American Culture

Core Concepts

The Indigenous people and nations of North America are the traditional custodians of the land, having inhabited it for at least 15,000 years before Europeans arrived. The process of caused existing Indigenous populations to experience widespread violence and dispossession of their land, fracturing and marginalising their communities and cultural identities. 

 

Since the modern formation of the United States of America, mass immigration has dramatically changed the social demographics of the population and established a western European cultural mainstream. The following cultural profile depicts this newly dominant culture – a Western society and value system influenced by continual migration to the American continent.

 

American Culture

  • Independence
  • Freedom
  • Diversity
  • Patriotism
  • Capitalism/Private Enterprise 
  • Extroversion
  • Informality
  • Equal opportunity

The United States of America is a country comprising 50 states expanding over the southern half of the North American continent, with Alaska in the northwest and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. It is the third most populous country in the world, home to more than 328 million people. American society is strongly underpinned by moral and religious principles centring around Christianity (followed by approximately 70% of the population), as well as civic and political values of personal freedom, liberty and independence.

 

In many ways, the United States has tended to set the example of what many perceive typical ‘western’ society and values to be, as it’s media, politics, technology, pop culture, economic and military powers have had incredible international influence. Today, most foreigners are likely to have a rough familiarity with what ‘American life’ looks like. However, the idea of a American culture is no longer reflective of the plurality of values and populations within it. 

 

American society is highly culturally diverse, with the social, and religious make-up of the population having been shaped by a history of immigration. One commonly finds social attitudes, lifestyles and beliefs can differ significantly between regional, , socio-economic or partisan backgrounds. Considering this large demographic diversity, the following descriptions are unlikely to be representative of every American person’s experience or views. However, there are common themes and principles that contribute to the values, attitudes, beliefs and of the dominant society. 

 
Colonial and History

The land of present-day America was originally home to expansive numbers of Indigenous peoples and nations, including the Cayuga, Cherokee, Huron, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.1 European began in 1607, with settlers establishing multiple separate colonies across land. In 1776, these colonies united to fight for independence from the United Kingdom, eventually forming what is now known as the ‘United States of America’. 

 

The European migrants that arrived over the period were from a variety of religious and social groups, who were mostly fleeing religious persecution or seeking a better life. For example, many English Protestants non-conformists (such as Quakers and Puritans) migrated to escape religious persecution in Europe and preserve their beliefs in new communities.2 Additional migrants were also sent to the United States against their will, including convicts, indentured servants and enslaved Africans. Such migration dramatically changed the and social make-up of the United States and ultimately established a European-like cultural mainstream. The variation of social and religious communities established over the period continue to inform the diversity of American society today.

 

National Identity and Values

While many other nations base their national identity on shared or ancestral origins, the American identity and patriotism is largely rooted in shared moral and political values.3,4,5,6 This has been shaped by its history of European . Many of the early colonists were considered radical for their time, holding beliefs about social mobility in the class system and limited government that were not common in Europe at the time.7 They were often highly and determined to preserve strongly held social, religious, political or economic ideals (such as liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, and laissez-faire economics).8 In turn, the American national identity became largely defined by a set of foundational ideas and values about what a liberal society should look like. For example, the Declaration of Independence directly articulates a belief in the limited involvement and control of the government on citizen’s personal lives.

 

These ideologies persist in the moral and civic culture of American society today. Such values of personal freedom and liberty especially have become intrinsic to the country’s cultural identity and character.9 For example, 77% of Americans view “having freedom of choice in how to live one’s life” as the most valuable aspect of American life.10 This is epitomised in the common expressions describing the United States as a “free country”, the “land of opportunity” or “cradle of liberty”.11 The American Constitution is generally regarded to embody the fundamental American notion of independence – particularly in regards to the First and Second Amendments (which are purposed to guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the right to keep and bear arms).12,13 Indeed, a 2017 study found 84% agreed that individual liberties as protected by the Constitution personify the national character.14 Ultimately, such notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ tend to occupy a more prominent place in public and private discourse in the United States than elsewhere.15 

 

The idea of cultural assimilation has been particularly powerful throughout the country’s history, whereby migrants can become ‘American’ by accepting and embracing American values. There remains a general expectation that new migrants and citizens will respect cultural values and develop similar patriotism. However, the notion of cultural assimilation is changing as more emphasis is being put on the importance of a bi-cultural identity in appreciation of the country’s broad , religious and cultural diversity.

