A country splintering into angry shards

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans know the expression, E pluribus unum.

(Here’s a definition)


The idea is that, with more than 300 million people sharing a sense of national identity, we’re all just American.

Not really.

Not any more.

Every day now seems to offer another horrific story of racial, economic and political division splintering the country into angry, gun-toting, vitriol-spewing shards.

Two men shot and killed two people who were behaving, they thought, disrespectfully — one, texting in a movie theater:

It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.

It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.

The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.

the other, annoyed by music from a nearby vehicle:

It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.

The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.

Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.

What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.

But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.

I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.

In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.

It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.

But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.

From the Times story:

Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.

Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.

It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.

But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.

A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.

It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.

Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.

Here’s a post from The Root:

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.

It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.

(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)

How do you feel?

Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?

What, if anything, could address it?

28 thoughts on “A country splintering into angry shards

  1. I think part of this is the dregs of society jumping into the spotlight by doing something horrible. At least I like to think that’s what it is. I really don’t believe Americans are bad. I just think our dark past tends to crop up a lot more than it should, not allowing the evil to die out and for the country to move on.

  2. Bill

    It does not take much to lose everything that you have. Illness, job loss, act of nature, all can take what you thought you had and it can be all gone just like that. Been there done that. When you lose everything and have nothing, your worldview changes. We live in a country where there is no industry and friends of mine in management are losing their jobs. There is no industry in this country and I daresay anyone to tell me otherwise. Things are only going to get worse and I tend to be optimistic.

    1. Thanks for this. I agree.

      I was let go from my last job, in 2006, two weeks after having front page of that paper…it was a joke. I haven’t, thank heaven, lost everything but I am still trying to get back to even the income I made in the year 2000…Our expectations of what life was “supposed” to look like, whether a fresh grad of 22 or mid-career, are very skewed for many people now.

  3. I don’t know which is more upsetting: the mind-numbing hatred and ignorance being expressed, or the puppet masters who are fueling it.

    Racism is a part America’s ugly past and present. With the election(s) of Barack Obama, I had hoped we had finally begun to overcome this scar on our history. But what I saw as hope, others saw as opportunity to advance their agenda.

    What amazes me is how they can stir up a group of people to support policies that hurt rather than benefit them.

    What’s the simple recipe for leading a revolution? Find an oppressed people, unite them against a common (perceived) enemy, and assure them that you are on their side, even though you have more disdain for them than you do the “enemy.”

    To answer your question, I see it as class warfare — more economic than racial at its true roots — driven by a few wealthy whites. They are playing to the fears of some people who see their lives being threatened by the unknown “them”: minorities, undocumented workers, and the LGBT community.

    They are being force fed a diet of lies and fear and they are too misinformed to know otherwise.

    I fear this will not end well; I pray it does.

    1. Thanks.

      The fear of the “other” seems to be growing. The attacks on individuals is easier (the only option?) than trying to confront or change a system that simply doesn’t work for many people.

  4. My take on this has everything to do with perception vs. reality. The social media world, for all of its praise, should get more criticism. While people may feel a sense of “community” on a social media platform, with people thousands of miles away, we seem to have a society where the physical community no longer matters. Add to this the fact that yes, we no longer have a common pool to share national identities or events. Back in the day, it was Uncle Walter who told us what was going on, and then, told us when he was giving his opinion. Now, opinion journalism in all stripes are available to anyone seeking to confirm their biases rather than challenge their conceits.

    So, that one-two punch of social isolation and confirmation bias seems to lead to tragedies where people shoot each other over misunderstandings and exacerbates the death of interpersonal skills. A friend of mine used to call that “believing your own BS.” But to look to national leadership to resolve this in-fighting is a lost cause. The very wealthy need the squabbles to keep the public constantly voting against their self-interest. Those in power require the pseudo-debates on Fox and MSNBC to keep their base appalled enough to turn out the vote. There is always hope that someday, people will wise up, talk to their neighbors again realize that failure is not a disease caught by others, but a possibility for everyone living on the razor’s edge.

    Too many people hold the poor, struggling and laboring in contempt, and believe that living above their means makes them somehow impervious to the very possible failure that awaits most Americans should medical bills, downsizing, greed and debt come to their door. Its like Steinbeck said, and I paraphrase, Americans never took to socialism because they all believe that they are not in fact poor, but are temporarily embarrassed millionaires. That attitude extends to all things–other people are victims, not me. Other people vote Liberal (or Fascist), but not me, other people do not have blessings (and thus, a God on their side) like me….etc. Yet all of us claim the flag for our own.

