Americans Consider Themselves, Well, American

Diversity In Terms of Ethnic, Cultural Roots Doesn't Change How U.S. Citizens See Themselves

By Published on .

Most Popular

Of course, many Americans identify with their Italian, African, or Asian roots. And why not? Cultural diversity is what makes this country so unique. But, let's face it: For the most part, our links with the cultures and traditions of our ancestors are limited to a few recipe cards and boxes of holiday decorations that are collecting dust somewhere in the attic. In terms of our day-to-day lives, we act like, well, Americans.

An exclusive survey conducted for American Demographics by St. Louis-based Maritz Marketing Research found that 83 percent of the country's residents identify their culture and traditions as uniquely American.

Being American means different things to different people. So, in our survey we set out to discover which Americans more closely identify with the cultures, attitudes, and traditions of their ancestors, and which view themselves as purely American. U.S. residents of European heritage unequivocally embrace American ways: 90 percent of Americans of both Eastern European and Western European descent say they are culturally American. But you don't have to trace your roots back to Europe to fall into that category. In fact, a majority of residents of Latin American descent (61 percent), African descent (54 percent), and Middle Eastern descent (64 percent) also feel that their traditions are quintessentially American. U.S. residents of Asian ancestry are less likely to assimilate: Only 33 percent of Asian Americans today say they are culturally American.

It's no surprise that region by region, the largest number of cultural Americans are found in the Heartland. Eighty-nine percent of Midwesterners view themselves as American, compared with 83percent of Southerners, 79 percent of Northeasterners, and 78 percent of Westerners.

Older Americans are the most likely to report leading a distinctly American life while young adults are the least likely to do so. Only 74 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are culturally American in relation to 89 percent of adults aged 65 and older. Young adults are also more likely to be of Latin or Asian descent and be foreign-born than any other generation. Will the cultural influences of these less American youths dilute the strength of the national identity? Perhaps not, says Faria Chideya, author of The Color of Our Future (William Morrow, 1999).

"America is a constantly reinvented country and a constantly reinvented concept," says Chideya. We're in a transitional phase right now where [foreign influences] are going to be seen as Latin American, Asian American, and so on. But eventually, they'll be identified as simply American.

According to Chideya, younger Latin Americans and Asian Americans, among other groups, are introducing their own foreign culture to the American fold. She uses the example from a few years back when salsa outsold ketchup for the first time. “Is salsa American? It is now, says Chideya. The question is not will this dilute? but which [cultural influences] will stick and become part of the larger [American] culture?

It's not likely that we'll have to wait long to find out. According to our survey, Americans are hungry for foreign influences. In fact, 45 percent of Americans say they often explore cultures that are neither their own nor those of their ancestors, while only 8 percent say they never explore foreign ways. Those most likely to delve into the exotic are young (52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds investigate foreign cultures, compared with 43 percent of those aged 65 and older), rich (60 percent of respondents with annual household incomes of $100,000 and higher, versus 41 percent of respondents with incomes below $25,000), and female (48 percent of women, compared with 41 percent of men).

Residents of the West and Northeast are also notably more adventurous: 51 percent of both Westerners and Northeasterners often expose themselves to foreign cultures, compared with 45 percent of the inhabitants of the South and Midwest.

Despite our obsession with all that is foreign, it seems Americans still love things from home. Of the respondents who identified their culture as distinctively American, 49 percent say that they view products with ties to the United States more favorably. Respondents who are culturally African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, or European (both Western and Eastern regions) are decidedly less swayed by products with ties to their homeland. Guess there's just nothing that can compete with baseball, mom, and apple pie.


Americans may be rusty about U.S. history, but they are still overwhelmingly patriotic.

Americans may not know their Founding Fathers or how the United States gained its independence, but they don't think that makes them bad citizens. They show their patriotism when it comes to spending their hard-earned cash: 75 percent of Americans agree that buying items made in the good old U-S-of-A is important to them, according to the Fall 2000 Survey of American Consumers conducted by Mediamark Research Inc.

Some 87 percent of Americans said they are “very patriotic? in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in November of 1999 (the latest year for which any major polling firm collected data on patriotism for public release). Still, a June 1999 FOX News poll found 74 percent said that people are less patriotic than they were 25 years ago. The belief that people used to be more patriotic isn't new. In a 1983 New York Times poll, 68 percent said people weren't as patriotic as they were when you went to school.?

Yet for all the national pride, it seems not everyone is up on the historical details. Although three-quarters of Americans in a June 1999 Gallup survey knew from which country the U.S. gained its independence (that was Britain for those of you testing your history), 19 percent weren't sure. Two percent said France, with another 3 percent naming places like Russia, China, and Mexico. Generally, people are honest about what they don't know. In a 1998 Public Agenda study, 53 percent of parents admitted they would have to look up the Bill of Rights to explain it to their children.

The knowledge gap doesn't seem to bother most people: Only 36 percent of those surveyed by Public Agenda said someone who knows “virtually nothing about American historyâ€? is a bad citizen. And a shaky grasp of U.S. history may not matter. In focus groups and studies, Public Agenda found Americans have a strong belief in core values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal opportunity â€" even if they can't name the specific amendment involved.

â€" John Fetto


A full 77 percent of Americans age 60 and older say the term “patriotic� descibes them “very well,� compared with just 35 percent of those aged 18 to 34.


ALL MEN WOMEN 18-34 35-49 50-59 60+
Very well 53% 57% 49% 35% 44% 67% 77%
Somewhat well 31% 28% 34% 41% 41% 17% 17%
Not very well 10% 9% 10% 16% 10% 10% 4%
Not well at all 6% 5% 7% 8% 6% 6% 2%
Source: Knowledge Networks, 2000

Sushi Anyone?

The young and the affluent are the most culturally adventurous.


AGE* ALL 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Very often 24% 29% 23% 18% 29% 19% 24%
Often 21% 23% 27% 22% 17% 21% 19%
Sometimes 31% 29% 27% 36% 30% 32% 30%
Seldom 15% 14% 14% 16% 17% 19% 12%
Never 8% 4% 9% 8% 7% 9% 13%









Very often 24% 20% 20% 23% 20% 30% 22% 28% 37%
Often 21% 21% 21% 17% 25% 18% 28% 20% 23%
Sometimes 31% 32% 35% 31% 33% 32% 36% 30% 24%
Seldom 15% 13% 16% 23% 15% 13% 6% 17% 14%
Never 8% 13% 8% 7% 6% 8% 7% 6% 2%
*Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
Source: Maritz Marketing Research
In this article: