Identification. The name "America" is often used to refer to the United States, but until the political formation of the United States after the Revolutionary War, this designation referred to South America only. Contemporary use of the term to refer to the United States underlines that country's political and economic dominance in the western hemisphere. Such use of this designation is impolitic from the perspective of Canadians and Latin Americans.
The United States has an Anglo majority that is politically and economically dominant. One of the defining characteristics of the country as a nation is its legacy of slavery and the persistence of economic and social inequalities based on race.
U.S. culture has significant regional inflections. Most Americans are aware of these differences despite the fact that these regions have experienced economic transformations and that Americans are a mobile people who often leave their regions of origin.
The Northeast is densely populated. Its extensive corridors of urbanization have been called the national "megalopolis." Once a leader in technology and industry, the Northeast has been overtaken in those areas by California's Silicon Valley.
The Midwest is both rural and industrial. It is the home of the family farm and is the "corn belt" and "breadbasket" of the nation. In the Great Lakes area of the upper Midwest, the automobile and steel industries were central to community and economy. As those industries declined, the upper Midwest became known as the rust belt.
The South was shaped by its secession from the Union before the Civil War and is associated with slavery and with subsequent battles over civil rights for African-Americans. In contemporary terms, these are the sunshine states, retirement havens, and new economic frontiers.
The West, the last national frontier, is associated with national dreams and myths of unlimited opportunity and individualism. It has the nation's most open landscapes.
California, along with the southwestern states were ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. The Southwest is distinctive because of its historical ties to colonial Spain, its Native American populations, and its regional cuisine, which has been influenced by Native American and Spanish cultures.
Location and Geography. The United States is the world's fourth largest country, with an area of 3,679,192 square miles (9,529,107 square kilometers). It includes fifty states and one federal district, where the capital, Washington, D.C., is located. Its forty-eight contiguous states are situated in the middle of North America. The mainland United States borders Canada to the north and Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Straits of Florida to the south. The western border meets the Pacific Ocean, and to the east lies the Atlantic Ocean.
Alaska and Hawaii are not joined to the other forty-eight states. Alaska is at the extreme north of North America, between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, and is bordered by Canada to the east. The island chain of Hawaii is situated in the east-central Pacific Ocean, about two thousand miles southwest of San Francisco.
Although Americans generally do not consider themselves an imperial or colonial power, the country has a number of commonwealths and territories, most of which were acquired through military conquest. These territories include Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean basin, and Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Wake island in the Pacific.
The physical environment is extremely diverse and often spectacular. Alaska's glaciers coexist with flowering tundras that bloom in the arctic summer. The forests of the Pacific Northwest and northern California are known for giant ancient trees such as Sitka spruce and sequoia (redwoods). Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon are a few of the better-known landscapes.
The physical regions of the country overlap both national boundaries and cultural regions. For example, the Atlantic coastal plain extends from New England to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It is characterized by flooded river valleys that form major estuaries, such as the Chesapeake Bay.
The Appalachian Mountains span two cultural regions. Located to the west of the Atlantic coastal plain, they extend from the Middle Atlantic state of New York to the southeastern state of Georgia. The Appalachians are an old, eroded mountain range that is now heavily forested. It is possible to traverse the entire range by walking the two-thousand-mile Appalachian Trail.
The interior lowlands area also crosses regions and national borders. It includes the Midwestern corn belt and the Great Plains wheat-growing region. The Great Plains section of the interior lowlands stretches into Canada.
The Western Cordillera is part of a mountain chain that stretches from Chile in South America to Alaska. The highest peak in the country, Mount McKinley (Denali), is in the Western Cordillera in Alaska. The Western Intermontane Plateau, or Great Basin, crosses from the mountain states into the west.
Major navigable inland waterways include the Mississippi River, which cuts north to south through the east-central part of the country; the Great lakes in the upper Midwest, the largest freshwater lake group in the world; and the Saint Lawrence River.
The physical environment has had significant effects on regional cultures. The rich topsoil of the Midwest made it an important agricultural area; its rivers and lakes made it central to industrial development. However, settlers significantly transformed their environments, recreating the landscapes they had left behind in Europe. The vast prairies of the Great Plains, which were characterized by numerous species of tall grasses, have been transformed by irrigation and modern agricultural methods into continuous fields of soybeans and wheat. In the West, a series of pipelines and dams transformed Los Angeles and its desert surroundings into a giant oasis.
American settlers were not the first to transform these landscapes; native American groups also altered the lands on which they depended. Fire was used in hunting, and this expanded the prairie; irrigation was used in settled communities that practiced agriculture; and maize, a crop that cannot grow without human manipulation, was a staple crop.
The idea that the environment shapes culture or character does have cultural currency. Over a century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that the American frontier experience had been instrumental in forming the rugged, independent, and democratic national character. Wilderness, independence, and democracy are common aspects of American symbolism.
Demography. The United States has a population of over 280 million (2000 census), but it is relatively sparsely populated. The most populous state, California, with 33,871,648 inhabitants, contrasts with Wyoming, which has only 493,782 residents.
These population figures reflect the fact that the United states is an urban nation. Over 75 percent of the inhabitants live in cities, among whom more than 50 percent are estimated to be suburban. Population growth is at below-replacement levels unless immigration is taken into account.
One of the most significant facts about the population is that its average age is on the rise. The baby boomers born in the period from the end of World War II until the early 1960s are beginning to get old.
Life expectancy is seventy-three years for white men and seventy-nine years for white women. African-American men have a life expectancy of sixty-seven years; in inner-city areas, the average life expectancy of African-American males is much lower. Infant mortality rates are higher among African-Americans than among whites.
U.S. Census categories identify populations according to whether they are of European descent (white). Whites constitute a large majority at about 70 percent of the population. According to current census figures, in the year 2000 the largest minority was blacks, who number about 35 million, or 13 percent of the population.