    (Reminds me of another quote, from the socialist Internationale “And end the vanity of nations, We’ve but one Earth on which to live.”)

    Great post here–political postings always gets replies, good, bad or threatening!

    1. Thanks for this…Great to hear from you!

      One of the issues I think a lot about is “community” and how we, or anyone, define it. I agree that social media has amplified the echo chamber, so all one has to do to feel self-righteous is tune in to the frequencies that agree with you.

      What has amazed me (and deeply disappointed me, why was I so naive?) is how gullible and credulous some Americans are…the very point you are making — I almost never (!?) see a communal or shared…anything. Whatever is happening is always imputed to be the sole result (whether good or bad) of individual effort or failure, not systemic abuse or the result of unfettered free-market capitalism. I see, for example, the “shame” people feel whey they get fired, several times….because a corporate master wants to make its quarterly numbers, not because the person fired was lousy or lazy. I wish everyone HAD to study economics in high school so they could at least understand the system they have chosen and its downside. Instead, it’s all “my fault” — and this bleating of “I played by the rules.”

      You didn’t make the rules! They’re not created for our benefit.

      1. I appreciate that search for community. Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, Better Together) has written extensively on social trust. Part of my calculus in leaving DC for a college town was a search for a real community. While a college town can have lots of social trust, like your town, there are shards here too. As for the rules, Amen. We live in abusive times. I wonder if the recent passing of Pete Seeger represents the final act of American workers’ rights coming to a painful end, lost to history in the same way that Tianenmen SquAre has no cultural meaning to the Chinese youth of today. Here’s a stat I heard the other day. Walmart, the largest us employer, pays it’s workers an average of 8.80/hr. In the 1950s the largest us employer was GM. Adjusted for inflation, they paid their average worker $37/hr. QED.

      2. The current battle over the minimum wage is deeply depressing to me, and to millions of workers who desperately need to move out of poverty — while making profits for others. I agree about Pete Seeger; one of the issues that also troubles me is the lack of leadership among those who see how screwed many Americans are, and continue to be, economically. Unions are not enough. Who are we to look to for any sort of larger cultural solidarity and conscience? Jimmy Fallon? The Kardashians?


  5. themodernidiot

    *Golf clap*
    This was a lovely piece.
    Love the poor stuck into affluent neighborhoods–do they get vouchers for the increases in goods and services prices, or commuting? Even if they hang in there and more come, the rich will just move again–probably go gentrify the now-empty ghetto lol.
    For all the money on assistance programs the government blows (in rd tape admin costs alone!), they could just raise some min wage, improve schools, and pay off some scared Republicans to vote their consciences rather than suck more ass along party lines for corporate advantage.
    Never ever gonna help eradicate poverty until we get serious about pulling the uber rich off the government tit. It’s a joke how much people bitch about the cost of low-income assistance. It’s nothing, maybe a drop in the slop bucket compared to the seas of golden effluent flowing out of mansion faucets.
    But keep arguing about the Duck Dynasty, America, ’cause that’s what really matters.
    Great piece, dude. Gotta hand it to you for the covert plug as well lol.

    1. Hey…good to hear from you, too…

      It’s such a complicated issue with so many moving parts. I agree, corporate welfare makes me INSANE — and the DRAAAAAAMA and saber-rattling over the minimum wage is utter shite. I’ve applied for a fellowship (and will know next month if I got it) to go to Australia, where the LOWEST minimum wage is $16.37 to report on how they achieved it. The country has not shattered into tiny little pieces as a result. It has a thriving economy. OMG!!!!! Imagine. A living wage — and an economy that functions. But because of American exceptionalism (what a toxin that is), and corporate ownership of Congress, no one even bothers to examine HOW to raise wages and stem poverty. Every article I read on this is the war of the economists. Zzzzzzzzzz.

      No one on $10/hr can “live”. They can barely survive. The meta-message, always, is — you don’t deserve to. There is something deeply contemptuous about paying people pennies and scooping up a ton ‘o profit as a result.

      At The North Face, in January 2009 (it’s in Malled), my manager told us he had to cut our hours. I was only working 7 hrs a week! It was cut to five because “the company can’t afford it.” That’s the same month the Wall Street Journal reported that VF, TNF’s parent corporation, was sitting on billions in cash (yes) — which it used later that year to purchase Timberland. The word “afford” is mighty elastic.

      We are all cogs in the machine.

      1. themodernidiot

        LOL it IS total shite!

        And oh yes, my friend, I remember well your hours getting cut. You wrote a memorable book. I could easily empathize. I enjoyed your tenacity and focus, which brought the most boring activity in the world into the flashy, gladiator ring of dirty jobs. Nice.

