Identity Crisis: Who Are We?

How do you identify? If you were asked to describe yourself without using your name, how would you respond? Identity is tricky a concept but important to understanding behavior. Where you stand tends to be where you sit, after all.

In the U.S. few would identify with their state, outside of Texas, Alabama and maybe, California. Others might use gender, race, nationality or family status. The way Americans identify speaks to who they are as a polity.

Psychiatrist Erik Erickson coined the term “identity crisis.” It is suffered by an adolescent who fails to develop a sense of self by the time they reach adulthood. It may play a role in how the U.S., as a whole, sees itself.

Oxford’s English dictionary defines “Identity Politics” as “A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker defined it as, “the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status.”

How is identity constructed? In 2004 Samuel Huntington’s published, “Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He observed the identification as “American” increased in times of war or conflict and declined in times of peace. He predicted dire consequences as U.S. citizens identified more with subnational, transnational or other-national identities and less with “American”

Was his the work of a septuagenarian crank or racist as some reviewers have suggested? Or was it a trenchant source on the subject with a prescient view of the future?

His model for analyzing current events became, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.” The idea originated with a speech in 1992, became an article in 1993 and eventually was published as a book in 1996. The book was prescient in that it largely predicted the events of 9/11 and prophetic in that a model he created in 1992 explains the events of the Ukraine in 2022.

Huntington has been called “one of the most influential political scientists in the last 50 years.” He passed away in 2008, but left some thoughts on identity.

He predicted four possible outcomes when it comes to self-identification based on the trends of 2004:

Ideological – In this scenario the U.S. would become “multicultural” but maintain the “American Creed.” The Creed is a commitment to the principles of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property. He suggested this was the “classic Enlightenment-based, civic concept of a nation.” Huntington warned this could lead to a “loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural and political groups, with little in common” but geography.

Exclusivist – This would include the use of “discarded and discredited racial and ethnic concepts” of “native whites” to expel or exclude other racial or ethnic groups. The rise of Donald Trump and increase in, what professor Amy Chua calls, “ethno-nationalism lite” is disturbing in this regard. However, Chua cautions that less than four percent of American actually support “white nationalism.” A recent Gallup poll showed that less than eight percent of the population believe racial problems are the most important issues facing the U.S., even among all non-economic issues. Huntington does not consider the possibility that areas dominated by Blacks, Latinos or other races might expel whites in certain areas.

Culture – In this scenario, “all races and ethnicities could attempt to reinvigorate their core culture.” This would include reviving religion, particularly, Christianity in the U.S. However, according to “Religious News” religious participation has fallen dramatically since 1952 and fallen twice as fast in the last 15 years as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the trend of decreasing religious participation, the “culture” outcome seems unlikely.

Bifurcated – This outcome would feature two languages (English/Spanish) and two cultures. Huntington wrote, “Substantial parts of America, primarily in southern Florida and the Southwest, would be primarily Hispanic in culture and language, while both cultures and languages would coexist in the rest of America. America, in short, would lose its cultural and linguistic unity and become a bi-lingual, bi-cultural society like Canada, Switzerland, or Belgium.”

The Exclusivist and Culture outcomes seem unlikely. The Ideological scenario seems to be a fait accompli and the Bifurcated outcome seems to be present in certain areas, like Florida, and growing.

In Dade County nearly seventy percent of the residents speak Spanish and many of those admit they don’t speak English well. Laruen McCleary was born and raised in Miami and enjoys the diverse population of the region. However, she said “I cannot live there anymore. I can’t speak their language.” Her husband is a non-Spanish speaker and said it took seven months to find a job as a cook. He explained that his “inability to speak Spanish” made employment a challenge. They now live in Vermont.

Flower shop owner Melissa Green grew up in Miami and now finds it “frustrating” to do business, ask for help at stores or get directions. Her mother spoke Spanish but her father forbid her from speaking the language. Miami resident Mary Bravo, from Venezuela said, “The land is theirs. We should try to speak English. But, they don’t even seem to try.”

A 1998 soccer match between Mexico and the U.S. included a “sea of red, white, and green flags” and the crowd booed when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played. U.S. players were pelted with debris and cups while U.S. fans were peppered with “fruit and cups of beer” when they tried to raise an American flag. The game was actually played in Los Angeles which prompted a fan’s comment, “Playing in Los Angles in not a home game for the U.S.”

Are Miami and Los Angeles the wave of the future? In El Paso, Texas, seventy percent of households speak Spanish at home while that number is eighty percent in McAllen, Texas. Since 1980 primarily Spanish speakers in the U.S. have increased by more than 200 percent as the Latino population has grown from 14 million to more than 58 million. If current trends continue the Latino population is expected to expand 115% by 2060.

As the Latino population grows and a larger share of the population speaks primarily Spanish, will this drive Americans even farther apart?

In addition to language, Huntington includes religion as an essential element of culture. Most Latinos practice Catholicism or other Christian religions so this represents a minimal change, if any. While half of Latino’s immigrants identify with their home country of origin this falls to less than thirty percent after the third generation. This suggests acculturation or assimilation is working in a way Huntington would likely approve.

Should the country be concerned that is it is fulfilling Huntington’s prediction of an Ideological future? Is the country already there and, if not, is this a possibility?

(Comments are welcomed and encouraged; ad hominem attacks are not.)

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