The Hispanic (Latino) population, which includes primarily people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban (who may be any color) descent, is estimated to number 31 million, or 12 percent of the population. Latinos are expected to become the largest minority group early in the twenty-first century.
The Asian population (including Pacific Islanders) is defined as people of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese origin. It is estimated that there are eleven million Asians, making up about 4 percent of the population.
The Native American population, which includes natives of Alaska such as the Inuit and Aleuts, is estimated to consist of over two million people, slightly over 1 percent of the population. Roughly a third of Native Americans live on reservations, trust lands, territories, and mother lands under Native American jurisdiction.
Linguistic Affiliation. There is no official national language. If English is its unofficial first language, Spanish is its unofficial second language. The United States ranks fifth in the world in the number of Spanish speakers.
Standard English is the language Americans are expected to speak. Within the social hierarchy of American English dialects, Standard English can be described as the exemplar of acceptable for correct usage based on the model of cultural, economic, and political leaders. There is no clear-cut definition of what Standard English is, and it is often defined by what it is not. For example, it often is contrasted with the type of English spoken by black Americans (African-American Vernacular English).
Standard English grammar and pronunciation are taught by English teachers in public schools. Like "whiteness," this implies a neutral, normative and nonethnic position. However, most Americans do not speak Standard English; instead, they speak a range of class, ethnic, and regional variants.
Spoken English includes many dialects that have been influenced by Native Americans, immigrants, and slaves. These languages include not only Dutch, German, and Scandinavian, Asian, and African languages, but less widely spoken languages such as Basque, Yiddish, and Greek. Thus, spoken English reflects the nation's immigration and history.
As linguistic diversity has increased, and particularly as Spanish has become more widely spoken, language has become an important aspect of the debate over the meaning or nature of American culture. Linguistic and cultural diversity is accepted in states such as New York and Illinois, where Spanish bilingual education is mandated in the public schools. In California, however, where tensions between Anglos and Mexican immigrants run high, bilingual education has been abolished in the public school systems. State laws prohibit even bilingual personnel from using Spanish with Spanish-speaking patients in hospitals or with students in schools.
Bilingual education is not new. In the nineteenth century, Germans outnumbered all other immigrant groups except for all the people from the British Isles combined. With the exception of Spanish speakers in the Southwest, at no other time has foreign language been so widely spoken. German-only newspapers and German and bilingual public schools were found throughout the Midwest and Oregon and Colorado and elsewhere from the mid-nineteenth century until World War I, when anti-German sentiment resulted in the elimination of German instruction in public schools.
Other languages used in the press and in public schools included Yiddish, Swedish, and Norwegian. Thus, proponents of English only, who claim that bilingual education should not be provided to Spanish-speaking immigrants because earlier immigrants did not have this advantage, overlook the fact that those immigrants often were schooled in their native languages.
Education was important in spreading English as a standard language. Public schools played a major role; by 1870, every state in the country had committed itself to compulsory education. The percentage of foreign-born persons who were unable to speak English peaked 31 percent in 1910, by 1920 had decreased to 15 percent, and by 1930 had fallen less than 9 percent. Among Native Americans, English was enforced by the establishment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of compulsory boarding schools for school-age children. Contemporary Native American speech patterns can be traced to that experience.
Symbolism. The flag is perhaps the most potent and contested national symbol. Made up of stripes symbolizing the original thirteen colonies and fifty stars representing the fifty states, it is displayed on national holidays such as Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day. Public places and businesses raise the flag as a matter of course. Individuals who display the flag in their homes or yards make an explicit statement about their patriotic connection to the nation.
The flag is also employed frequently as a symbol of protest. In the nineteenth century, northern abolitionists hoisted the flag upside down to protest the return of an escaped slave to his southern owner, and upside-down flags continue to be used as a sign of protest. The use of the stars and stripes design of the flag in clothing, whether for fashion, humor, or protest, is controversial and is considered by some people to be akin to treason and by others to be an individual right in a state that upholds individual rights.
Nationalism and community solidarity frequently are expressed through sports. In the Olympic games, patriotic symbols abound, and victors are heralded for their American qualities of determination, individualism, and competitiveness. In the same way, football games connect fans to one another and to their communities through a home team. The game expresses the important value of competition: unlike soccer, American football games can never end in a tie. Football also reflects cultural ideals about sex and gender; the attire of players and cheerleaders exaggerates male and female sex characteristics.
Emergence of the Nation. The first European settlements date from the early sixteenth century and included Spanish towns in Florida and California, French outposts in Louisiana, and British settlements in New England. The United States of America was declared in 1776 by colonists from England who wanted independence from that country and its elite representatives in the colonies.
The class, racial, ethnic, and gender relationships of the contemporary nation have their roots in the colonial period. Unsuccessful efforts by British settlers to enslave Native Americans were followed by the importation of African slaves to work on cotton plantations in the South and of white indentured servants to work in the emerging industries in the North.
British taxation fell disproportionately on poor white laborers and indentured servants. This sector was instrumental in organizing the protests and boycotts of British goods that culminated in the American Revolution. Women participated in the Revolution by running farms and businesses during the war.
The egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution did not extend to slaves, and after independence, full citizenship rights did not extend to all whites. Men and women who did not own property had no voting rights. (Women did not gain the right to vote until the early twentieth century.) The area west of the Appalachians was settled by poor whites seeking land and autonomy from wage labor.
After 1820, when poor white men gained the vote in most states, women began to see their own lack of political rights in a new way. Women's ability to connect their powerlessness to that of men in relationship to plantation owners made them active in the abolitionist movement. However, after the Civil War when freed male slaves, but not freed women or white women, were given the right to vote, the women's suffrage movement broke with the civil rights movement in the South.