        Anyone reading this, go buy it. You’ll either pass out from gasping at the drudgery of human aspiration, or you’ll nod your head in revolutionary agreement. Either way you will learn something new, giggle and scowl. You might even swear off malls all together.

        But I digress. Go Aussies! Woohoo!
        Send me a souvenir…a kangaroo would be awesome.

  6. Bill

    So whatt then is the solution? Medicare and postal service are examples of natiaonal programs thatby definiton are not capitalistic in nature yet help many. Do we redistribute wealth? If someone wants to pay my grad school loans I am all for helping. I have debt inccured through education and am making less. One could argue if the loan debt was worth it. The flip side is the trade off worth it? Does it pay to go in debt from college for a job that may not be there or decreased income so that it becomes difficult to pay bills?

    1. And the postal service is losing a ton of money. My local post office — in a town of 10,000 used to have three clerks at all times. Now they have one. I waste 20+ minutes standing in line to do the simplest thing there. It’s a disaster, even as they raise rates every year.

      Yes, we re-distribute wealth. Other nations do this through taxation and thus are able to provide all residents with “free” (tax-paid) health care and free or heavily subsidized educations. It’s seen as a point of national pride and a way to level the economic playing field. Here, the field is tilted sharply to insure that only the healthy, well-educated and most determined stand a chance.

  7. I think this is a good and bad thing. We regularly cycle through this sort of thing again and again. Each time though, we seem to come out with an improved society. For example, the Civil War was horrible, but when we emerged we had begun the first steps towards a more equal society. Then problems built up again, and we had the issues rise up again during the World Wars, though it was less noticeable because the wars overshadowed it. At the end of that time, we had made more progress towards equality, due in large part to veterans recognizing the value that minorities provided while serving during the war. Then the sixties and it’s political unrest happened. Laws were changed and social advancement happened, but still with violence associated with it, because people are TERRIFIED of social change. Now, here we are again. Our politicians are polarized and there is a great deal of pressure to improve the lives of lower income folks who are at a disadvantage because of social issues (LGBT, race, rural upbringing, etc.) and I maintain hope that we’ll advance our society still more with time and patience. We’re already making progress in some areas. We just have to keep at it, and hopefully we can avoid the massive violence this time around.

    Slightly aside – The shootings you mentioned are horribly tragic, along with the Trayvon Martin case and others, but I really hope that they are overall recognized as wake up calls to action to let us all come together to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. I can’t stand the idea of these folks dying for nothing.

  8. bill

    I agree with your assessment concerning a nationalized healthcare plan….that being said, I earn what I earn having gone to undergrad and grad school putting myself into debt to do so… Let college education be free, everyone pays an education tax… I am for that as well…

    what I am not for: anyone telling me I need to reduce my pay or pay extra taxes so some freeloader can sit on his ass at home collecting welfare…that I am not for……

    1. The problem with “welfare freeloaders” — and they exist — is we don’t know who they are. Entitlements, de facto, are always also going to include people who “waste” our taxes.

      I’d rather have a welfare freeloader sucking up my taxes than hand billions of $$$$$$ to the war in Afghanistan, to name only one outrage. We don’t really have much say in where our hard-earned tax money will end up.

  9. You are right that the trend is in the wrong direction. I am not sure why. During the great immigration period of the early 1900’s, people came here and really wanted to be Americans. They wanted the American Dream. They wanted to learn the language, work to earn a living, take advantage of the opportunity to be free to improve oneself, be part of this great nation. That desire seems harder to find these days. It is still there, just covered by negative events and attitudes. You are right. We are splintered. But we were built on splinters that came together based on common ideals. Maybe we need to re-evaluate those ideals, find the common ground and move forward from there.

    1. I wonder what those common ideals are now.

      If you have fled famine, war and religious oppression, freedom from those is a lot. But I suspect many of today’s immigrants — as I did — chose the States for better economic opportunity. It’s disappeared for millions of people, thanks to a crappy economy with very poor opportunities for a lot of people; no hiring, low pay, few to no raises. It’s dis-spiriting. So was the crash of 2008 and the clear venality, if not outright criminality, of the banking system and the lack of oversight or regulation.

      The trade-off I chose to make by leaving my home country is now offset by appalling, relentless BS attacking women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, etc. The stunning intolerance and political divisiveness here is really pathetic.

      I have a very different view of this country than I did when I first arrived. Sad to say, it is not a rosy, shiny one.

      1. I certainly don’t have the answers but, I think it starts with a strong leader with a vision and common sense, which we have not had in nearly three decades. I believe our issues are repairable. However, it will take a long time to bring us back on course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s