What six divided societies tell us about what the president needs to do now.
In his inaugural address, Joe Biden devoted his presidency to healing a country divided by culture and race. But he will not be able to alter one of the root causes of American discord: The fact the United States, once largely white, is fast becoming a majority-minority country.
This demographic evolution has been driving wedges between Americans for decades. And the divides only deepened during the Trump administration, as the president sought to blame newcomers for many of America’s problems. Today, it seems like America’s two political camps have hardened into those that embrace this projected future, and those who resist it. On one side, leaders talk globalism, immigration and reparation. On the other, they invokenationalism, nativism and nostalgia.
What can we expect as this evolution continues? There are vanishingly few examples of nation-states that have gone through this process ahead of us —but there are some. I have studied six other societies that endured great division in the decades leading up to and after a “majority-minority” milestone — when an ethnic or religious majority loses its numerical edge to one or more foreign-origin minorities — paralleling America’s circumstances today. These societies include Bahrain, the Hawaiian Kingdom, Mauritius, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, and pre-1882 New York. Each held sovereign control over immigration policy and therefore their demographic futures. Across their different populations, different regimes and different historical periods, unity was elusive.
The United States today, of course, is a much larger society, with a complicated political system and unique ethnic and religious diversity, but we are following the same pattern of demographic change and backlash that has taken place elsewhere in the world. As a result, the stories of these smaller nations are instructive: They show how governments can suppress certain groups and inflame social divisions, or how they can reconnect and redefine their nation, building unity in the process. More practically, they also reveal the ways Biden can turn the poetry of his oratory into the prose of good governance, avoiding the pitfalls of his predecessor.
What separated those places that were better able to reconcile their differences? The historical evidence points to five areas in which societies either inflame tensions or pivot to greater coexistence — valuable case studies for Biden and the White House.
State ideologies have the power to unite or divide a multiethnic population. It all depends on the boundaries a state draws around its “people,” and how inclusive or exclusive that definition is.
Sometimes the boundaries are literal, such as with residential segregation. Throughout its modern history, Bahrain — which features a mix of Sunni and Shi’i natives who are outnumbered by a variety of guest workers and naturalized immigrants — has maintained distinct neighborhoods for its sects and newcomers. In Mauritius, Indian-origin Mauritians who marry African-origin Creoles are reclassified as part of the lower-status Creole minority, who tend to live in specific parts of the island. Sometimes the boundaries are rhetorical and practical, such as the way the Singaporean state assigns a “race” to every citizen — Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other — which appears on all identity documents and government forms.
America has long been subject to similar forms of segregation and racial classifications, all of which reinforce our differences. Before Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, there was the sense the country was bridging some of these divides. Many Americans perceived the election of President Barack Obama as the triumph of an American ideology of equal opportunity over a history stained by white supremacy. But Trump reversed that progress. His “America First” ideology reflected and stoked a desire for higherstatus among many white Americans who felt threatened by moral narratives of diversity and multiculturalism. And his flirtations with white nationalist groups undercut theuniversalist approach many Americans sought from their government and fueled conflict and violence.
Societies that pivot back toward coexistence embrace ideologies that transcend ethnic and religious boundaries. In Singapore, despite maintaining subtle Chinese predominance, the government proactively promotes a universalist message that seeks to unite its people behind a civic identity. In historic New York, equal voting rights and access to civil service jobs helped integrate the once-reviled Irish population and paved the way for later waves of other “white ethnic” immigrants.
Biden was elected by many Americans who sought greater equality, greater civility or felt exhausted by our country’s incendiary culture wars. He has already emphasized that his Cabinet appointees should “look like America” and has prioritized racial equity and humane immigration policies in his early executive actions. However, Biden must now work to craft a shared sense of purpose and identity that is as welcoming to newcomers as it is for the status-craving white Americans who supported his opponent.
Governments hold the power to socialize children with inclusive or exclusive school programs.
Policymakers must make decisions about national languages, school integration, textbook content and military conscription. In societies pivoting toward coexistence, school is a formative experience that exposes children to the differences among them but also what they hold in common as they come of age, pursue their passions and learn the same material.
