Where We Find Ourselves Today: An “American” Mess

I teach English to adults. They have arrived here, in the Bay Area, from all over the world. I mean all over. Some of the adults are in their late thirties, like me. Some are in their twenties. The majority are under 60. All of these adults moved to the United States. Some within the last few months. Others up to twenty years ago. They are in my class because they want to learn English. They attend my class at night. All of them work during the day, some at two jobs. Many of them are hoping to get better jobs, and learning English is one tangible thing they can do in order to achieve that goal.

I moved from the East Coast, following my dad out to Berkeley in 2000, for a stretch of six months, before moving permanently in 2003. My dad grew up in West Virginia, then moved to Boston for college, where he met my mom, who grew up near Washington, D.C. My parents moved away for college. More on that later…

My wife and I met in Connecticut, during our freshman year at college. We are fortunate that we were able to land, and stay, here in the Bay Area, and now we take care of this little plot of land. Outside and inside. Time starts slipping away as we prepare the house for a baby. The world is expanding and contracting all around us, as our sense of responsibility takes over and our sense of individual focus recedes.

It’s no wonder people talk about how adults live in a divided universe: one that includes people with children and the other that includes those without children. As American culture, in its late-capitalistic stage, has further embraced individualism and materialism, the choice to have a child has become a dividing point for so many. In many ways, this impossible choice is responsible for so much of what keeps American culture divided today.

Consider the ideas that have made the conversational rounds since November’s election and the (overdue) acknowledgment that the United States is not united at all.

Leaving Home and (Attempting to) Find Yourself

Educated people have been moving to cities since the United States began its attempt at a universal public education system. Cities provided economic opportunities from the very beginning. If you owned a farm, you worked your ass off and had lots of children to help keep up the farm. As the American population boomed post-WWII, public education expanded. High school was no longer enough. The GI Bill enabled working class folks to join the middle and upper-middle classes. Higher education expanded. State schools expanded. Private schools got more expensive. The wealthiest in our society remained segregated through the increasing importance of the SAT, the acceptance rates at elite schools dropped, and the prices increased. The illusion of meritocracy was maintained through federal grants and loans, and the complexity of college admissions and financial aid offices. Underneath it all was the concept that everyone could and should go to college. Go away to college. Leave your home. Over time, the reality of leaving home for college was possible only for the wealthy and the well-connected, those of highly educated parents like myself.

If we accept the universal idea that the vast majority of parents want what is best for their children, then we also have to accept the psychological truth that protective fear often dictates parental decisions. How many parents are fully ready for their children to become individuals and leave their homes for school, for jobs, and eventually, for the rest of their lives? If one of the child’s parents left home themselves, then the idea of their child leaving home at 18 is likely more comfortable and expected. But financially speaking, the choice for a family or young adult, to go deep into debt in order to attend college becomes a complicated decision.

Staying Home and Attending Community College: Higher Ed in California

In California, the common trend has become attending community college for the first two years after high school, while working part-time. Gradually, the goal is to transfer into a four-year school as a junior. This makes sense from a financial standpoint. This situation often keeps an 18 year-old from leaving home. Keeps that person from fully individuating and leaving their teenage bubble. It causes friction among parents to have a sexually active 20 year-old in their home. It adds layers of stress to all involved. This is one of the main ways in which wealth divides us.

Possibilities begin to diminish for many. The working class farming family living in a small town. The working class immigrant family living in a city. Both groups of young adults have a tough time as they emerge from childhood as 18–30 year-olds today. The child of middle class, highly-educated parents and those children who come from wealth usually leave their homes. The economic stagnation of the last decade has made leaving home impossible for some. Many leave home, live in a city for a stretch, couch-surfing, sharing rooms in crowded apartments, and then leave for more sustainable environments.

The urban landscape is incredibly stratified across the country today. The most extreme disparities exist in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but cities like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have changed dramatically in the last decade as well. Haves. Have-nots. Have-maybes. We see the political landscape similarly divided. The progressive left is cut into slivers, based around the divisions of age, wealth, race, and cultural identity. The right is divided into segments, based around extremes of identity politics, religious fervor, and wealth.

In September, I taught my 11th grade U.S. History students the lens through with the majority of red states view the population as “Real Americans,” based on a Five-Thirty Eight article that explained demographic and cultural shifts, and purported to explain the “Duck Dynasty” populist fervor of the Republican National Convention, which clearly shaped the path to Republican victory in November. Regardless of how you view Nate Silver’s mathematical expertise and forecasting, the article brings up the four major categories, shaping the identity divisions that make up the right-wing view of what it means to be an “American.”

In order to be a “real” American, you must be: Christian; live anywhere but the northeast or the west coast, (preferably live in the mid-west or south); you must not have a college-education; and most importantly, you must be white. What percent of Americans fit all four of these categories? 20 percent. What percent of the voting eligible population voted for the current President? 27 percent.

The seeds of this right-wing strategy of prioritizing a specific cultural identity go back as far as the “Southern strategy” of Alabama’s George Wallace, but were forcefully reignited by John McCain’s 2008 campaign after he chose Alaska’s Sarah Palin to join him as running mate. The cultural mockery of Palin that ensued only deepened the suspicions of those in the Midwest and South. Their opposition toward coastal democrats and moderates coincides seamlessly with their fear of demographic trends and economic changes due to technology and globalization. The script was set in motion as the economy collapsed in 2008.

Here we find ourselves in this fundamentally divided experiment of a country. These same four identifiers keep us from hearing each other, keep systemic and institutional power in the hands of white men. In order to find connections through these unnecessary divisions, the vast majority of Americans have to consider how important these four identifiers are to them:

*Can you listen to and learn from someone who doesn’t live near you?

*Is your religious faith or lack of faith really critical to your identity?

*Can you hold a conversation and be friendly toward someone whose educational background is entirely different than your own?

*What does it even mean to consider yourself “white?”

In the last decade, I’ve taught students of color, of all ages, and from all backgrounds. There was one “white” student in the small charter high school last year. There is one Bulgarian grandfather in my Adult ESL class now. The rest of my students will never look “white” to you. The Bulgarian grandfather would not have been considered “white” during the Cold War, not with his thick accent and lack of English.

The wonderful thing about teaching this group of adults, when I place them into random groups for discussion topics, they express no hesitation and show no need for divisions. Middle Eastern, Asian, Central American, African. Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists, sitting together. Each group has four or five students. They try to express themselves in English the best they can. They are New Americans, and they are very real.

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