We really do have two cultures in the United States. Actually, we’ve many more. But we have two that are dominated by European-Americans of Christian ancestry and they happen to be the biggest and, right now, the most commanding of news coverage—especially (given the recent presidential election) the one that had been, until recently, most ignored. That one stems from a Calvinist tradition that entered the American colonies in high numbers from Ulster Plantation in Ireland during the 18th century and whose people became the westernmost settlers both before and after the Revolution. The other grew out of the Enlightenment that affected the coastal colonies as much as it did Western Europe, also in the 18th century.
They didn’t like each other then, and they don’t, now.
Though lumped together as ‘white’ culture, they are as different as, say Sunni and Shia Islam. David Hackett Fischer, in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America divides the base white American cultures into four, the Cavalier, the Quaker, the Puritan and the Borderer. I argue that the Quaker and the Puritan were most open on Enlightenment thinking and merged into the Northeastern-based culture of Secular-Liberalism. The Cavaliers crashed and burned in the Civil War, the wreckage being swept up by the Borderers who expanded southward and westward, becoming the base of unheralded ‘whitebread’ America.
The two remaining cultures are fundamentally different, and differ in ways that are often ignored in favor of similarity of color. They are both ‘white,’ so they are the same.
During the recent presidential campaign, though, many Americans backed away from this distinction, assuming all whites feel the same way—now, the Borderer way where, in the past, it has been the Secular-Liberal way that had the most currency. This has become increasingly manifest: For the past year, I’ve constantly had to fight off the assumption that, because I am white and, in particular, a white male, I support Trump. People, most often other white males, would lean close and mutter some particularly appalling comment about some group or another, some policy or another. I have had to draw back, physically denying my complicity. They are shocked, acting almost as though they feel I am ‘a traitor to my race.’
The divide between the two white American cultures is increasingly seen, by the Borderer-based culture, as a racial divide, though it is not always expressed so. In The New York Times, a guest columnist named Robert Leonard recounts two Iowa youths saying, “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” It’s not primarily white liberals being referred to, but those people who, in white racist imaginings, are always seen as lazy, particularly blacks and Hispanics. Not wanting to be called out as racist, Borderer descendants are frequently turning to euphemisms like ‘liberal’ instead of using racist terminology, lumping the Secular-Liberal whites with the ‘lazy’ people they don’t care to mention. White people, the ‘red state’ (to use the contemporary assignation) folk assume, are all secretly on their side, anyway.
This conflation of racial and cultural divides results, unfortunately (for there is much to be said for the study of identity—and that study gets easily maligned), from identity politics (which forefront race) as much as it comes from anything else. White people are talked about as a whole, so they must be a whole, all of them believing the same thing, coming from the same cultural base.
Few things, of course, could be further from the truth. Don’t whisper racist innuendo in my ear and expect me to nod in secret agreement just because I am white.
There are millions of white Americans (count me as one) who have spent substantial portions of our lives in both white cultures. We feel out of place, wherever we are, and generally don’t remain—unless we start to pick up the attitudes of the culture where we are living. Even when we do, we feel a constant strangeness, as though we’re not quite who others seem to think we are. Our white skin makes people assume things about us that just aren’t quite true.
The same happens to blacks, too, and Hispanics, and we (the generalized ‘we’) make assumptions about them, as well, but whites seem to suffer the supposing, today, at least as often as members of other groups. The irony is that we are now also stereotyping each other, as those two young men did, expanding the racial stereotype of lazy blacks and Hispanics to liberals as well.
It a failure of leadership on both sides of the white divide in America that we continue in this state, maybe even starting to make it worse. We haven’t managed to abate racial hatred at all. No more than we’ve crossed the divide between the two white cultures. The hatreds expressed today are as strong as the hatreds of a century—two centuries, three—ago. The only American leader of any sort that I can think of who was really committed to easing these hatreds was Martin Luther King, Jr.
And tell me how that worked out.