State laws enacted in the South after the Civil War enforced racial separation by keeping freed men out of skilled and industrial jobs, limited their political rights through restrictive voting registration practices, and enforced segregation at all levels, including in housing and education.
Women were an essential part of the industrial labor force in the early years of the nation. Their work in textile manufacturing helped provide commodities for an expanding population and freed men to work in the agricultural sector. Women were active in labor union organizing in the nineteenth century.
The emerging nation also was shaped by its territorial expansion. After the Revolution, the United States included only thirteen former British colonies in the Northeast and the Southeast. Territories to the west and south of the original colonies were acquired through later purchases and concessions. The most important of these acquisitions was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, by which the country doubled its territory. This purchase signaled the beginning of western expansion beyond the Appalachians. It became the country's "manifest destiny" to expand from the eastern to the western shore.
During this time, the Indian wars that eventually subdued the major Native American groups and drove them west to reservation lands were waged. In 1838, President Andrew Jackson rounded up thousands of Cherokees from North Carolina and marched them to "Indian territory," then a large area that included Oklahoma. One of every four Cherokees died of cold, hunger, or disease, and the Cherokees named this march the Trail of Tears.
Another major expansion occurred after the Mexican-American War. In 1848, Mexico was compelled to sell its northern territories to the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo conceded California and what is now the Southwest, considerably expanding the continental United States and broadening its ethnic and linguistic profile.
In 1890, at the Battle of Wounded Knee, many of the Sioux were massacred, and the survivors were forced onto Pine Ridge Reservation. This battle marked the disappearance of the traditional Native American way of life. In the same year, the Census Bureau observed that the continental United States had been settled by whites in virtually every corner. The American frontier was considered closed.
National Identity. Often referred to as a melting pot, the United States is popularly regarded as a nation that assimilates or absorbs immigrant populations to produce a standard American. This is a powerful cultural idea. The word "American" conjures up an image of a person of white, middle-class status. All other residents, including the area's indigenous inhabitants, are "hyphenated" or characterized by an identifying adjective: African-American, Native American, Asian-American, Mexican-American. The national Census does not hyphenate Americans of European descent.
Huge waves of non-European immigration since the 1960s have made the United States the nation with the highest immigrant population in the world. This fact, combined with the many identity and civil rights movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, has created a new kind of cultural politics that challenges the country's Anglo identity and power base.
Ethnic Relations. From colonial times, indentured servants and other poor whites constituted a buffer between landowners and slaves, who made up the bottom rung of the social ladder. Poor whites self-identified as white to associate themselves with the powerful landowning class rather than see their common interests with slaves. This process accentuated the dominance of white racial identity over class identity.
The "whiteness" of buffer groups has been ambiguous, changing along with their position in the labor market. Although now considered white, the Irish immigrants who arrived in great numbers in the early nineteenth century occupied the lowest rungs of the labor force next to slaves and often were referred to as "white niggers."
Between 1848, when lands from Mexico were annexed, and the 1930s, Americans of Mexican descent were classified as white. As Mexicans became important as laborers in the expanding agribusiness sector, those people were reclassified as Mexican-American. The large waves of immigrants who poured into the country from Southern and Eastern Europe between 1880 and World War I made up a new buffer group. This group included large numbers of Jews who did not come to be considered white for several generations.
Relationships among racial and ethnic groups have been mediated by this association between status, whiteness, and position in the labor market. Between 1916 and 1929, African-American laborers migrated to the North to work in industrial jobs. Paid less than whites for comparable jobs, they were regarded by white workers as union busters and scabs. African-Americans also received less than their share of the social benefits extended to whites after World War II. Federal programs for returning veterans included housing and educational subsidies. Most of these white groups considered their own ascension into the middle class as being the result of sweat and determination.
The United States is an urban and suburban nation whose numerous cities each tell a story about its historical and economic development. New York, founded by the Dutch as a trading colony, was once the hunting and fishing grounds of Native Americans. It became an important industrial center in the nineteenth century, but by the mid-twentieth century its industries had declined and much of its middle class population had relocated to the suburbs. As the twenty-first century begins, New York is a "global" city resurrected from decline by its role as a center of finance in the world economy. Like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have emerged as important cities in connected world.
Many cities are notable for their particular regional roles. Saint Louis, situated on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, was an important transportation hub in the nineteenth century before railroads replaced riverboats as the most efficient form of travel. Once known as the "Gateway to the West," it was the last outpost of civilization as the country expanded to the west. Today, it is possible to see the Arch, a monument to the expansionist past, from nearby Cahokia, which houses the ruins of one of the largest cities in the world of its time. Between 900 and 1300 C.E. , this city built by the indigenous Mississippian culture was larger than most contemporary European cities.
In colonial times, cities were divided along racial and class lines. The row house, a series of attached dwellings, was a common form of housing. It symbolized the defensive posture of early settlers, whose enclaves protected them from the untamed wilderness and its Indian inhabitants. The elites lived in the central city, often with slave quarters behind their homes. The working classes and urban slaves who eventually were allowed to live apart from their masters resided in peripheral areas and the early suburbs. In early American cities, there was no separation between the workplace and the home. Most goods were produced by artisans who lived and worked in the same building. As the country industrialized, home and workplace became distinct.
During the nineteenth century, the suburb was transformed from a space for social outcasts and the lower classes to a space for the elite. A number of factors led to the suburbanization that is central to modern American life. A romantic engagement with the countryside arose as the frontier expanded to the west and the wilderness receded from view in the East. The noise and pollution of the industrialized cities of the nineteenth century, as well as the presence of the working classes, made them less attractive to the elites. These factors combined with a transportation revolution made possible by cable cars and railroads.
