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Who Are Americans?

by Lucy Griffin

In the context of fair lending, predatory lending concerns, and meeting the credit needs of low- and moderate-income members of our community, it is worth pulling back from time to time and think about why. What, exactly, do these social policy laws do for us? It comes down to who we are and who Americans are.

Recently, I began some genealogy research. My uncle wanted some answers to a few family tree questions. The answers are interesting and have caused me to think about who we are as Americans and what we do - or should - stand for.

Some of these ancestors emigrated from an area in Germany called the Paletine. They were driven out of their homes and homeland for worshiping in the wrong kind of church. Like many others, they came to the American colonies seeking religious freedom.

My particular ancestors made this journey about 1750. Rumor has it that the trip wasn't a whole lot of fun. In fact, there are plenty of stories about how miserable the trip was. It is especially miserable when you weren't allowed to take any property or money with you other than what you were wearing. Under those circumstances, coming up with the fare is a bit difficult. Then there was the "disembarkment" fee - which had to be paid in order to get off the boat. If you had no money starting out, coming up with this fee meant indenturing a member of the family or selling the clothes off your back.

There was also the language problem. Apparently there was a law requiring all immigrants to have English names (or names that passed for English), so people had to strip themselves of their identity and language in order to get off the boat. As an indication that they weren't entirely happy to do this, they kept both their native and their English names for several generations, making research an interesting challenge.

Approximately 25 years after emigrating, these same people picked up their rifles and stood with other Americans in the Revolutionary War. They wintered at Valley Forge, crossed the Delaware with Washington, and faced their former neighbors, Hessian mercenaries, in battle.

When did they become Americans? What does it mean to become an American? Being an American is both a commitment and a journey. What I find most interesting in this history is that it is being relived today. As a nation we absorb people from all over the world, speaking many different languages, living with many different cultures, but we all want the same thing. Today's immigrants, and the immigrants of the 20th century and the 19th century, all come here for the same reasons: religious freedom, economic opportunity, and basic liberties. Whether from Vietnam, Iran, Ethiopia, or any of the many sources of Americans, we all have this in common.

There is an unfortunate human tendency to compete. Too often, we do this by putting down those we perceive as competition. Keeping up with the Joneses often involves criticizing the Joneses. This is where, for financial institutions, compliance comes into the picture. Compliance is comprised of laws that remind us to be fair and to treat each customer with the respect that we want for ourselves. These laws are designed, not for the burden that they place on financial institutions, but for the opportunities that they provide consumers - Americans new and old.

When we wonder why we need a CRA or an ECOA or a TILA, we only need to look back at history. Without American ideals and the laws that make those ideals a reality, we could quickly lose what is most precious: the value we place on our rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The next time a new customer enters your institution, struggling with the language, see your own ancestors as well as the customer in front of you. This new customer is the future of what we hold dear.

Copyright © 2004 Compliance Action. Originally appeared in Compliance Action, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2/04

First published on 02/01/2004

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