On one extreme, the government of Singapore closely regulates the image of the country in everything from art museums to children’s picture books. This enforces unity, but stifles truth and borders on propaganda. On the other extreme, the United States has very little national coordination of learning, principally because American schools are governed locally. While this allows for more local control, it also produces an inconsistent approach to social and civic curricula and reinforces the inequities and segregation of residential patterns.
Schools can also be exclusive or reinforce customs or content that exclude. Last January, Trump proposed funding religious schools with taxpayer dollars and advocated for prayer in American public schools, which could alienate certain subgroups of students. Last September, Trump established the 1776 Commission to provide American children with a “patriotic education” about U.S. history. Without a single practicing historian, the committee released an unsigned and divisive report last month that decried “progressivism,” “identity politics” and universities.
While the Biden administration is limited in its ability to alter local education policies or the content of history textbooks, the federal government could invest in community colleges as reskilling institutes that bring disaffected laborers into contact with new industry. It could also rethink schools as centers that provide comprehensive social, health and community services to families. These kinds of initiatives connect disparate social groups, reduce social exclusion and build hubs of local community. Biden could also support a national service program for U.S. youths, which some American civil society groups are advocating for in an attempt to promote cross-boundary interactions, civic education and social solidarity in service to the nation. Such a new national service program could offer mentorship to youngsters or services to vulnerable communities. This would not only help participants come together, but the people they serve, too.
Because its politics are so subtle, culture is perhaps the most powerful way to heal divisions in society. Music, food, sports, art, literature and the renewal of secular traditions like Thanksgiving bring people together and, in societies that pivot to coexistence, give countrymen something to share.
Despite significant residential segregation and severely racialized politics, Indian- and African-origin Trinidadians come together over curried chickpea doubles, roti flatbread, cricket, the steel drum and soca music. Its annual Carnival — a tightly held tradition among Afro-Caribbeans — has inspired many Indo-Trinidadians and there is now a “Chutney Carnival” prelude each year. Once developed to create separate spaces for each ethnic group, incrementally the two Carnivals overlap, co-inspire and co-evolve.
Americans have no shortage of cultural activities that similarly hybridize and transcend our political and ethnic boundaries. However, governments can sponsor traditions that reinforce divisions and offend some subgroups, as when Trump leaned into the debate over the presence of Confederate memorials in the American South and condemned athletes for kneeling during the national anthem in peaceful protest. Though symbolically meaningful, escalating these debates has only divided the country further.
Rhetorically, Biden should seek out and lean into those cultural attributes that allow Americans to discover and recognize that which we share—utter obsession with sports, a deep pool of musical talent, a passion for the outdoors. Meanwhile, federal agencies dedicated to the arts and humanities could devote their resources to work that invokes the hybridity and co-evolution of American culture. The Department of the Interior could, for example, unite Americans in a climate-concerned “green corps” that bring outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists together for good.
Commercial relations either reproduce social disparities and segregation in the economic sector or overlook them for the sake of mutual benefit.
Many social conflicts spill into debates over scarce resources. In Bahrain, Shi’i Bahrainis are less likely to hold comfortable government jobs, particularly in the country’s sprawling security sector. In Mauritius, African Creoles were historically less likely to hold land in the heavily agricultural economy. The United States still experiences racialized poverty and inequality, welfare chauvinism, and divisive politics around reparation and affirmative action for ethnic minorities.
In societies that pivot to coexistence, markets feature useful interdependencies that place diverse countrymen into contact with each other for shared gain—a sale, a service provided, a helpful consultation. More meritocratic systems of promotion reduce inequality and diverse workplaces double as centers for social bridging and alternative forms of belonging. Large employers therefore have a major role to play in national unification; they are now more trusted than the government.
For Biden, “Build Back Better” infrastructure programs could double as opportunities for social bridging when they bring together cross sections of America to achieve a common goal. Indeed, the airports, highways, tunnels and bridges they build to connect our country can be dedicated to that greater ideal. The White House could also convene large employers to form a coalition of businesses that pledge to follow a set of best practices for cultivating inclusion and mutual understanding in the workplace.