Cities were stopovers for new immigrants, who soon began to move to the suburbs, and the permanent domains of the working poor and, until recently, black Americans of all classes, who were kept out of suburbs through discriminatory real estate and zoning practices. Suburbs were organized along class and ethnic lines, and cities became the repositories of the most disadvantaged.
The early suburbs of the elite classes were characterized by large and architecturally unique homes. Beginning in the early twentieth century, federal subsidies such as deductible mortgage interest and loan programs made suburban living a possibility for working-class and middle-class immigrants. Standard designs and quick building methods resulted in uninspired architecture but relatively inexpensive housing.
The use of the automobile and the growth of highways made possible a nationwide suburban sprawl of which shopping malls and motels are ubiquitous reminders. Americans have a complex relationship to the suburb. On the one hand, it represents success, family life, and safety from the chaos and danger of the city, fulfilling the peculiarly American promise that every family should be able to own its own home. On the other hand, the monotony of this landscape is a metaphor for cultural conformity, social isolation, and racism.
For women, suburban life is particularly ambiguous. The suburb promises a large home and yard and a safe and healthy place in which to raise children, but the single-family home isolates women from the extended family networks and friends that make child rearing less onerous.
Suburbs are often referred to as bedroom communities, suggesting that suburbanites depend on a nearby city for employment, services, and cultural activities. However, the growth of suburban industries and services that allow suburbanites to work in their own communities points to the declining dependency of suburbs on city centers.
By the 1970s, white flight from the cities created an urban-suburban landscape aptly described as Chocolate City/Vanilla Suburb, referring to the racial separation of blacks and whites. Cities were mythologized in the popular imagination as wild and dangerous places riddled with crime, gang violence, and drugs. Young black males and welfare mothers were the symbols of social problems.
Beginning in the 1980s, young urban professionals began to "reclaim" the cities, rehabilitating the aging and often decrepit housing stock. This process of gentrification turns cities into the new American frontier, where professionals drawn to major financial centers such as New York and Los Angeles are the "pioneers" and black and Hispanic residents are the "Indians."
Food in Daily Life. Americans eat large amounts of processed, convenience, and fast foods. The average diet is high in salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates. It is estimated that 60 percent of Americans are obese. The preference for packaged and processed foods is culturally rooted. Americans as a whole enjoy the taste of hamburgers, hot dogs, and junk foods. Processed foods generally are perceived to be cleaner or more safe than unprocessed foods.
Industrial food producers use advertising to associate processed foods with the desirable modern and industrial qualities of speed, cleanliness, and efficiency. Speed of preparation was essential in a nation of nuclear family households where wives and mothers did not have relatives to help them and usually were solely responsible for food preparation.
However, gourmet, regional, and alternative styles of eating are highly influential. Gourmet foods, including high quality fresh and local produce, imported cheeses, fine coffees, and European kinds of bread, are available in every city and in many towns.
Regional cuisines, from cheese steaks in Philadelphia to the green chili stews of New Mexico and the grits of the South, are culinary reminders that the country encapsulates many different traditions.
An alternative tradition is the health food movement, which includes a preference for unprocessed foods and fruits and vegetables that have not been chemically treated or genetically altered. Some health food proponents are concerned primarily with avoiding the heavily processed foods that make up the bulk of the traditional diet. Others also see the consumption of organic products, which generally are produced by small, labor-intensive farms, as a way to fight the ecological damage caused by agricultural chemicals and challenge the corporate nature of food production.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Americans have few occasions that they term ceremonial. In the case of weddings, funerals, and other rites, few fixed food rules apply. Most weddings, whether religious or secular, include a large tiered cake. After the wedding, the newlyweds feed each other a piece of the cake. At Jewish funerals, fish, usually smoked or pickled, and eggs may be served as symbols of life's continuation. Some Americans, particularly in the South, eat hopping john, a dish made with black-eyed peas, to bring good luck in the New Year.
Americans have many fixed food rituals to accompany events and occasions not generally considered ceremonial. Waking up is accompanied by coffee. Social occasions usually include alcohol. Hot dogs and beer are ubiquitous at sporting events, and popcorn and candy are consumed at movie theaters.
Basic Economy. The United States has an advanced industrial economy that is highly mechanized. The gross national product is the largest in the world. The country more than meets its own economic needs and is the world's leading exporter of food. Moreover, it is a dominant force in world finance.
The major challenges facing the economy are to maintain profits by keeping production costs low and to increase consumer markets. Besides mechanizing production to reduce labor costs, firms sub-contract production to less developed countries where those costs are much lower. At the same time, advertising firms that help market these goods to consumers at home and in other countries now constitute one of the biggest industries in the country.
The basic unit of currency is the dollar, with one hundred cents making one dollar.
Land Tenure and Property. Land tenure is based largely on private ownership, but the government owns an enormous amount of land. Private property is culturally valued, and this is best expressed in the high rate of home ownership. Historically, the United States was an agricultural nation, and it culturally has a romantic image of the small, independent farm family battling the elements on the prairie.
The ways in which federal lands were apportioned to settlers and developers constitutes a mixed legacy. Land grants made to pioneer families and the public universities in every state point to a democratic apportionment of land. However, many private companies gained access to large tracts of public lands. For example, federal land grants made to railroads in the nineteenth century resulted in the consolidation of wealth by railroad company directors who sold parcels of that land and by timber companies that bought large tracts of forested land from the railroads at low prices. Contemporary patterns of landholding in the Pacific Northwest reflect this legacy of land accumulation by a few large timber firms.
Commercial Activities. The vast majority of businesses are clustered within the service industry, including finance, advertising, tourism, and various professions.
Major Industries. Important manufacturing industries include petroleum, steel, motor vehicles, aerospace, telecommunications, chemicals, electronics, food processing, lumber, and mining.