 

American Exceptionalism

The United States’ national identity has also been informed by a notion of exceptionalism that became prominent in public discourse both within the country and overseas. This refers to the idea that the United States is in some way different from other countries, possessing unique characteristics that are worthy of universal admiration.16,17 There is a common assumption that the United States’ values, political system and history grant it the capacity and responsibility to make the world a better place.18 Such a view of the United States’ global role has been further influenced by its involvement in foreign affairs and trade, in which it has played a powerful and influential role.19 Indeed, many of its citizens have considered the nation to be an example and guardian of and freedom.20

 

Moreover, the globalisation of American cultural values has led many to view it as the archetype of what a liberal capitalist, developed country is. American ideas of freedom now reverberate throughout the world, promoted by an internationalised mass media, consumer culture, and economic marketplace.21 As such, while Americans may criticise their government, the notion of the United States’ cultural superiority remains very strong. Opinion polls show most believe the United States is one of the greatest countries in the world, if not the best.22 


Patriotism

National pride is expressed quite openly in American culture. For example, it is common for people to publicly describe themselves as ‘patriotic’. While there are differing views on what being ‘patriotic’ means, it is typically associated with showing respect, loyalty and love for one’s country.23 Traditional symbols and displays of patriotism include showing support for military troops and servicemen, standing for the national anthem and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag. One’s perceived patriotism may also be defined by the degree to which they show dedication to American political institutions and national values, such as freedom, liberty and (see National Identity and Values).24,25 

 

The United States’ national identity and patriotism has traditionally been thought to unify the population in spite of its diversity (whether differences are , religious, class-based, or ideological), just as it united early from different lands. However, public opinion polls show American pride has declined over the 21st century as displays of patriotism are arguably becoming more politicised.26,27 Shifts in values and social have changed some Americans’ views of the country’s identity, leading them to feel the United States is more disunited than united.28

 

Racial and Ethnic Demography

The United States has a very racially and ethnically diverse population, the social make-up of which has largely been determined by immigration over the past four centuries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimate, 75% of Americans identify as white, 18.5% identify as Hispanic or Latino and 14.2% identify as black or African-American.29 A further identify 6.8% as Asian, 1.7% as Native American or Alaska Native, 0.4% as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and 5.5% identify with some other .30 These percentages total more than 100% because many Americans describe themselves as fitting into more than one or category. There are also many other categories that are not captured by this data and may be classified as ‘white’ by default in the U.S. Census, such as Jewish and Arab Americans.31,32

 

White

According to the 2019 population estimate, 75% of Americans identify as white – of which 21% are ethnically Hispanic or Latino (see Hispanic below).33 In contemporary America, essentially anyone of European descent is considered White. However, many also have backgrounds. Some of the largest ancestries are German, Irish, English, Italian, French, Polish and Scottish. Some white Americans may self-identify their ancestry as simply ‘American’ due to the length of time their family has inhabited the United States (those who do so are usually of English/European descent). Overall, the states with the highest concentration of ‘non-Hispanic whites’ are found in the Midwest, New England, the Rocky Mountains, Kentucky, West Virginia and East Tennessee.

