Living in the United States Today

For the majority of Americans, life is good. Few countries can match the level of health care, longevity, income, or educational attainment enjoyed by American citizens. The same can be said for the nation’s transportation and communications infrastructure, services, and many other developments that Americans often take for granted. In 2006, the United States ranked eighth among the world’s countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), a scale of human well-­being based on a number of quality-of-life factors. From the dawn of European settlement, millions of people have successfully pursued the “American dream.” Rather than being a monolithic goal, this dream assumed many forms as viewed by various individuals and groups. America was and is a land of opportunity, and the American dream remains very much alive. In answer to those who may doubt the country’s commitment to diversity, the United States accepts more immigrants each year than the rest of the world’s countries combined. In this chapter, the focus is on diversity—diversity of ethnicity and culture, of language and religion, and of land and life in the country’s various subregions.

ETHNICITY

Much is heard today about America’s “multicultural diversity.” Actually, the country has always been culturally diverse. Native Americans represented many cultures and tribal societies; European immigrants came from numerous homelands and introduced many ways of living, although many arrived as slaves; Africans came from many locations, each with a unique culture; and, in time, people from various parts of Asia added to the rich mix. In fact, if you think about it, almost everything that Americans possess is of foreign origin! (This reality is marvelously illustrated in Ralph Linton’s essay “100% American,” which can be read online.)

In terms of biological inheritance, about 82 percent of the population is Caucasian (white), 12 percent is Negroid (black), 4 percent is Mongoloid (East Asian), and about 2 percent is indigenous (Amerindian, Alaskan, or Hawaiian) or of some other ancestry. Many Americans, of course, are of mixed ancestry or ethnicity. The foregoing figures can be confusing unless their meaning is understood. No link exists between race and culture. “White,” for example, includes Hispanics, who can be completely integrated culturally or have strong Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American cultural characteristics. An “Asian” can be from China, India, Indonesia, or some other area of the continent. Such “badges” of identity are all but meaningless. Throughout the country’s history, most people—regardless of biological or cultural heritage—have willingly and enthusiastically become integrated into the American cultural “melting pot.”

Hispanics are the most rapidly growing segment of the population, having surpassed African Americans in number during the late 1990s. If the trend of recent decades continues, by 2050, people of north European ancestry will no longer be the majority population. “Anglos” already are a minority in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii. Five other states—Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, and New York—are close behind: More than 40 percent of their populations are something other than north European in ancestral origin.

LANGUAGE

Language provides the “glue” that bonds a people together as a culture and society. Historically, Americans were a diverse people. They represented various cultures and spoke a variety of tongues. Through time, however, such differences largely vanished: People of all backgrounds joined together to form a uniquely American culture. Most Americans adopted English as their language through the process of hierarchical diffusion. Early settlement along the eastern seaboard was economically, socially, and politically dominated by the British. As a result, if one was to succeed, he or she found it advantageous to adopt “British ways,” including the English language. Nonetheless, American “English” itself has been patched together with words from many other tongues. How many words can you think of that are derived from Spanish? French? German?

Today, about 82 percent of Americans speak English as their primary tongue. Nearly 11 percent of the population, however, speaks Spanish as their first language, and that percentage is growing rapidly. About 4 percent of all Americans speak some other European tongue, and a small number, about 3 percent, speak an Asian, Pacific Island, Native American, or another language. The growing number of non-English-­speaking people in the country poses a critical challenge to political leaders.

Among countries that are linguistically divided, only tiny Switzerland has a tradition of stability. Today, in numerous countries throughout the world, ethnic (including linguistic) diversity is a source of conflict. It was the primary factor that underlay the disintegration of both the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Diversity can contribute to social marginalization, economic deprivation, political powerlessness, cultural stratification, and a host of other problems. The United States must find a way to allow people to retain many elements of their culture while integrating those people into the nation’s socioeconomic mainstream. Communicating through a common tongue is the easiest way for this objective to be achieved.

In traveling throughout the United States, one cannot help but recognize regional variations in language. These are evident in slang phrases, pronunciation, and words used in reference to particular things. Such language variations are called dialects. The South, for example, is known for its regional characteristic speech pattern popularly called the “Southern drawl.” New Englanders are recognized by their clipped accents. The Mid-­western dialect is the nation’s “standard”; hence, it is the accent most widely used in national media.