The family farm is clearly on the decline. Most people who claim farming as their occupation work for an agricultural firm and do not own their own land. Since 1940, the United States has been the world's largest producer of wheat, corn, and soybeans, it produces over 40 percent of the world's corn and 45 percent of its soybeans. However, between 1940 and 1990, the number of farms fell from over six million to just over two million. Although occasional attention is paid to the "plight of the family farm," the growth of agribusiness has not resulted in major overt conflicts because most Americans see corporate growth as the fair outcome of free enterprise and competition.
Tension arises in cases where property is publicly owned. During the nineteenth century, the federal government reserved large tracts of western land for federal and common uses. Logging or grazing on these lands is regulated and requires permits. During the sagebrush rebellion of the 1980s, private developers and ranchers who wanted free access to
Many environmental conflicts become battles between private developers and companies and the federal government. For example, endangered species are protected under federal rules. In the Pacific Northwest, this legislation mandated the protection of the spotted owl habitat, prohibiting logging in areas with owl nests. Loggers regarded owl protection as an assault on their livelihood and their constitutional right to private property.
Division of Labor. The labor force has always been divided on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender. Skilled jobs in manufacturing and management jobs typically have been more accessible to white men than to black men or women of any race. Within the service industries, there is a technological divide. Blacks and other minorities fill low-skill jobs such as food service and are found less often in managerial positions or the growing hi-tech industries.
Classes and Castes. Most Americans do not believe that theirs is a "class" society. There is a strong cultural belief in the reality of equal opportunity and economic mobility. Rags to riches stories abound, and gambling and lotteries are popular. However, there is evidence that mobility in most cases is limited: working-class people tend to stay in the working classes. Moreover, the top 1 percent of the population has made significant gains in wealth in the last few years. Similar gains have not been made by the poorest sectors. In general, it appears that the gap between rich and poor is growing.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Stratification is visible in many facets of daily life. The social segregation of blacks and whites in cities mirrors their separation in the labor force. The crumbling housing stock of blacks in the inner cities contrasts with giant homes in gated suburbs all across the country. Speech, manners, and dress also signal class position. With some exceptions, strong regional or Spanish accents are associated with working-class status.
Government. The United States is a federal republic composed of a national government and fifty state governments. The political system is dominated by two parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. One of the features of American democracy is low voter turnout. On the average, less than half the eligible voters participate in federal elections.
Also referred to as conservatives and liberals, respectively, Republicans and Democrats differ on certain key social issues. Republicans are generally conservative on social spending and moral issues. They support cuts in federally-sponsored social programs such as welfare. They believe in strengthening institutions such as marriage and the traditional family and usually are opposed to abortion and gay rights. Democrats tend to support federal funding for social programs that favor minorities, the environment, and women's rights. However, critics argue that these two parties set a very narrow range for political debate. Third parties that have emerged on both the left and the right include the Green, Socialist, Farm-Labor, Reform, and Libertarian parties.
The powers and responsibilities of the Federal government are set out in the Constitution, which was adopted in 1789. The national government consists of three branches that are intended to provide "checks and balances" against abuses of power. These branches are the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The executive branch includes the President and federal agencies that regulate everything from agriculture to the military. The legislative branch includes members elected to the upper and lower houses of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. At the state level, government is designed along the same lines, with elected governors, senators, and assemblymen and state courts. The smallest unit of government is the county, which has an elected board, but not all states have a system of county governments.
With the exception of the President, officials are elected directly, on the basis of popular vote. The President is elected by the electoral college. Each state has as many electors as it has senators and representatives, the latter of which are awarded according to population. Electors vote as a bloc within each state. This means that all electoral votes in a state go to the candidate with the plurality of the popular vote within that state. A candidate must win 270 electoral votes to win the election. This system is controversial because it is possible for a President to win a national election without winning a national majority of the popular vote, as happened in the presidential election of 2000.
Leadership and Public Officials. With the exception of local-level offices, politics is highly professionalized: most people who run for political offices are lifelong politicians. Running for a high-level political office is extremely expensive; many politicians in the House and the Senate are wealthy. The expense of winning campaigns requires not only personal wealth, but corporate sponsorship in the form of donations.
Social Problems and Control. Although crime rates have decreased, the United States remains the most violent industrialized nation in the world. The capital city, Washington, D.C., has the highest per capita crime rate in the country. In the nation as a whole, African-Americans, the poor, and teenagers are the most common victims of violent and nonviolent crime.
The country has more people in prison and more people per capita in prison than any other industrialized nation. The prison population is well over one million. These numbers have increased since 1980 as a result of mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. Although African-Americans make up only about 12 percent of the population, they outnumber white inmates in prison. Both African-American and Hispanic men are far more likely to be imprisoned than are white men. Although rates of imprisonment are on the rise for women, women are far less likely to be imprisoned than men of any race or ethnicity. The United States is also the only Western industrialized nation that allows capital punishment, and rates of execution for African-American men are higher than those of any other group.
Cities are perceived to be very dangerous, but crime rate is not consistently higher in urban areas than in rural areas. The elderly tend to be the most fearful of crime but are not its most common victims. Tough penalties for violent crime are often perceived to be a solution, and it is on this basis that the death penalty is defended. Interestingly, Florida and Arizona, which have the death penalty, have the highest rates of violent crime in the country.
The vast majority of crimes in all categories are committed by white males, but in popular culture and the popular imagination, violent criminal tendencies are often associated with African-American and Hispanic males. This perception legitimates a controversial practice called racial profiling, in
Historically, immigrant groups that constituted the urban "rabble" of their day were the subject of intense policing efforts and were believed to have propensities for vice and crime.
Military Activity. The country has officially been at peace since World War II but has unofficially been in almost continuous military conflict. These conflicts have included frequent interventions in Central and South America, the Middle East, and Africa. During the period between the end of World War II and the breakup of the Soviet Union (1989), military interventions frequently involved Cold War motivations. Since that time, the country has used its military forces against Iraq and has supported efforts by other governments to fight the drug war in Central America.
The Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until World War II, posed a real threat to the legitimacy of the American economic model in the eyes of citizens. During that period, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a series of social programs collectively known as the New Deal. Many of those programs, including government-backed pension programs, banking insurance, and unemployment benefits, are still in place. These programs, which were intended to provide a buffer against the inevitable downturns of economic cycles, were also a response to serious social unrest, including strikes and socialist organizing.
Americans generally are not opposed to social benefits such as social security pensions and the insurance of bank deposits. However, general relief programs for the poor, known popularly as welfare, have been very controversial. In a country that believes that all its citizens have an equal chance, where opportunity is unlimited, and where only the lazy are poor, programs for mothers and children and the indigent have been vulnerable to cutbacks. Recently, the federal government made sweeping reforms to the welfare laws that require mothers on welfare to work in order to receive benefits.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) are not as influential as they are in less wealthy nations. Among the NGOs that operate within the country, the most notable is Amnesty International, which has made both political prisoners and torture within American prisons major issues in recent years.
More influential than NGOs are the many nonprofit institutions. These groups are not associated with government agencies or corporate interests. They include a wide spectrum of advocacy and public interest groups that deal with consumer, environmental, and social justice issues. Nonprofits are a main locus for alternative views and left-wing politics. Examples include the American Civil Liberties Union, the various Public Interest Research Groups, Fairness and Accuracy in the Media, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization of Women.
Division of Labor by Gender. Although most women work outside the home, household and child-rearing responsibilities are still overwhelmingly the responsibility of women. The "double day" of women consists of working and then returning home to do domestic chores. This situation persists in spite of the cultural belief that men and women are equal. Studies carried out in middle-class homes, in which couples claim to share household duties, show that women still do the vast majority of domestic work. Although young women as a whole spend much less time on domestic chores than their mothers did, this is attributable not to the fact that men do a significant share of domestic work, but to the fact that women spend less time cooking, cleaning, and caring for children than they did in the past.
Women are paid seventy cents to every male dollar for comparable jobs. Occupations continue to be defined along gender lines. Secretarial or low-level administrative jobs are so overwhelmingly female that they have been termed pink-collar jobs. In the white-collar world, women often occupy middle-management positions. With a few exceptions, the "glass ceiling" keeps women out of high management positions. This situation is justified on the grounds that women take time from their working lives to raise children and therefore do not spend the same amount of time developing their working careers that men do. Occupations requiring nurturing skills, such as teaching and nursing, are still predominantly female.
Within the blue-collar sector, women are underrepresented in jobs considered to require physical strength, such as the construction industries and firefighting. Women often fill low-paid positions in industry, such as assembly-line work, sewing, and electronics assembly. This is justified on the basis that women are by nature more dextrous and that their small hands suit them to assembly-line work. It is more likely that the low wages offered by these factories explains the recruitment of female laborers, whose other options may include even less desirable seasonal and temporary work.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. In legal terms, women have the same formal rights as men. They can vote, own property, choose to marry or divorce, and demand equal wages for equal work. They also have access to birth control and abortion. The status of women in relation to men is very high compared to the situation in many other countries.
However, women as a whole do not receive the same social and economic benefits as men. Women are greatly underrepresented in elected political offices and are more likely to live in poverty. Female occupations both in the home and in the workplace are valued less than men's. Women are more likely than men to suffer from a sense of disempowerment and to have a distorted or low self-image.
Marriage. Marriage is formally a civil institution but is commonly performed in a church. Statistically, marriage appears to be on the decline. Half of all adults are unmarried, including those who have never married and those who are divorced. Rates of marriage are higher among whites than among blacks.
With the exception of Vermont, civil unions are legal only between heterosexual adults. However, gay marriages are increasingly common whether or not they are formally recognized by the state. Some religious denominations and churches recognize and perform gay marriages. The high rate of divorce and remarriage has also increased the importance of stepfamilies.
Domestic Unit. The typical model of the family is the nuclear family consisting of two parents and their children. Upon marriage, adult couples are expected to form their own household separate from either of their biological families. The nuclear family is the cultural ideal but is not always the reality. Immigrant groups have been reported to rely on extended family networks for support. Similarly, among African-American families, where adult males are often absent, extended kin ties are crucial for women raising children.
Inheritance. Americans trace their ancestry and inherit through both the maternal and paternal lines. Surnames are most commonly adopted through the paternal line, with children taking the father's name. Women usually adopt the husband's surname upon marriage, but it is increasingly common for women to keep their own surnames and for the children to use both the father's and the mother's last names.
Kin Groups. Family can refer to a nuclear family group or an extended kin group. The "ideal" family consists of a mother, a father, and two or three children. Americans often distinguish between blood relatives and relatives through marriage; blood relatives are considered more important. Ties among nuclear families generally are closer than ties among extended family members. Adoption is common, but reproductive technologies that allow infertile couples and gay couples to reproduce are highly valued. This reflects the importance of the concept of biological kinship in the culture.
Alternative models of family life are important in American life. A great deal of scholarship has addressed the historical and economic conditions
Infant Care. Infant care varies by class. In New York City, it is common to see women of Dominican and West Indian descent caring for white children. Wealthy people often employ nannies to care for infants. Nannies, who often have children of their own, may have to rely on family members or their older children to watch over their infants. Wealthy or poor, the majority of mothers work outside the home. This, coupled with the fact that many people cannot rely on their extended families to help care for their newborns, makes infant care a challenge. Some employers offer short maternity leaves for mothers and increasingly, paternity leaves for fathers who are primary caregivers.