 

As the majority, much social discourse within the United States tends to use the socioeconomic status of the white demographic as the standard measurement from which other and groups’ social and economic well-being is compared. Indeed, white Americans have generally held the highest political and economic positions in the country. The white working class had also decreased over the past 30 years, as more have gained higher education.34

 

However, today multiple studies show a notable social and political divide between the white working class (broadly defined as those without college degree and with an annual income lower than the national median) and the lower and upper middle classes (those with college educations and higher income status). The working class are more likely to have experienced shortfalls in their income and wealth, while the upper class is more likely to have experienced stronger gains in the past 10 years.35 This divide has been correlated with political positions and divisions, with the former more likely to vote Republican and the latter is more likely to vote Democrat.36 Ultimately, it is important to note that ‘white American’ encompasses almost a quarter of a billion people, spread across all classes of society with diverging experiences. 

 

Hispanic

‘Hispanic or Latino’ describes any person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish descent.37 This is an signifier, not a category. Therefore, a ‘Hispanic or Latino’ person may be of any (i.e. white, black, Asian, etc.). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.5% of the American population (over 60 million people) identify as Hispanic or Latino.38,39

 

Hispanic Americans reflect a large diversity of inter-related cultural and linguistic heritages. Most Hispanics Americans have Mexican (61.5%), Puerto Rican (9.6%), Cuban (3.9%), Salvadoran (3.8%) or Dominican (3.5%) ancestry.40 According to the US Census Bureau 2019, 65% of Hispanics identified their as white and a further 25.6% identified with some other not recognised in the census.41 This likely reflects the fact that a significant portion self-identify as mestizo (a person of mixed that has European and native heritage to some degree) or mulatto (a person of mixed that has European and African ancestry to some degree). 

 

Migration from has been one of the largest drivers increasing the Hispanic population in the United States, with thousands of immigrants arriving in the United State every year. However, two thirds (67%) of all Hispanic and Latino Americans were born in the United States.42 The Spanish-speaking population also has a long history in America that pre-dates British . For example, the states in the Southwest, West Coast and Florida were originally colonised by Spain. Meanwhile, present-day California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Texas were originally part of Mexico until 1848. This Spanish-speaking history continues to be visible in the names of major cities, such as Los Angeles, San Antonio and San Diego. Many of these states continue to have the largest Hispanic populations in the country. It is estimated over 40 million Americans speak Spanish at home in total.43 The states and territories with the largest Hispanic populations are California, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and New York.

 

Black

According to the national census, 14.2% of Americans identify as black or African-American.44 The term ‘black’ refers to the , while ‘African-American’ specifically refers to an ancestral subgroup within that (usually those descending from slaves of the 19th century). Some people may not feel a strong affiliation with their African , but identify as ‘African-American’ for its cultural meaning in contemporary America. More recently, others have preferred for their to be referred to as simply ‘black’, finding terms readdressing their identity by another category to be insulting. 

 

The United States’ black population was initially formed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade (from the 16th to 19th century), during which hundreds of thousands of African captives were sent to the United States and forced into slavery.45 By 1860, the number of enslaved Africans in the United States reached nearly four million, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South.46 Many were forced to work as servants or labourers in industries such as cotton or tobacco production, and were subjected to inhumane treatments and abuse.47 Although slavery was outlawed in 1865, in the South enforced segregation legislation from 1877 to 1954 (known as ‘Jim Crow’) that systematically marginalised blacks as inferior to whites, affecting almost every aspect of daily life.48 This history of domination, subjugation and exploitation continues to impact the experience of black Americans today and remains a sensitive topic (see and Relations below).

