The United States is a country that is based on the triumph of the ideals of Western tradition; a tradition founded on the democratic principles of liberty, equality, and freedom that has given rise to variety of myths about America’s destiny, goodness, opportunity, and place in the world. American exceptionalism, “Manifest Destiny”, and the American Dream are but a few, that describe the cultural narrative of the United States, and can be considered the yardstick by which each citizen measures themselves. These myths are both true and false simultaneously; at times, true for the dominant class and equally false for nearly everyone else throughout our long and storied history. Since the early European settlers arrived in the United States, the dominant class has been white, heterosexual, males, who through economic, military, legal, political, religious, and social power, have maintained their class position for more than 300 years. The result is an American story that can be considered at odds with the experiences of so many of its inhabitants, who have been victims of genocide, slavery, servitude, discrimination, deportation, prejudice, and yet continue to struggle for the opportunity and equality proffered by our myths and laws. Despite the progress women and minorities have made to gain equal treatment and opportunity in American society, societal norms still serve to prevent equal access to resources, opportunities, wealth, and privilege for those that differ from the dominant class majority, while American myths serve to devalue their class experiences.
Gender Identity and Class Experience
Women in the United States have sought to improve their rights in society for more than a century, advocating for property rights, voting rights, and even the right to control what happens to their own bodies. Gender role socialization is likely a significant causal factor in continued gender equality as traditional gender roles are taught and reinforced across societal institutions like “ language, education, mass media, religion, laws, medical institutions and mental health systems, occupational environments, [and] intimate relationships” (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009, p. 60).
A great example of the way in which U.S. institutions continue to exert influence in gender equality issues is the abortion debate. While the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, made abortion a constitutional guarantee, the debate still rages with special interest groups, politicians, and religious organizations, seeking to influence a change in the law (PBS, 2006). While women are treated with greater equality today than at any time in recent history, there remain significant gaps in gender equality, particularly as it relates to work, due to occupational discrimination, occupational segregation, and societal expectations for women to align to traditional gender roles (Rock, 2011).
The result of gender inequality in the workplace is a continued gender wage gap, where, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women continue to earn on average, 81% the earnings of men (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). In order to create greater gender equality and improve women’s class experience in the United States, continued efforts to close the wage gap and to change gender role expectations, particularly as it relates to childrearing, must be at the forefront of issues addressed by the modern women’s movement.
Sexual Identity and Class Experience
Traditional gender roles, idealized into beliefs, are a source of widespread attitudes towards sexual identity, serving to stigmatize lesbians, bi-sexual, gay and trans-gender persons in U.S. society. Kite and Whitley (1996) found a link between heterosexual’s beliefs about the characteristics that men and women should have and their attitudes towards lesbians and gay men, suggesting that the strength of dislike is related to the strength of their beliefs. Whitley and Aegisdottir (2000) later find that gender beliefs are further used to legitimize popular myths about homosexual persons in order to justify prejudicial attitudes held by the socially dominant class. “The social dominance perspective holds that people who possess social status and power are motivated to preserve the status quo that provides that status and power” (Whitley & Aegisdottir, 2000, p. 951).
This phenomenon plays out often in the popular press, where recently a lesbian couple attempted to enter the Dollywood theme park and were barred entry for wearing a t-shirt that promoted gay marriage (Clark, 2011). There can be far more serious consequences for LBGT persons than being barred from opportunities, including overt discrimination, aggression, and even violence. Stearns (2009) describes the discrimination that led to her termination as an airline pilot after undergoing gender reassignment surgery; and who can forget the violent killing of Matthew Shepard, who in 1998, was beaten to death simply for being gay? It is likely that existing gender belief system held by the socially dominant class, namely white males, are threatened by persons whose sexually identity challenges the norm, and as result is the basis for the exclusion of lesbians, bi-sexual, gay, and trans-gender persons from mainstream U.S. societal institutions.
Racial and Ethnic Identity and Class Experience
U.S. history can be considered a history of the triumph of the Western tradition at best and a triumph of white privilege at worst. The social construct of racism has been present in the United States since before the birth of the country and persists today. Non-whites, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Native Americans, and others have all suffered as victims of racism at the hands of the dominant social class (Zinn, 2003). Racism, or the legacy of racism, continues to be a pervasive problem as ethnic minorities continue to be disadvantaged compared to the dominant social class in terms of income, wealth, and access to opportunities (Elkin, 2011; Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In modern America, racism is often cloaked, in rhetoric, restrictive policies or laws, or fundamental myths about America.
For example, immigration reform is at the forefront of public debate with politicians and the media seeking to influence the public in a vitriolic debate aimed primarily at Hispanic immigrants. Special interest groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, that helped develop Arizona’s SB 1070 law, are framing the immigration debate for the U.S. Congress (FAIR, 2010) despite their white supremacist origins (The Pioneer Fund, 2011; Zeskind, 2005). The pervasive misinformation has served to fuel fear and anti-Hispanic sentiment into the dominant social class, with many concerned of the effects of Hispanic immigrant use of services, tax evasion, criminality, and overall negative impact on the U.S. economy. In this example, the debate appears to deem Hispanics as a causal factor preventing the pursuit if the American Dream by the dominant social class.
The more things change, the more they appear to stay the same. While the United States has become significantly more multicultural and laws have been created to allow multicultural citizens to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and freedom inherent in our national myth, the dominant social class remains the heterosexual white male. Heterosexual white males overwhelmingly occupy positions of power, hold more wealth, and earn more income than women, LBGT persons, and ethnic minorities and are motivated to maintain their position of privilege. Despite the march of progress, the societal norms of the dominant class still serve to prevent equal access to resources, opportunities, wealth, and privilege for those that differ, and our American myths support the ability of the dominant class to maintain the status quo.
Clark, J. (2011, August 4, 2011). Dolly Parton apologizes to lesbian couple over Dollywood T-shirt incident, USA Today. Retrieved from http://travel.usatoday.com/destinations/dispatches/post/2011/08/dolly-parton-apologies-to-lesbian-couple-over-dollywood-t-shirt-incident/413677/1
Elkin, A. (2011, July 27). Valedictorian sues school: Was she snubbed because of race? Retrieved from http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/26/valedictorian-sues-school-was-she-snubbed-because-of-race/?iref=allsearch
FAIR. (2010). Federation for American Immigration Reform 2010 Annual Report (pp. 32). Washington DC.
Fiske-Rusciano, R. (2009). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Kite, M. E., & Whitley, B. E., Jr. (1996). Sex Differences in Attitudes toward Homosexual Persons, Behaviors, and Civil Rights: A Meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(4), 336-353.
Kochhar, R., Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2011). Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.
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Stearns, J. R. (2009). A transexual’s story. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed., pp. 94-107). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
The Pioneer Fund. (2011). The Founders Retrieved August 10, 2011, from http://www.pioneerfund.org/Founders.html
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Zeskind, L. (2005, October 23, 2005). The new nativism. The American Prospect Retrieved August 10, 2011, from http://prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=10485
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present ([New ed.). New York: HarperCollins.