A LAND OF MANY FAITHS

Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have a long history of religious tolerance. Many early immigrants came to the New World to escape religious persecution. This open-mindedness toward different faiths is evident in the tremendous diversity of faiths—nearly 3,000 organized religions!—practiced in the country today. About half of all Americans (52 percent) are Protestants; the leading denominations (in order of membership) are Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. About one-­fourth (24 percent) of the population is Roman Catholic. Because Hispanics are predominantly Roman Catholic, this number is growing. Other faiths include Latter Day Saints (Mormons), 2 percent; Jewish, 1 percent; Muslim, 1 percent; and other, 10 percent. About 10 percent of the population claims no religious faith. This figure is significant in that, in many European countries, up to half of the population is secular (nonreligious).

Most of the United States is “mixed” in terms of religious following. There are, however, some sections of the country that are dominated by a particular faith. The Southeast, for example, is overwhelmingly Baptist, whereas the upper Mid-­west is primarily Lutheran. Much of New England, southern Louisiana, and the Southwest are dominated by Roman Catholicism. Utah and southern Idaho are overwhelmingly Latter Day Saint (Mormon). The imprint of religion on the landscape is widespread. Churches, cemeteries, camps, and parochial schools and colleges are the most visible elements, but there are many others. Roadside crosses and shrines, and signs and other symbols that profess a faith, are commonplace in many parts of the country. Less obvious but of perhaps even greater significance is the impact of religion on laws. Restrictions are imposed on liquor and tobacco sales and Sunday “blue laws” (enforced closing), for example. Voting patterns on a host of political issues, such as abortion and stemcell research, reflect religious beliefs.

FOODWAYS

Most of the world has a fairly standard diet (think “Chinese,” “Mexican,” “Italian,” or some other ethnic food). What a people eat, the basic ingredients of their diet, how food is prepared, and how it is consumed remain basically unchanged through time. In contrast, Americans—at least those who love to eat diverse foods—are extremely fortunate. Every major cuisine in the world has contributed to the American diet. The closest city to the author’s home is Sioux Falls, South Dakota—a community of about 150,000 people. Even in a city this size, one can choose from restaurants that represent more than a dozen different ethnicities. There are, of course, a number of Mexican, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, but there are others that specialize in Japanese, Middle Eastern, African, and Brazilian cuisine. The city’s growing variety of dining options is further enhanced by restaurants that feature Indian, Thai, Continental (various European), Greek, and Irish menus.

The United States—as one might assume about a country comparable in area to Europe—also features a number of regional foodways. Many coastal areas specialize in seafood that ranges from Maine lobster to Louisiana Cajun, and various West Coast marine seafood preparations. Barbeque is a regional specialty in many areas from North Carolina to Texas and from Memphis to Kansas City; however, the person who expects a rack of ribs slathered in a tomato-based barbeque sauce certainly is in for a surprise when ordering barbeque in North Carolina. There, the delicacy is pork basted with vinegar and ground hot red pepper. The heartland foods tend to feature the basics: meat, potatoes, side dishes, and desserts. The South-­west is famous for its “Tex-­Mex” variety of Mexican food and a cuisine that features regional ingredients.

Regional food terms also vary greatly. What would you call a long sandwich made with a variety of items? Your answer will serve as a badge of regional identity. The sandwiches are variously called grinders, heroes, hoagies, Italians, poor boys (or po’ boys), submarines (or subs), and torpedoes in different regions. Spices and their use also vary greatly from region to region. From Louisiana (famous for its Tabasco sauce) westward to California, hot spices are commonplace, whereas in the nation’s midsection food tends to be rather bland. Regional patterns also exist in such things as dips for french fries (ketchup, mayonnaise, or vinegar), what is put on cottage cheese (pepper or sugar), and condiments added to hot dogs and hamburgers (many regional variations).

Worldwide, most cultures are quite rigid in regard to beverage consumption. Some people drink tea (hot or iced, with or without lemon, sweet or unsweetened), whereas others drink only coffee. There are beer drinkers and wine drinkers (with meals). Among the latter, regional preferences exist in the type of wine(s) consumed. Germans, for example, prefer sweet wines, whereas the French prefer their wine “dry.” In the United States, people are free to choose from any of these or many other options. One of the great joys of traveling within the United States is the opportunity to experience different regional foodways.

VARIED REGIONAL LANDSCAPES

America presents a fascinating mosaic of regional landscapes. The “look of the land,” as geographer John Fraser Hart referred to landscape features and patterns, varies greatly throughout the country. Physical features—terrain, natural vegetation, and water features, in particular—differ greatly from region to region, as do systems of land division and patterns of rural settlement. The diversity of regional house and barn types, agricultural crops and field patterns, and how people make a living is astonishing as one travels around the country. This final section of the chapter is a brief tour of America’s major regions. As you travel, try to identify major differences in the “look of the land” that make each region unique.

