there particular parts that connected with you? Were there parts that made you uncomfortable or statements with which you disagreed?” (Consider using a strategy from Close and Critical Reading Strategies found in Perspectives for a Diverse America during reading.)

2. Write this paragraph on an easel or white board: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch."

3. With the whole class or in small groups (or as prep for an individual quick-write) explain to students that most white Americans are natural-born citizens and not immigrants. Ask: “What do you think Obama means when he says "‘their experience is the immigrant experience’"?


Part 2: Analyzing textbooks

1. Break the class into at four groups, and distribute copies of the Textbook Assessment Worksheet to each student. Assign each group one part of the assessment and make sure each group has at least one textbook. Instruct students to answer the questions section of the assessment using their textbook. Review how to use the table of contents, index, subject headings, and chapter summaries to quickly locate information.

2. Give students 30 minutes to work in groups. Reconvene when the groups have completed their portion of the Assessment. Ask each group to have a presenter share with the rest of the class the group’s answers. Students should record answers from other groups on their Textbook Assessment Worksheet.

3. Ask students to revisit and probe more deeply into the original question about ‘the immigrant experience.’ Ask them to discuss these questions.

  • “Most white Americans are natural-born citizens and not immigrants. What do you think Obama means when he says ‘their experience is the immigrant experience’" Has your answer changed? If so, why?
  • “Do you think the experience of white Americans is any more an ‘immigrant experience’ than any other ethnic group? Why or why not?
  • “Did your assessment of your history textbook give you any insight as to why Obama would make this statement?
  • “How is the ‘immigrant experience’ of whites the same as, or different from, the experience of people coming to the U.S. currently? Do the differences matter? Why or why not?
  • “Much of the talk about race in your textbook – and in American society – revolves around the concept of ‘white’ people. What does this term mean? Who do you think created classifications such as ‘white,’ ‘black’ or ‘Latino?’ Why or why not?
  • “Besides the ‘immigrant narrative,’ what other narratives are possible in an American history textbook? What words would you use to describe the African Americans or Native American experience? What do you think of the coverage of these narratives in your textbook?”

Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.2, R.4, R.6, R.8, R.9, W.2, W.9, SL.1, SL.2


Extension Activity

Ask students: What narratives you would like to see covered in greater detail in your textbook? Do you want to know more about African culture before 1500, more about how Puerto Rico came under U.S. control or more about the political structures of Cherokee society? Ask students to identify passages in the textbook that did not satisfy them and to work in teams to re-write those passages, adding additional information, where needed. Tell them they will act as historians, as they re-write, or revise or add a page of their textbook or a sidebar on an important topic. They should include citations to show how their sources.

Do Something

Have students write letters to publishers with recommendations from the Extension Activity, asking they publish textbooks that include all American’s perspectives.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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