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Embracing an Accurate Depiction of the American Story

A young woman stands outside her home on the South Side of Chicago, June 8, 2016.

In the wake of the presidential election, one theme in the postmortem emerges very clearly: Our land is starkly divided. The divisions cut through us on so many levels; we’re separated along axes of black and white; men and women; urban and rural; affluent and poor. And that’s just to name a few.

As The New York Times’ Tim Wallace wrote: “For many Americans, it feels as if the 2016 election split the country in two.” Indeed, this idea of “Two Americas” isn’t new. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards made national headlines with a famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he declared, “The truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas.”

I’ve been thinking the same thing for quite a long time, not just following last week’s news. Sure, our nation’s divisions are evident in the horrifying realization that a New York billionaire could win the White House with a racist, sexist, and xenophobic campaign that masqueraded as a bastardized version of populism.

But I think there’s something more, something larger at play.

For several months, as both a thought experiment and as something of a personal, unscientific man-on-the-street poll, I’ve asked random people a simple question: Who is an American?

Admittedly, my interviews have been limited by the willingness of folks on buses and street corners, in barbershops, restaurants, and movie theaters to speak with me. And to be sure, the answers have varied wildly. But a common image repeated itself. I call it the myth of the Marlboro Man.

More often than not, my street corner conversations yielded an idealized version of an American as a hard-working, young-to-middle-aged white man, the bedrock personification of all that is good and noble about this country. As Pamela Ling said of the advertising campaign that created the icon, “Individualism is a core value of American society, and the whole idea that, ‘I can do this because it’s legal and I choose to,’ is very much in line with many American beliefs.”

But it’s a lie, like Manifest Destiny—a theory of divine grace allowing white settlers to claim the Old West. Let’s be honest: Those stories were never true, no matter how much we wanted to believe in them. But we, as Americans, have learned these stories as our history and have tended to embrace them as unchallenged facts. Even if there was a time when such myths were credible, they are no longer an accurate depiction of the American story.

Now, as the nation’s first black president is preparing to leave the Oval Office, the United States of America is undergoing a remarkable and profound demographic shift. Simply stated, the country is getting browner. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, the non-Hispanic white population is currently the nation’s majority racial and ethnic group, accounting for greater than 50 percent of the total population. But the bureau estimates that a “crossover” will occur in 2044, when non-Hispanic whites will become the largest single population category and no group will have a majority share of the nation’s total population.

In other words, the Marlboro Man will soon become an imperfect representation of the prototypical American. But this looming reality hasn’t stopped the longing for a return to the past.

Despite the growing diversity of our national population, the power of decision-making remains locked in place by forces that protect the status quo. The power of conservative politicians has been disproportionately fixed by gerrymandered districting, a reflection of the persistence of segregated housing patterns that give rise to extreme cultural, economic, and political divisions.

The election of Donald Trump is a primal scream in the face of a changing nation, representing a victory for those who wrongly believe that they can replicate the nostalgia of a past American ideal. Sue Bagley, who lives in suburban Cleveland and planned to vote for Trump, explained in a pre-election interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition” why she supported him. Her response is rooted in her backward-looking notions about America. “I’m proud to be an American,” Bagley said. “We’ve worked hard for this country. Any of us that are older know what it was like to be a kid in the ’50s and the ’60s and how fabulous it was. It’s not like that anymore.”

Convincing people like Bagley to embrace an alternative story of America may be difficult to impossible. What is most interesting about her comments is the sense of loss that is actually a reflection of a bygone era in the country, when voters like her made up a much larger share of the electorate and held unchallenged authority over social, economic, and political life. She is part of a vanishing minority of older, white Americans.

A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll makes this clear, noting that since the 1950s, changes in the nation’s culture and way of life are viewed more negatively by older, less-educated, and working-class whites. At the same time, younger, better-educated, and racially diverse Americans believe the nation’s culture has changed for the better. According to the poll’s executive summary, written before the election, “A majority (56%) of white Americans say American society has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while roughly six in ten black (62%) and Hispanic (57%) Americans say American society has changed for the better.”

The rising majority—younger and browner—presents promising possibilities to embrace a refreshed story of a future America. To envision this new American story, we all need to hear from Ken Lewis, a black, Harvard-educated lawyer who explained to NPR that America is an evolving story. “Yeah, we’re trying to create an America, something that perhaps has never been done before,” he said. “And that is to have a real democracy in a society that is pluralistic.”

There is a need to help Americans redefine themselves as a nation of multicultural identities that’s in keeping with our unofficial motto: E pluribus unum—many in one. Too many Americans are made uneasy by their growing awareness of a changing America.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.