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A fragmenting America? – Pt. 2

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 19, 2010

In the Part 1 of this post, I asked whether Americans were increasingly dividing along the “culture wars” battlefront – an impression one would certainly get from media coverage of politics over the last decade or two. The research shows that, while the political class has become more polarized in the last generation, average Americans have not. On the so-called values issues, with the possible exception of abortion, Americans cluster around the middle, not in two opposed camps, and that middle has moved a bit to the left.

Source: Pepperdine University

If the “culture wars” description of a fragmenting America is not accurate, does that mean that there are no growing divisions? Not necessarily. Here, I consider three deeper cleavages among Americans: by immigration status, by race, and by class (especially, by education).

(I draw largely on this 2009 article and chapter 9 of Century of Difference.)


Today, about 13 percent of residents in the United States were born outside the country (see this pdf). Many Americans fear that these immigrants, especially those from Latin countries, are forming a separate, crystallized fragment of our society. In 2007, about 20% of  the population aged 5 years old or older spoke some language other English at home (up from about 11% in 1980) and 12% of residents spoke Spanish at home (see this excel table).

These numbers should be put into perspective. The percentage of people in the U.S. who were born elsewhere is about middling for western nations, considerably below, for example, Canada at 21% and Switzerland at 23%. (See chart here.)  Percent of U.S. population foreign-born Historically, the percentage of American foreign born is still below its previous peak around 1910. (See chart below.) More importantly, immigrants in that earlier period were more isolated – fewer, for example, spoke English – than immigrants today (see this post). And, there was much more social turmoil around immigration then and in the 19th century than now – including, for instance, murderous attacks on many Chinese and Italian immigrants around 1900.

Historical perspective notwithstanding, it is true that Spanish-speakers have formed a distinct subgroup in the United States, complete with not only the sort of organizations and newspapers that earlier immigrants had but also with modern media including at least two major television networks, Univision and Telemundo. There are many neighborhoods in America where Spanish is the common language (as was true for Italian, Yiddish, Polish, and so forth in earlier periods).

Where this is going is less clear. Indications are that Latino children and grandchildren in the U.S. are, like the Eastern and Southern Europeans of 1910 before them, assimilating into the wider society and, as part of that, losing their Spanish. (See, again, this post.) But we cannot predict that or any outcome. A lot depends on what the economies and birth rates of the U.S. and Mexico will be and what immigration policies will be ten or twenty years down the road. (In case of the European immigrants’ assimilation, we should remember that the U.S. slammed the door in 1924.)


In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission), which was appointed by President Johnson to explain the violent uprisings in American ghettos during the 1960s, wrote: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Over 40 years later, the optimistic conclusion is that the Kerner Commission was wrong: Black-white differences have narrowed – in occupations, residence, social acceptance, political power, and so forth; even racial intermarriage, although quite low, has increased.

The pessimistic conclusion is that the racial division has not closed that much. Black-white differences remain the largest divide in American society, racial discrimination certainly persists, and race often is the single most determining factor in life outcomes such as where people live, their health and happiness, and their encounters with the justice system.

Several scholars have projected that the racial division in the United States will persist, but in a new form. If the past dividing line was between whites and non-whites, the 21st- century dividing line, they project, is likely to be between blacks and non-blacks. As Asians and Latinos assimilate – much the way the Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews became culturally “white” – the big split will be between the descendants of American slaves and the rest.


The major way Americans are clearly dividing – and the one which seems to get the least attention – is social class. Many people are aware of the widening gap among Americans by income. Over the last 40 years, with a brief respite during the late 1990s, the spread in annual incomes between those who get more and those who get less has grown. In some periods, the poor fell behind the rest; in others, the very high earners moved way ahead of everyone else. But, in the end, the spread in incomes grew.

Less well-known is that the gap in wealth – in people’s assets, including house values, bank accounts, investments, minus their debts – is much, much wider than the income gap. And it is more consequential. While annual incomes fluctuate — people are unemployed for a spell, others retire, business income can go up and down –  wealth persists much more. True, stock market fluctuations inflate or reduce the the paper holdings of the rich. Setting that aside, the differences among Americans in wealth have generally widened over the last few decades. Moreover, more wealth breeds more income and yet more wealth through investments. And wealth gets passed on from generation to generation (the estate tax is now zero for almost everyone), fixing the social positions of families over the generations.

Perhaps even more profound than the income and wealth divisions has been a growing split among Americans by their levels of education, especially between the college graduates and those with less education. Of course, the more educated gain more secure jobs, earn more money, and accumulate more wealth than the less educated. But the division runs deeper: Increasingly, college graduates live in different urban areas and neighborhoods than the less educated do. Increasingly, college-educated (and post-graduate) Americans marry one another. A wide gap has opened between the more and less educated in their chances of getting married, getting divorced, and raising children with two parents. Education also shapes people’s lifestyles and how they raise their children, which means that the educated are able to pass on cultural advantages like exposure to the arts and foreign travel (along with financial resources). In these various ways, the material and social divisions by levels of education are growing wider.