The Eastern Core

A core region is defined by its historical, economic, and demographic importance. These factors have helped contribute to a very strong sense of regional identity and pride. Here, in a belt that extends from New England to Chesapeake Bay, is where the United States took root. Here, the first quaint villages, fishing communities, farms, and logging camps were settled. Soon, manufacturing industries sprouted, and around them grew the nation’s first manufacturing centers. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia eventually boomed to become worldclass centers of industry, commerce, and services. Today, despite considerable outmigration during recent decades, this region continues to be the country’s industrial, service, financial, and population core.

The Eastern Core possessed little in the way of natural resources. There were two resources, however, that people could put to use: Hundreds of water-­powered lumber, textile, and flour mills and other industries sprung up around the region’s many falls and rapids, and port cities grew around the region’s several excellent natural harbors. With ample waterpower, abundant Appalachian coal, a large and eager immigrant workforce, and splendid seaports, a manufacturing economy sprouted and flourished. Several conditions were missing, though: raw materials and natural resources to process and large markets to which products could be sold. Here, of course, is where the major East Coast port cities played an important role. Industrial raw materials and natural resources could easily be imported, and manufactured goods could just as easily be exported. With this arrangement, it is little wonder that New York City ultimately became the world’s leading economic center.

Today, this region still is the country’s economic heartland, although it has experienced many problems. During the past half century, small farms have been abandoned and many old factories have closed. Hundreds of communities have experienced economic stagnation, population decline, and urban decay. There has been a substantial outmigration of both people and corporations. Fortunately, some portions of the Rust Belt are experiencing a revival. Many small communities, for example, are growing. People who have grown tired of living in the city are attracted to them because of their slower pace and a more pleasant rural environment. As the region has moved from primary and secondary to tertiary economic activities, they no longer need farm or factory jobs from which people can earn a living. Tourism and other services have replaced manufacturing in most communities.

Suburbs also are booming as they attract postindustrial businesses, including corporate headquarters, a variety of services, and information-­based industries. Today, large malls, giant supermarkets and other retail stores, motels, gas stations, automobile dealers, and other corporate enterprises attest to an economic revival. They have replaced nearly all of the small family-owned and -operated businesses that thrived prior to the mid-­twentieth century.

The Booming South

From Virginia southward to Florida and westward to Louisiana, an early slave-based economy thrived along the coastal plain. A century later, the upland South—Appalachia and the Cumberland Plateau, the Ozarks, and associated lowland plains and river valleys—began to fill in. Those who continue to hold an “Old South” stereotype are in for a shock when they first visit the region today. In the past half century, no section of the United States has experienced greater or more positive changes than has the South.

What once was the nation’s most economically depressed region has been transformed into one of fastpaced social, political, and economic progress. An economy once dominated by agriculture is now based on growing intellectual capital, world-­class research centers, new industries, expanded services, and thriving tourism. Atlanta, Georgia, is one of the country’s fastest-­growing metropolitan centers and the South’s largest city. Hartsfield-­Jackson Atlanta International Airport is now the world’s busiest by a rather wide margin. With Disney World and many other attractions, the Orlando, Florida, area has become one of the world’s primary tourist destinations. The future for the South is extremely bright.

The Farm- and Factory-Dominated Midwest

Sandwiched between the Great Lakes, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Missouri River, the Midwest is the nation’s “breadbasket” and historical industrial heartland. This region generally coincides with the Corn Belt, one of the world’s leading agricultural regions. Because of the booming ethanol industry, the price of corn has nearly doubled in the period of 2005–2007, and it shows no sign of declining. This is a good sign for the region’s farmers.

The Midwest also was the country’s industrial core. Many of its cities became famous for a particular product that they produced. (How many professional athletic team names reflect their city’s economic importance? For example, with what communities do you associate the Brewers, Pistons, Steelers, and Packers?) Detroit was once the center of the automobile industry, which depended on tires from Akron, Ohio, and steel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Chicago grew as the nation’s transportation hub—a center for rail, highway, air, and even water transportation. With its strong German ethnic heritage, Milwaukee became widely known for its beer production. St. Louis, a regional industrial center and important Mississippi River port city, is proud of its heritage as the “Gateway to the West.” In many respects, the “heartland,” as it often is called, continues to mirror the traditions and values on which the country was based.

The Spacious Interior West

The interior West occupies slightly more than half of the coterminous United States. It extends from Texas northward to the Dakotas and westward to the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. The Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the interior basins and plateaus are the region’s major physiographic provinces. The region features an environment that can be quite challenging. From south to north, extreme summer heat gives way to frigid winter cold. From east to west, precipitation decreases and severe drought is a frequent occurrence. Throughout much of the region, population densities are quite low, often fewer than two people per square mile (one per square kilometer).