Child Rearing and Education. Child rearing practices are diverse, but some common challenges apply to all families. It is common to put children in day care programs at an early age. For wealthy families, this entails finding the most elite day care centers; for less wealthy families, it may involve finding scarce places in federally-funded programs. For all working families, day care can be a cause of anxiety and guilt. Negative media stories about child abuse at these centers spoke more to these anxieties than to the actual quality of care. The country makes few provisions for the care of young children considering the fact that most mothers work outside the home.
From age five to age eighteen, public schooling is provided by the state and is universally available. School is mandatory for children until the age of sixteen. Public school education in suburban areas and small cities and towns is usually adequate or excellent.
Inner-city schools are underfunded and have a high proportion of minority students. This reflects a history of white flight to the suburbs and a system in which schools are funded through local property taxes. Thus, in cities abandoned by wealthier whites, both tax bases and school funding have declined. The reputation of inner-city schools is so poor that families that live in cities send their children to private schools if they can afford it. Private schools are mostly white enclaves.
Access to equal education has long been an issue for African-Americans. Until the Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" in 1954, all educational institutions in the South were segregated on the basis of race. However, the legally permitted segregation of the past has been replaced by the de facto segregation of the present.
Higher Education. The level of educational achievement is high. Most Americans complete high school, and almost half receive at least some college education. Almost one-quarter of the population has completed four or more years of college. Rates of graduation from high school and college attendance are significantly lower for African-Americans and Hispanics than for whites.
The quality and availability of colleges and universities are excellent, but a university education is not funded by the state as it is in many Western industrialized nations. The cost of higher education has soared and ranges from a few thousand dollars annually at public institutions to more than ten thousand dollars a year at private institutions. In elite private colleges, the cost of tuition exceeds $20,000 a year.
Among the middle classes, paying for college is a source of anxiety for parents from the moment their children are born. Students from middle-income and low-income families often pay for college with student loans, and the size of these debts is on the increase.
Personal comportment often appears crass, loud, and effusive to people from other cultures, but Americans value emotional and bodily restraint. The permanent smile and unrelenting enthusiasm of the stereotypical American may mask strong emotions whose expression is not acceptable. Bodily restraint is expressed through the relatively large physical distance people maintain with each other, especially men. Breast-feeding, yawning, and passing gas in public are considered rude. Americans consider it impolite to talk about money and age.
Religious Beliefs. The overwhelming majority of the people are Christian. Catholicism is the largest single denomination, but Protestants of all denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and others) outnumber Catholics. Judaism is the largest non-Christian faith, followed by Islam, which has a significant African-American following. Baptism, the largest Protestant sect, originated in Europe but grew exponentially in the United States, especially in the South, among both whites and blacks. Aside from the many Christian movements from England and Europe that reestablished themselves early in the nation's history, a few religious sects arose independently in the United States, including Mormons and Shakers.
Although religion and the state are formally separated, religious expression is an important aspect of public and political life. Nearly every President has professed some variety of Christian faith. One of the most significant religious trends in recent years has been the rise of evangelical and fundamentalist sects of Christianity. As an organized political-religious
Another trend is the growth in New Age religions, which blend elements of Eastern religions and practices, such as Buddhism, with meditation, yoga, astrology, and Native American spirituality.
Religious Practitioners. In addition to the practitioners of world religions such as priests, ministers, and rabbis, the United States has a tradition of nonordained and nontraditional religious practitioners. These people include evangelical lay preachers, religious leaders associated with New Age religions, and leaders of religious movements designated as cults. Women are increasingly entering traditionally male religious positions. There are now women ministers in many Protestant denominations and women rabbis.
Rituals and Holy Places. The country does not have religious rituals or designated holy places that have meaning to the population as a whole. However, Salt Lake City is a holy city for Mormons, and the Black Hills of South Dakota and other places are sacred native American sites.
There are many shared secular rituals and places that have an almost religious importance. Secular rituals include baseball and football games. Championship games in these sports, the World Series and the Super Bowl, respectively, constitute major annual events and celebrations. Important places include Disneyland, Hollywood, and Grace-land (Elvis Presley's estate).
Death and the Afterlife. Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with their own mortality. Although most residents are Christian, the value placed on youth, vigor, and worldly goods is so great that death is one of the most difficult subjects to talk about.
Death is considered a sad and solemn occasion. At funerals, it is customary to wear black and to speak in hushed tones. Graveyards are solemn and quiet places. Some people believe in an afterlife or in reincarnation or other form of continuity of energy or spirit.
The dominant approach to medicine is biomedical, or Western. Although many people are interested in alternative approaches such as acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, and other therapies, the United States continues to be less medically diverse than most other countries. Biomedicine is characterized by the frequent use of invasive surgeries such as cesarean sections and high doses of psychotropic drugs. With the exception of limited government care for the elderly and the disabled, health care is private and profit-based. This makes the United States distinct from other wealthy, industrial nations, nearly all of which provide universal health-care coverage.
A number of secular national holidays are celebrated but are regarded less as celebrations of patriotism than as family holidays. The fireworks displays of the Fourth of July mark the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776, but this is also a time for summer outings such as picnics and camping trips with friends and family members.
Thanksgiving is part of the national history that is understood by every schoolchild. This annual feast celebrates the hardships of the early colonists, who were starving in their new environment. According to the legend, American Indians came to their aid, sharing indigenous foods such as maize and turkey. Thanksgiving is important not primarily because of its symbolism but because it is the most significant family holiday of the year, one of the few large and elaborate meals that families prepare.
Support for the Arts. The level of public support for the arts is much lower than it is in other wealthy nations. Patronage for unknown individual artists, writers, and performers is scarce. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has a very small operating budget with which it funds everything from public broadcasting to individual artists. In recent years, the NEA has been under attack from Congress, whose conservative members question the value and often the morality of the art produced with NEA grants.
