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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.