The Great Plains in particular is a region of out-migration, resulting in hundreds of struggling rural communities. Small farms and ranches have given way to huge operations that are measured in square miles rather than in acres. Ethnically, the region is one of considerable diversity. It contains the nation’s highest population of Native Americans. In the Southwest, a strong Hispanic cultural heritage has centuriesold roots. While in the northern Great Plains, Germans, Russians (many of whom trace their ancestry to Germans from Russia), and Norwegians were the major groups that flocked to that region. Their landscape imprint often is visible in their settlements, agricultural practices, and place names.

Economically, several regional patterns can be identified. Agricultural crops are important in the wetter eastern margin. Grains, soybeans, and hay are dominant in the north, and cotton is a major crop in the south. Moving westward, conditions become drier and agricultural activity changes to livestock ranching and mixed irrigated and dryland farming.

In the Mountain West, mineral extraction, logging, scattered pockets of agriculture, and tourism prevail. Initially, gold and silver mining drew many prospectors in search of easy wealth. The western mountains are dotted with old mining centers, many of which became ghost towns when the ore played out. South Dakota’s Black Hills produced more gold than any other location in the world. Much of the activity was centered around the towns of Lead (pronounced leed) and Deadwood. Today, all of the area’s mines are closed, but as has happened to many other former mining towns, the communities are once again thriving. Deadwood has become a major tourist center that offers casino gambling, mountain landscapes, nearby ski resorts, and other tourist attractions—including a rich history that includes “Calamity” Jane and “Wild Bill” Hickok.

Much of the West prospered from copper mining. Butte, Montana—site of the famous Berkeley Pit—was once the largest city in the United States between St. Louis and San Francisco. Many other communities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah thrived as copper mining centers. In Texas and Oklahoma, rich oil deposits fueled widespread economic development. Today, coal fields, oil and natural gas deposits, and uranium support economic growth in many areas of the West.

Paradoxically, the western interior is the region of greatest outmigration and also the greatest population gain. Growth has been particularly explosive in the Southwest, a portion of the Sun Belt that extends from Texas westward to Arizona and Nevada. Recently, Las Vegas and Nevada surpassed Phoenix and Arizona as the country’s fastest-growing city and state, respectively. The desert oasis gambling and entertainment center has become one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. Cities such as San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Albuquerque, San Antonio, and Denver also have grown rapidly during recent decades.

The Diverse Pacific Realm

No part of the United States can match the Pacific Coast region (including Alaska and Hawaii) in terms of diversity. In Chapter 2, you learned of the region’s spectacular natural landscapes and environmental extremes. The region also offers the country’s greatest ethnic diversity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Anchorage, Alaska. Anchorage School District students represent families that speak more than 100 different native languages! In California, people of north European descent became a minority early in the twenty-­first century. They have been replaced primarily by Latin Americans and Asians.

Excluding California’s Central Valley—the nation’s most productive agricultural area—the Pacific Realm is dominated by cities. More than 30 million people live in the nearly continuous urban area that extends from San Diego to metropolitan Los Angeles and northward to San Francisco. For decades, California has been the nation’s leader in population, agricultural production, manufacturing, trade and commerce, and services, including tourism. It has also been the world’s foremost center of commercial popular culture. The media industry—Hollywood’s motion pictures, various genres of music, radio and television, and the print media—in particular, has had a huge impact on popular culture fads and trends worldwide.

Remarkable diversity also is evident in the region’s agriculture. Most agricultural regions specialize in a particular crop—hence, the regional recognition of corn, wheat, cotton, and dairy “belts.” In California, Oregon, and Washington, however, individual counties may produce more than 70 agricultural crops! Still, some small areas in the region have become recognized for a single crop. The Napa and Sonoma valleys are famous for their vineyards and world-­class wines, just as Washington’s Yakima Valley is well known for its apples and other fruits. Gilroy, California, is the nation’s self-proclaimed “Garlic Capital,” a role that nearby communities Castroville and Watsonville claim for artichokes and strawberries, respectively.

The United States is as dynamic as it is diverse. Much like a kaleidoscope, it will continue to undergo changes, some anticipated and others perhaps unexpected. A half century ago, few people, for example, could have forecasted the explosive population and economic growth that has occurred throughout the South and Southwest during recent decades. This is particularly true of the nation’s hottest and driest, yet fastest-growing, spots: Arizona and Nevada. The same can be said for the incredible changes that have occurred in the South since the 1960s. An area once stereotyped as being bigoted and impoverished is today a model of social stability and economic prosperity. Throughout its history, the United States has constantly adjusted to changing conditions and grasped new opportunities. One thing is certain in regard to life in the United States: It will change and Americans will adapt and thrive.