I’m skeptical about what I see despite what I hear. While some people can be distracted by the World Wrestling Federation-like spectacle of American politics, my intercultural practitioner’s radar detects racism in the “Red State – Blue State” rhetoric. Nowhere is this more evident than in objections over “big government” and “tax increases” by Conservatives since the Reagan years, who have systematically eroded the social contract with American citizens.

A country’s national culture is a series of historical events that have occurred in a particular geographic location. Although it’s been couched as a benign of Red versus Blue States, the attitudes and behavior concerning race in America can be traced back to a Civil War legacy that can account for some of our lingering resentments. While America is a culture that rarely looks back, and places nearly all its wagers on the future, what the Old South lost then, seems to matter very much now. This old war wound has been reopened and triggered by current events such as a discomfort for some, about the election of a black president, an overall increase in the Hispanic population and influence, and with the change, influx, and unfamiliarity of immigrant populations from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East among others who are outnumbering, outperforming, and out-dating an historically white, male dominant culture. From a cultural context, they are behaving as if they are the Other and seem to be exhibiting an uncanny array of the following typical culture shock symptoms in the public media, politics, and policies:

·         Unwarranted criticism of the culture and the people (Donald Trump’s candidacy speeches about Hispanics)

·         Utopian ideas concerning one’s home culture (The Tea Party’s “family values”)

·         Preoccupation of being robbed or cheated (tax cuts, reducing big government waste)

·         Pressing desire to talk with people who “really make sense” (preferring “middle America” over metropolitan areas like New York

·         Preoccupation with returning home, or default culture (“family values” or American values)

Over a century ago, Bertrand Russell observed that the Old South was so unlike the rest of America, that it was like a different country because it was agricultural, aristocratic, and retrospective, while the North was industrial, democratic and prospective. Until 1865, the South was still a land-owning, slave-holding aristocracy that mimicked British and European class systems the founders rejected, until it was defeated. When the culture of the Old South was destroyed, honor and a way of life was lost along with an economy and a distinctive way of speaking.[1] However unconscious or deliberate, those deeply held Civil War resentments and subsequent racism, masking as “Washington gridlock,” account, at least in part for the persistent and pervasive culture of divisive, racist attitudes and behavior.

It isn’t so black and white because there’s a cultural paradox in the striking parallel between the cultural values of Conservatives and the Old South, where their values originate and African-Americans. Both are collectivist, exhibit a high power distance, are overtly patriarchal and demand respect for authority. At the same time, they distrust outside authority figures as a result of their history of discrimination and prejudice (not unlike the white Anglo-Saxon protestants who rebelled against the crown). They also share a strong family orientation and a deep sense of honor or “saving face”.

The latter two are deeply rooted African traits serving as hidden dimensions of African-Americans motivated and driven by group affiliation that can sometimes supersede nationalism or patriotism. For them, a high value is placed on the collective achievement rather than the individual. Group harmony is paramount, and 'face' must be saved or else risk being “dissed” as described by the voice of black youth. References as "brothers" and "sisters" is a tribal legacy and membership in this “family” implies trust, reliability, mutual respect, and protection. 85% of the rest of the world shares some or all of these tendencies to a greater degree than the Anglo cluster that includes North America, South Africa, the UK and Australia.

Whatever the reason, real or perceived, bitter divisions about race persist up and down America’s cultural fault line, cleaving the E Pluribus away from the founding Unum. Culture is dynamic and always changing, so while deep history accounts for some of our attitudes and behavior about race, our shifting attitudes toward money and prosperity contribute to the class divisions embedded within the racial divide. In America, money and wealth are based on achieved status, where wealth is a reward, based on the protestant work ethic, and not ascribed as it is for much of the rest of the world. Part of what it means to be American, and more importantly, the attain in-group acceptance, is achieving self-reliance and independence by earning a living. Prosperity means having personal choices and charting your own course. However, it seems that America’s competitive game of Capitalism is rigged by the opposition, making up new rules as they go along; a tactic leaving others to swing in the wind in the name of choice and destiny.  

Heterogeneity is another factor contributing to America’s increasingly divisiveness given the new face of immigration, changing demographic population size and origin. Was the American Dream easier to achieve when the vast majority of Americans were of the Greatest Generation mindset, descended from similar Central and Western European ancestry, oriented by similar values. As a culture of shared meanings, it also acted as a society of shared political views. A dominant and virtually monoculture with the same way of thinking, processing information, and decision making that could therefore account for the kind of political harmony that elect Roosevelt four terms in a row. A time when similar voters, voted similarly.

America’s demographics in 2016, don’t resemble those of the 20th century. Immigrants originate from all cultures and continents, with different mindsets (assumptions, attitudes, values, and behaviors) to think, make decisions, and process information. Is it any wonder the 20th century leaders, with a mindset rooted in the attitudes, values, and behavior of the Old South feel threatened and can’t relate, represent, or lead people who were raised in ways utterly unlike their own?

Culture’s consequences, not skin color, rooted in historical resentments and shifting attitudes about prosperity, accounts for some of America’s racist behavior. Edward T. Hall famously said that culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants… the real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand our own. Living harmoniously in America isn’t a simple Red and Blue problem, of bridging the gap between political ideologues, it’s a starkly black and white crisis triggered by a deep historical trauma. As with any dysfunction, it can be restored to sanity. In this case, with an intervention by intercultural practitioners and an admission to ourselves that our country has become unmanageable.

Fortunately, the United States is a work in progress. This nation has managed to reboot many times in the past with good old American trial and error spirit, and we’ve managed to come back even stronger. So even in this era of dysfunction, uncertainty and decline, we may be down, but not out. We root for the comeback kid. In all likelihood, we’ll probably recover from this civil war of ideologies to another national cultural default that just might save us: “effort optimism”. That’s the “hopey-changey” setting 85% of the rest of the world’s older cultures mock us for. Never mind what they think. These attitudes motivate Americans to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again because hard work pays off in the end.

Also thankfully, racism and xenophobia is practically irrelevant for Millennials because they don’t carry this historical legacy. So, they’re more tolerant of immigrant populations because that’s their experience and they only thing they’ve known. We may have handed them a cloudy childhood, but they “think, different” about race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I’m optimistic about their global mindset. And despite the American “need for speed” and to commodify time, we really do have all the time in the world, to learn new ways of perceiving, interpreting, and relating to people who were raised in ways utterly unlike our own, because tomorrow is another day.


[1] Ironically, the best Southern accents are pulled off by the British. Take for example, Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.