The fifth pivot relates to whether the state’s identification of threats is external and thereby unifying or internal and thereby divisive.
Over the course of the late 20th century, American solidarity was fueled by the looming threat of Soviet-led Communism. This worked well in Hawaii, too, where Native Hawaiians were wary of American imperialism and eventually bonded with immigrant-origin Asians under the United States’ oppressive assimilation laws in the early 20th century.
Trump tapped a similar sense of external threat during his presidency, when he set up China as a U.S. enemy. But that did not unify Americans because he focused more of his energy targeting his personal political enemies domestically. Worse, he also blamed people living in the country, immigrants in particular, for America’s woes. According to a recent poll, Americans now believe fellow countrymen represent the country’s greatest threat.
In identifying “the virus” as America’s primary scourge, Biden managed to find an external threat that posed no internal divisions. While politics still managed to spur arguments over masks and other public health restrictions last year, the president is seeking to leverage broad interest in a vaccine. He has turned the effort to vaccinate the country — perhaps up to 1.5 million people per day — into a kind of moonshot, a shared national goal in which everyone plays a small part.
Indeed, a further equalizer today is that many Americans are feeling isolated and excluded. The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health could also explore what loneliness does to our mental and physical well-being and begin to treat our lack of cohesion as much as a public health crisis as a crisis of national solidarity.
Relatively uncontroversial, each of these recommendations engages the government to help people, as Biden urged in his inaugural address, to “open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” to “show a little tolerance and humility,” and to “stand in the other person’s shoes.” They could also be scaled down to the local and state level if mayors and governors decided to implement them as well.
But there is something broader Biden can do: He should establish national unity as one of his criteria for governance, much as he has already done with environmental sustainability.
The federal government conventionally asks: What is the environmental impact of our actions? To what extent are our actions sustainable? How can we modify existing actions to make them more sustainable? Biden should ask three analogous questions related to the cohesion that binds American citizens together: Does our action reinforce or break down social boundaries between Americans? How can our action be adjusted to strengthen the sense of connection between people? After our action, will the people trust this institution more and be inclined to participate in its efforts?
Unity is foundational to everyday life, so the ideal venues for its cultivation are the places we frequent like schools and workplaces, parks and grocery stores, houses of worship and health care providers. The government administers many of these venues or influences their operation.
Ultimately, the goal of Americans and their leaders should be to expand the sense of who “we” are. This goes far beyond who holds American citizenship; it is a question of the people with whom we perceive to share a common experience, such that we may identify them as an extension of ourselves, that we may empathize with their plight, and that we may expect them to listen to our own.
Over the decades, the share of our society with whom we feel this connection has dwindled. While anxiety about demographic change is real, we have also become more isolated with the closure of houses of worship, the shuttering of neighborhood bars, the bankruptcy of local newspapers and the expansion of the workday. The internet has also atomized our associational life into ever more nuanced subcultures, narrowing the groups of people with whom we co-identify and converse. Our separation from one another has been deepened as we live through a pandemic.
But unlike the other majority-minority societies I have studied, the United States is a vast country with unfathomable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. This is an enormous strength, because it means our politics are not about a single warring race or religion versus another. And while racial disparities and separation exists, the U.S. features evermore intermarriage and immigration has been a consistent part of our national history since its inception. We also share a baseline American experience: We are each cognizant of our family’s journey to this country, of the dreams we all chase, of the struggles we have all confronted at one point or another. Unlike the other societies I have studied, we have a richer pool of resources with which to cultivate our unity.
It won’t be easy. The cultivation of national unity is a multidecade endeavor that cannot be just a Biden administration initiative. It must be ingrained into the lifetime work of the government at all levels — something unseen in any of the countries I’ve studied.
Right now though, Biden has the moral foundation, the institutions and the biography to channel the United States toward a future of coexistence. But it will take more than passionate rhetoric; it will require devoted action to secure and create institutions of equal status and belonging. And it will require the discipline to resist temptations to engage in the culture wars of the past 20 years that have leveraged our divisions for short-term electoral gain. This unification, this reimagining of our country, is the greatest social challenge of our times.