 

The United States still struggles to build and maintain positive relations between white majority and black minority amidst inequalities (see Racial and Ethnic Relations below). The black population is still significantly disadvantaged in regards to rates of imprisonment, education, income and political representation. As such, one’s experience as a black person in the United States differs significantly from those of the white population. Further, black Americans are more likely to say their is central to their identity than those of other backgrounds, with about three-quarters of black adults say being black is extremely (52%) or very (22%) important to how they think of themselves.49

 

Today, most of the black population is born in the United States, descending from former slaves. However, the foreign-born black population has also increased in recent years, with significant voluntary migration from Africa, parts of South America and Caribbean Islands (such as Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago). Each of these groups has distinct cultural and social identities. Over half of the country’s black population (56%) lives in the South.50

 

Asian

It is estimated 6.8% of the American population are Asian (23 million people), making this the fastest growing group in the country.51,52 The term ‘Asian American’ refers to a vast and diverse group of people who trace their roots to over twenty countries across East and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian subcontinent.53 The largest ancestry groups among Asian Americans are Chinese (23%), Indian (20%), Filipino (18%), Vietnamese (9%), Korean (8%) and Japanese (6%).54 However, it is estimated 14% of Asian Americans identify with one or more and 3% identify as Hispanic.55 As such, it is important to note that the Asian population of the United States encompasses many different cultural backgrounds, histories, languages and other characteristics. 

 

It is estimated 57% of the Asian population was born in another country.56 However, many of these people migrated over 10 years ago and have since had families in the United States. For example, most people with Japanese heritage are American-born. Overall, the Asian population in the United States is considered to have high economic status and educational attainment when compared with the overall population. 

 

However, this does not reflect significant variations between different origin groups. For example, while 75% of Indians 25 years or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, this figure is only 15% among Bhutanese. There are also vast differences between how recently individuals migrated, their pre-arrival life experiences and migration circumstances. For example, the experience of those who arrived as refugees in the 1970s (e.g. many Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong) are likely to vary significantly from those who arrive as skilled migrants today. As of 2019, nearly a third of America’s Asian population live in California.

 

Indigenous

Before , the land of present-day America was home to expansive numbers of Indigenous peoples and nations (including the Cayuga, Cherokee, Huron, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora).57 European violently conquered and dispossessed the existing Indigenous populations. Indigenous people were forcibly assimilated or displaced from their traditional lands, fracturing and marginalising their communities and societies. The Indian reservation system was created to exclude Indigenous communities from areas of land that European Americans wished to settle. Many of these reservations remain today.

 

Today, 'Native Americans and Alaska Natives' comprise 1.7% of the American population according to the National Census.58 There is much effort within Indigenous communities to preserve their culture, traditions and spirituality. Despite these positive developments however, Native Americans are still one of the United States’ most economically disadvantaged populations.59 Many continue to face challenges in access to health care and education.60

 

Importantly, the degree to which a Native American knows or integrates their traditional culture into their life varies and is said not to define them as being any ‘more’ or ‘less’ Indigenous. For example, some Native Americans live with their tribal community and continue to practice their ancestral culture, while others may operate within the United States’ dominant mainstream culture and have a more limited knowledge of cultural practices. There are shared values and attitudes that are common to most Native Americans. However, many traditional customs and practices are tribally specific (such as systems of governance and language). The tribes that have the largest number of people identifying with them are Sioux, Navajo, Choctaw, Chippewa and Cherokee.

 

Racial and Ethnic Relations

Multi- familiarity, tolerance, awareness and acceptance has grown significantly in the United States, as different and have gained prominence in the public sphere. However, there are definitive social tensions around the stigma and social disadvantage faced by certain or identities. Due to the country’s recent history of segregation and slavery, conversations about racism are especially sensitive. Immigration is also a sensitive topic commonly igniting public and political debate – with stigma often directed towards the Hispanic and Latino population. 

 

Ultimately, is a key social and cultural touchstone in the United States, discussed more openly and frequently than is common in many other English-speaking countries. Americans are arguably more attuned to perceived slights than people from other English-speaking countries and the terminology used to refer to people of different origins is contested (see Other Considerations). Moreover, it appears the American public has an increasingly pessimistic view of the country’s progress.61 National polls conducted in 2019 showed that more adults have a negative view of relations than they did 20 years ago, with 65% saying that it has become more common to express racist or racially insensitive views.62,63 More recently, police brutality against black citizens has become a flashpoint for public outrage and discussion on relations in America. 