In historical perspective, divisiveness in America, however noisily it shows up on the TV screen, is not particularly remarkable. Compared to the sectional fights of the mid-19th century, the violent labor struggles later in that century, the street battles mounted against immigrants when the suspect groups were Irish, Italian, and Chinese, and even the burning cities of the 1960s, today’s fracases are not that great. But, beyond the theater of the culture wars are more serious concerns about fragmentation — how this era’s immigrants will assimilate, if and when “The American Dilemma” of race might be resolved, and whether the trend toward greater class divisions might be halted.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “A fragmenting America? – Pt. 2

  1. When I moved to Southeast Tennessee to take a job as a director of community development in the mid-60’s the Civil Rights Act had been passed the year before, and the Bradley County/Cleveland Tennessee school systems were belatedly implementing plans to eliminate their segregated school systems and fully integrate. I naively thought to myself “the Supreme Court decided against segregation, ergo the rule of law shall prevail.” During the next few months I made friends in the African American section of Cleveland. I was invited to eat dinner in their homes, attend church socials an give talks to the dominant “political club” (at that time there were no NAACP or SCLC). (Interestingly enough none of my white colleagues at the agency where I was deputy director ever invited me to dinner at their homes during the 4 years I worked there.) They wanted to know what community development was all about and what would it do for their kids and grandkids. At the very least , and even though I was obviously white, I was considered to have the facts and would give honest answers to questions ask. One of the questions I was asked “would in the next few years would the government go back on its word and try to reinstate Jim Crow laws. I said “I don’t see that being possible. This is a period of major social change and retrenchment didn’t make any sense politically or otherwise.” Then the debate began. “Dred Scott and Plessey vs Ferguson were decisions made by the US Supreme Court, right? And Brown vs the Board of Education was also a decision made by the Supreme Court, right? Now, once things calm down and white folks get their act together, what’s to prevent them going to the Supreme Court to take it all back?” Few of the men in the room had more than a high school education but they knew their stuff. My answer: “nothing.” Then came the question: “why do you think it won’t happen again?” I said off the top of my head and putting political science explanations aside: “It would cost too much. The mayor and the county judge of the county court (Tennessee’s equivalent of a CEO of the County Commission) both told me at length how much money was being saved by closing schools The kids went to other schools in January.) and how they were going to spend the money to buy things for “education.” “True” was the response “but the community didn’t have any say cause no negroes are on the school boards and they’re spending money on the white schools where are kids are looked at as outsiders and should be grateful, thankful that they’re being treated so well.”


    ***All neighborhood schools in the negro section of town except for two in-town elementary schools were closed. One was in such disrepair as to constitute a health hazard for the kids and teachers. The parents and neighborhood leaders complained to the school at ever meeting and asked that their children be bussed to safer cleans schools. At every meeting they were met with all sorts of excuses why it couldn’t be done during the school year. So come Christmas Vacation an “act of God caught the school on fire and everything burned to the ground , except the detached gym, which the neighborhood wanted turn into a community center.


    At that point I had to plead ignorance and no experience with the (white) Southern Way of Life. I said “even though our local and state officials are morally and ethically challenged, their greed and brags to white voters about how much tax money they’ve saved would temper their desire to turn back the clock.”

    “Maybe. We wouldn’t put it past whitey to do something stupid. If he thinks we’re going to put up with that bulll shit again he’d better watch out.”

    The meeting went on to other more important things like the covered dish supper that was getting cold and causing the cooks to fuss.


    Here we are 40 years later and what I’m sure had often been discussed behind close doors now has the courage to the become public utterance of a Senator from South Carolina who is talking about illegal aliens but African Americans he could just as well be talking about them. Ugly!

  2. UC scientists and scholars have committed one of the worst case scenario acts of Us/Them fragmentation against the citizens of California, as well as against humanity for over the last half century.

    The real question still remains: How could we have failed so outrageously to take advantage of the Golden Age legacy of opportunities produced by the extreme sacrifices of the Greatest Generation.

    A key fact is that the increasingly unacceptable, out of control consequences we are experiencing today could have been prevented if UC had not marginalized the gravest of warnings by President Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    We are rapidly running out of time waiting for UC to produce Hybrid Fusion/Desalination plants, with the same sense of urgency as the Manhattan Project, before we topple far too many tipping points because UC failed to heed the Keeling Curves and Ike’s warning for far too long.

  3. Three days after high school I was standing in a chow line at 4:30 A.M., with a cold head, surrounded by black, brown, red, yellow and white young men. Instantly we were a team, diverse yes, but with a common goal, to survive and have a chance at better life when we got out. The military was a way out of class and cultural isolation, an opportunity to learn about other peoples and other lands. We need a “Draft” now, a no exceptions chance for everyone to come together for a few years, to work, to learn, to share our dreams for the future by addressing the Nation’s needs, not just its wars.

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