The many Americas

By Razib Khan | July 20, 2012 1:25 am

One of my main hobbyhorses is that in the United States today the identities of race and religion get so much emphasis that it is easy forget the divisions among white Anglo-Protestants which persist, and to some extent serve as the scaffold for the rest of American culture. This is why I recommend Albion’s Seed and The Cousins’ Wars to anyone interested in American history. Often these realities of American “dark ethnicity,” the divisions between Yankees and Low Country Southerners, Scots-Irish and the people of the port cities of the Northeast, get conflated with issues of class. Class is a major dimension, but it is not the only one. For example, the people of Appalachia are poor, but they are not Appalachians because they are poor.

These issues of dark ethnicity rooted in “dark history” can crop up in the strangest places. For example, in The New York Times Magazine, Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?:

Greg remembers his early childhood being a content one — long afternoons spent tramping through the surrounding woods with his friends, family vacations to the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan and to visit the extended Ousley clan back in Kentucky. It was neither a materially deprived existence nor a physically abusive one. Like most other kids growing up in rural Indiana, Greg got the occasional spanking, administered by his father, but rarely anything more severe than that. Yet even at a young age, he was aware of the profoundly circumscribed orbit in which his family moved. Sociologists have long noted a tendency among many of the Appalachian transplants to the Midwest to remain separate from the larger community. The Ousleys appear to have been an extreme example of this, rarely socializing with anyone other than three sets of relatives, all first cousins of Jobie’s, and all of whom lived nearby. If easy and familiar in some ways, such tight social compacts can lead to a kind of pressure-cooker environment in times of family discord, and by the late 1980s, the Ousleys were living in constant discord.

I first became aware of this subculture due to a news story last fall about a high school in Cleveland where most of the students were drawn from these Appalachian families. Almost no one from the high school went to college, and administrators were trying to change attitudes about higher education. As someone who takes an interest in regional subcultures I was surprised to find out about this group. Though I was aware of long term Scots-Irish migration to Midwestern cities (the outriders of the “Butternuts”), I was still surprised to find out that these sorts of communities still persisted in a culturally distinct fashion in the north. You can find more in High Mountains Rising.

  • Chad

    Hundreds such examples could probably be found across the US. You are exactly right in saying how much the ethnic diversity of the US is overlooked because of our obsession with Race. The rural Midwest that I grew up in is often characterized as a homogenous lily white bunch of people with a singular culture. In reality, I was surrounded by many examples of cultural extremes. I grew up in rural Iowa, for some reason Iowa historically has attracted a lot of unique Christian groups. There are plenty of Amish and Mennonites (my mother’s family actually has roots in these communities), but there are other less known groups that did modernize. The Amana Colonies started originally as a German Christian commune and despite modernizing, still maintain a very close knit community. Pella, Iowa similarly started as a Dutch Christian Commune and they too maintain a distinct cultural identity. Minnesota is extremely Scandinavian. My Father’s family, descendent of German immigrants in the early 1900s were part of close knit Midwest German communities that still spoke primarily German as late as the 1920s.

  • JayMan

    @#1: “Race” and “ethnicity” differ only by degree, not category. Whites in America are hardly a monolithic group nor were they ever such. Indeed, it is easy to forget this when discussing the peoples of America, since the distinctions between these various groups of European extraction get lost in the distinction between “continental” races. A similar error is to lump the various nationalities of Asian or Hispanic Americans into those respective broad categories.

    Of course, even two groups from the same ethnic group of Whites may be different, as both founder effects and subsequent selection appears to have occurred on American Whites.

  • Charlotte

    Could you post a reference to the news story, Razib?

  • AG

    Heart to victims. The perpetrator is shy and PhD student, which is not surprising to me at all. Intellectual, shy people believe treating other as you wish to be treated. But most people do not behave similar way in return since most people behave intinctly or amimally. Such intellectual often is treated like bottom of animal hierarchy. Such shy bottom guy often feel whole world and every body treat him badly. Depression is often associated with such people. If he does not kill himself, he would like to kill every body since no body treat him with respect.
    Such personality is perfect for a ruling lord who will foster such personality. But it is disaster for a `liberal’ or `hunter-gatherer’ society. In feudal society, obedience is asset. In liberal society, obedience becomes personal tragedy.

  • Seth

    I don’t know what it says precisely, but it says a lot that Americans sometimes need a post like this to serve as a “reminder” that, no, as a matter of fact, the 250 million whites in America are not a culturally homgenous group; nor are the 800 million “Hispanics” south of the border a culturally homogenous group. Ditto “Asians”, et cetera. Is no one familiar with history anymore? I have colleagues who are so focued on utopian relations between the races, they’ve seemingly completely forgotten that the races have been in-fighting for millenia. We may be able to track, say, significant voting patterns amongst a specifc racial or ethnic group, but within said group there are probably dozens of cultural divisions that have or could lead to, how can I put it . . . un-neighborly sentiments. Steve Sailer’s recent post on British/Scottish relations is a good example of said in-fighting. Hell, in Southern California, even the divide between Baja Californians and mainland Mexicans is tangible.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    My father-in-law’s family is essentially Appalachian in heritage. He became persona non grata due to his decision not to go into the family construction business (he was the oldest son) and instead go to school for engineering. It was as if going away to college was a personal betrayal, and his parents never treated him the same afterward. He only talks to one of his four siblings today.

  • Grey

    That’s a good example of how clannishness could prevent innovation and how the partial breakdown of clannishness could, maybe not create, but allow innovation to happen more easily.

  • Miguel Madeira

    4 – “Intellectual, shy people believe treating other as you wish to be treated. ” (…) “Such personality is perfect for a ruling lord who will foster such personality. But it is disaster for a `liberal’ or `hunter-gatherer’ society. In feudal society, obedience is asset. In liberal society, obedience becomes personal tragedy.”

    This does not make much sense; if anything “treating other as you wish to be treated” makes more sense in an egalitarian “liberal” (both in the sense of “social-liberal” or of “classical liberal”) than in a hierarchical “feudal” society (and note that the “intelligentzia” was the backbone of the revolutionary agitation in the semi-feudal “Old Order” societies, like tzarist Russia, indicating that “intelectuals” probably did not feel so happy in that kind of society)

  • Kilbourn

    In traveling across America, the Scots Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else.

    Unfortunately, this has a lot to do with a powerful and long-running strand of paranoia and xenophobia. I’ve ridden trains through the rail towns of WV and KY and been regarded with more unprovoked hatred than anywhere else on Earth. On the other hand, when I’ve been introduced to their clan-based social structures by close friends, it is a uniquely close-knit and life-affirming culture that I’ve been honored to participate in.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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