 
Individualism and the 'American Dream'

American culture is highly , whereby people are expected to be self-reliant and independent. There is a strong belief in equal opportunity and – that reward is based on a person’s abilities rather than their wealth or social position. In turn, American society has long promoted the aspirational belief that any individual should have the opportunity to achieve upwards social mobility, prosperity and success, regardless of their social class or place of birth. 

 

Known as the ‘American dream’, this ideal is powered by the mentality that one’s success is a result of their own work. Therefore, ideally anyone should be able to obtain a higher standard of living than their parents if they put in the effort. The American dream is often epitomised by entrepreneurs or ‘self-made men’ who work their way from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to the top. It also continues to be expressed by many migrants that view America as the gateway to a better life. 

 

However, various studies and public opinion polls show that many Americans are concerned social mobility is becoming less realistic or no longer achievable. While 92% of children born in 1940 ended up in higher income distributions than their parents, this figure was only 40% for those born in the 1980s.64 Moreover, Americans have become more sceptical of the promise of ‘self-made’ success as opportunity for socioeconomic mobility is often dependent on access to previously established privilege, networks or even luck. This pessimism has increased since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007, which saw the American middle class significantly decline; many lower-income families now struggle to rise through the social strata.65

 
Nonetheless, the enduring belief in the American dream implies a sense of optimism toward the future and the possibility of upward social and economic mobility. Paired with the competitiveness of the free market, these ideals can power an achievement fever in the American workforce and economy.66 Today, Americans are renowned for their optimism, opportunism, individualism and innovative nature. Many people share an emotional desire to continually find and believe in something new.67 This is visible in the way new ideas, opportunities, entrepreneurial ventures and public personalities can gain an eager following in the United States.

 

_____________________

1 Pauls, 2018
2 Facing History and Ourselves, 2020
3 Kirsch, 2019
4 Freese, 2008
5 Foreman, 2006
6 Widmer & Erikson, 2017
7 Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020
8 Bains, 2015
9 Allen & McGuire, 2020
10 American Enterprise Institute, 2019
11 Foner, 2018
12 Keating, 2010
13 The White House, 2021
14 Sedensky, 2017
15 Foner, 2018
16 Walt, 2011
17 Edwards, 2018; Kershaw, 2018
18 Levitz, 2019
19 Spencer, 2014
20 Proquest, 2017
21 Foner, 2018
22 Thorsett & Kiley, 2017
23 Hatemi, Plutzer & Berkman, 2019
24 Foreman, 2006
25 Widmer & Erikson, 2017
26 Brenan, 2020
27 Ibid.
28 Widmer & Erikson, 2017
29 United States Census Bureau, 2019b
30 Ibid.
31 Ajrouch, 2016
32 Korelitz, 1997
33 United States Census Bureau, 2019e
34 Picchi, 2019
35 Emmons, Kent & Ricketts, 2018
36 Picchi, 2019
37 United States Census Bureau, 2019a
38 United States Census Bureau, 2019e
39 United States Census Bureau, 2019c
40 United States Census Bureau, 2019d
41 United States Census Bureau, 2019c
42 United States Census Bureau, 2019f
43 United States Census Bureau, 2017
44 United States Census Bureau, 2019b
45 Berry, 2017
46 Ibid.
47 Ibid.
48 Urofsky, 2021
49 Horowitz, Brown & Cox, 2019
50 Tamir, 2021
51 United States Census Bureau, 2019b
52 Budiman & Ruiz, 2021a
53 Budiman & Ruiz, 2021b
54 Ibid.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid.
57 Pauls, 2018
58 United States Census Bureau, 2019e
59 Austin, 2013
60 Ibid.
61 Horowitz, Brown & Cox, 2019
62 Morales, 2020
63 Horowitz, Brown & Cox, 2019
64 Chetty et al., 2017
65 Bains, 2015
66 Ibid.
67 Ibid.

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