Support also comes from private donations. These donations are tax-deductible and are a popular hedge among the wealthy against income and estate taxes. Generous gifts to prestigious museums, galleries, symphonies, and operas that often name halls and galleries after their donors are essential means of subsidizing the arts.
Literature. Much of American literature revolves around questions of the nature or defining characteristics of the nation and attempts to discern or describe the national identity. American literature found its own voice in the nineteenth century. In the early decades of that century, the essayists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson set out the enduring themes of personal simplicity, the continuity between man and nature, individualism, and self-reliance. Walt Whitman celebrated democracy in his free verse poems.
Other nineteenth-century writers, such as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, articulated moral and ethical questions about the new country and were particularly influential for their critique of American puritanism.
Turn-of-the-century writers such as Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser picked up on those themes but were particularly concerned with social class and class mobility. They explored the nature of American culture and the tensions between ideals of freedom and the realities of social conditions.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway began to question the values earlier writers had represented. Fitzgerald questioned the reality of the American dream by highlighting the corrupting influence of wealth and casting doubt on the value of mobility and success. Hemingway, like other modernists, addressed the issue of how one ought to live once one has lost faith in religious values and other social guidelines. Other early twentieth-century writers, such as Zora Neil Hurston, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner, introduced race and racism as central themes in American literature.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression inspired authors such as John Steinbeck and Willa Cather to write about rural America. Their novels romanticized the hard work of poor rural whites. Implicit in these novels is a critique of the wealth and excess of the urban metropolis and the industrial system that supported it. Although these novels are permeated with multiethnic characters and themes, Anglos are generally the focal point.
Issues of identity and race were explored by earlier American black writers. A generation of black authors after World War II made these permanent themes in American literature, illustrating the poverty, inequality and racism experienced by American blacks. Many black writers explored the meaning of living inside a black skin in a white nation with a legacy of slavery. These writers included James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. Perhaps the most influential contemporary writer who deals with these themes is Toni Morrison.
An important literary school known as Southern Gothic discussed the nature of rural southern
Beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, a generation known as the Beats challenged the dominant norms of white American masculinity. They rejected conventions of family and sexuality, corporate success, and money. Among the Beats were William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlingetti, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.
Starting in the 1960s, women writers began to challenge the notion that women's place was in the home. Early feminist writers who critiqued the paternalism of marriage include the nonfiction writer Betty Friedan, the novelist Marge Piercy, and the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Feminist themes, along with issues of ethnicity and otherness, continue to be important in American literature. Gloria Anzuldúa and Ana Castillo show how female and Latina identities intersect. Novels by Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko illustrate how Native American families attempt to survive and reclaim their traditions amid poverty and discrimination.
Other contemporary novels try to deconstruct the experience of the "norm" in American culture. Ann Tyler's characters are often empty and unhappy but cannot locate the sources of those feelings. Don Delillo writes about the amoral corporate world, the American obsession with consumer goods, and the chaos and anxiety that underlie the quietness of suburban life. Joyce Carol Oates is attracted to the sinister aspects of social conformity.
These novels are not the most widely read looks in the United States. Much more popular are genres such as crime and adventure, romance, horror, and science fiction. These genres tend to repeat valued cultural narratives. For example, the novels of Tom Clancy feature the United States as the moral victor in cold war and post–Cold War terrorist scenarios. Harlequin romances idealize traditional male and female gender roles and always have a happy ending. In horror novels, violence allows for catharsis among readers. Much science fiction revolves around technical-scientific solutions to human problems.
Graphic Arts. The most influential visual artists are from the modern period. Much early art was imitative of European styles. Important artists include Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol. Warhol's art documented icons of American life such as Cambell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. His work was deliberately amusing and commercial. Most graphic art is produced for the advertising industry.
Performance Arts. Performance arts include many original genres of modern dancing that have influenced by classical forms as well as American traditions, such as jazz. Important innovators in dance include Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey. Theaters in every town that once hosted plays, vaudeville, and musicals now show movies or have closed. In general, performance arts are available only in metropolitan areas.
The United States has produced several popular music genres that are known for blending regional, European, and African influences. The best known of these genres are the African-American inventions blues and jazz. Among the most important jazz composers and musicians are Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk. Although now considered classics, blues and jazz standards were the popular music of their day.
Music fits into "black" and "white" categories. Popular swing jazz tunes were standardized by band leaders such as Glenn Miller, whose white band made swing music hugely popular with young white people.
Rock 'n' roll, now a major cultural export, has its roots in these earlier popular forms. Major influences in rock and roll include Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Bruce Springstein. Although rock 'n' roll is primarily white, soul and Motown, with singers such as Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, and the Temptations, produced a popular black music.
Country music, another popular genre, has its roots in the early American folk music of the Southeast now termed country or bluegrass. This genre reworked traditional gospel songs and hymns to produce songs about the everyday life of poor whites in the rural Southeast.
Popular music in the United States has always embodied a division between its commercial and entertainment value and its intellectual or political values. Country and folk, blues, rock 'n' roll, rap, and hip-hop have all carried powerful social and political messages. As old forms become standard and commercialized, their political edge tends to give way to more generic content, such as love songs.
The United States is a leading producer and exporter of scientific knowledge and technology. Major areas of scientific research include medicine, energy, chemicals, weapons, aerospace technology, and communications. Funding for research comes from government agencies and universities as well as the private corporate sector.
The role of private corporations in research is controversial. Pharmaceutical companies often fund research that leads to cures and treatments for diseases. One consequence is a dearth of research on diseases particular to poor countries. Another consequence is that medicines are marketed at costs that are prohibitive to the poor both inside and outside of the country.
In the face of technology and science as being culturally valued, an increasing cause of social concern is the fact that American schoolchildren do not do well on standardized tests in the sciences.
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—M OLLY D OANE