With a constant influx of millions of immigrants from around the world, the US exhibits extraordinary ethnic diversity. They are therefore referred to as a melting pot of nations and cultures. However, this view is misleading in some ways. Years of intense immigration were marked by an obvious drive for assimilation, which was seen as the best way to get a job and realize the “American Dream.” Over time, the process of ethnic and cultural homogenization reversed. Affinity with a certain nation (ethnic group) is now part of national awareness, a sense of identity, especially for marginal ethnic groups.
There were considerable linguistic and cultural differences among the original inhabitants—the Indians—but the influence of European immigration was such that only a few groups retained a discernible cultural identity. The first settlers from the Old World came mostly from northwestern Europe, especially England, Ireland, Holland, Germany, France and Spain. The black population was brought mainly from the West African coast as slaves to work on the plantations.
After the civil war, a wave of mass immigration brought to the country many Italians, Scandinavians and residents of the troubled states of Eastern Europe, including Russia. A very numerous community was made up of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms. Their settlement took different forms. Many Italians and Jews settled in large cities and created specific urban neighborhoods such as Little Italy in New York. Scandinavians and some Balkans established farms in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest. The degree of cultural adaptation and assimilation also varied greatly.
According to CALCULATORINC, the economic collapse of the South after the Civil War expanded the class of so-called “poor whites”, who lived in almost the same conditions as the newly freed black slaves and thus created a breeding ground for racial hatred. In both the agricultural south and the more industrial north, a large class of mostly poor, uneducated blacks emerged, used as cheap labor. In the South, they were often denied basic human rights. Gradual changes in public attitudes, expressed also in laws, especially after World War II, erased some of these differences. The so-called “positive discrimination” of black Americans (or also Africans) was supported in a number of areas. Yet hundreds of thousands of African Americans still live segregated in urban housing estates and ghettos.
In the second half of the 19th century, an influx of Chinese workers created a strong Asian community on the West Coast. Many Chinatowns emerged in Pacific cities, the largest being Chinatown in San Francisco. In recent years, this immigration has been boosted by immigrants from Southeast Asia, especially from the Philippines and Korea. Immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American countries have created a large Hispanic population, concentrated in large cities on both coasts. It currently equals the number of members of the black population. Many immigrants are illegal and cause serious social problems. Immigration today is restricted by law, but the US still admits nearly two million immigrants from around the world each year. They are also a haven for refugees from countries like Haiti, Cuba and Vietnam.
Many immigrants continue to use their own language, mostly within communities within large cities. Hispanics from more backward countries in particular have problems with English and adapting to the American way of life.
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, so it is not surprising that the structure of believers is very diverse. More than half of the population subscribes to some form of Protestantism. Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal churches are widely represented, and the number of active believers is greater than in the Protestant part of Europe.
Roman Catholics form the second largest group. For the most part, they are of Irish, Italian or Hispanic descent. Jews make up only a small group of the total population, but in New York, for example, they represent more than 10% of the population. All world religions are represented in the USA, and there are also a large number of sects and cults, from black Muslims to Scientologists to the Church of the American Indians. Some of them are tied to certain places where their members settled, such as Mormons in Utah.
American society is highly urbanized, although statistics show that more than 20% of the population still lives in the countryside. Characteristic are large urban agglomerations with satellites of large neighborhoods of single-family houses, often located in a different state than the center. Another typical feature of American society is intensive internal migration.