There are two Americas: one gray and one green. The differences between each one’s residents are a logical outcome of their divergent contexts. If we understand this, we have a chance of building bridges between them. Here’s the back story, and an idea.
The past two elections have sharpened the features of a phenomenon that few of us saw beforehand as clearly, even while we all felt its influence.
To see it, we needed the talents of a new breed of map-makers. Tim Wallace, a Senior Editor for Geography at the New York Times, drew two maps (illustrated above) after 2016’s upset to outline his epiphany. It divided the nation into two landmasses, in separate images: a Republican one, and a Democratic one. The first of these looked a lot like the nation we recognize, because it contained 85% of its land mass, which remained largely contiguous. The second comprised a series of disjoined islands, dotting a perceptual ocean, comprising just 15% of the US land mass, and looking strangely like some new Waterworld.
It was eerie.
For that same election, a Brit and self-described ‘carto-nerd’ named Ken Field used a dasymetric dot density map — one dot, one vote, totaling 135 million of them — published in WIRED — to show where the people actually lived, and voted, rather than their aggregate electoral counties. Like Wallace’s map, this one told a story: one of incredibly dense clusters of Democratic Americans, surrounded by vast empty stretches of sparse Republican ones, defining the stark composition of the national psyche.
Both maps are remarkable. But what they imply goes far beyond just the political (Democratic and Republican) and physical (urban and rural) distributional contexts of the Two Americas.
The two Americas that these maps outline highlight, if you think about their respectice contexts, different realities. By which I mean, there are two totally unrelated sets of experiences that residents of each live within. They may cohabit a national land mass, but within each universe, residents live and interact very, very differently, and as a result, learn very different truths about the people in their world, and the priorities or tolerances that arise from them.
In some cases, these truths are at existential odds with one another, sowing the kind of intra-societal unrest that has clogged the airwaves and the ethernet in recent years, and has played out in knock-down-drag-out fights in the political and commercial arenas. And in the context of rising murder rates of African Americans by police, combined with the decimation of jobs and lives at the hands of a once-in-a-century virus, that unrest has increased sharply over the past eight or so months, while marches and protests have become common, even daily, occurrences.
The marchers on each side tell very different stories about their respective worlds.
Gray and Green America
We typically call these worlds ‘blue’ and ‘red’. Let’s call them gray (for urban) and green (for rural) to better reflect the physical contexts in which most Americans live, to move beyond the political implications, and scratch at what makes them so.
These include systemic, rule-based differences we might expect, on issues like religion, economics, the role of government, education, health, illicit drugs, sexuality, gender roles, and culture. But they also dive into murkier waters: the psychological frameworks of equality, human rights, tolerance, compassion, the nature of community, life purpose and truth. These are hard things to pin down, because they strike at the heart of who we are, as judged by how we act, in the world.
And the behavioral differences in Gray and Green America — as a reflection of the inner lives of each semi-nation’s residents — belies different realities.
It’s important to note here that neither group is inherently more or less intrinsically moral; more or less caring about those in their community; more or less committed to the things that they have been taught; or more or less desirous of a strong and thriving nation.
Gray and Green America is not a story about the struggle of good against evil; of kindness against cruelty. It’s a story about fighting for what each side believes to be the greater good, based on what they have been taught that to be.
Which in itself, is an amazing testament to the great range of human experience.
Gray America, first and foremost, is diverse. It is multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-origin, multi-economic, multi-speed, and multi-sensory, by which I mean it’s chaotic. In Gray America, people live on top of one another, and jostle for space on crowded sidewalks, popular restaurants, high-rise elevators, the DMV, clogged intersections, bridges and tunnels. To live in Gray America, one must learn a level of tolerance — of acceptance — of difference, in order not to lose your mind.
Personal space is at a premium, and mostly absent, in Gray America.
Born-and-raised Brooklynite Jay-Z said:
“New York has a thousand universes in it that don’t always connect, but we do all walk the same streets, hear the same sirens, ride the same subways, see the same headlines in the Post, read the same writings on the walls. That shared landscape gets inside of all of us and, in some small way, unites us, makes us think we know each other, even when we don’t.”
He put his finger on a truth: that shared experience is the stuff of bridging differences. And it works because difference — diversity, of all kinds — is continually in your face in Gray America. This is the fundamental reason that Gray Americans are more likely to vote (or march) for civil rights. It’s the reason they are similarly tolerant — indifferent, even — toward sexual and gender differences. It’s why they’re more disposed toward funding social programs, like welfare, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s because Gray Americans confront these realities nearly every hour, as they ply the streets hither and thither, stepping over penniless bodies, or confronting children selling candy on subways. When problems are in your face, you are more likely to want to do something about it, either because, like Jay-Z, we think we know one another, a little bit, or because we simply realize what a big problem it is, in our own front yard.
Inequality isn’t abstract in Gray America. It’s what gets in the way.
Because in Gray America there is more diversity of all kinds, Gray Americans’ worldviews are also more diverse. Because the chances are that you’ll transact, work with, overhear, socialize and even date more people with more diverse back stories, more often, Gray Americans’ view of “normal” will include more of these differences, as well. That phenomenon will predispose a Gray American mind to be more neuroplastic — that is, more adaptable. In an environment that demands quick reactions to changing stimuli, psycho-adaptivity develops in the course of everyday living.
Because most physical property in a Gray Zone belongs to everyone — that is, it is mostly public realm: sidewalks, streets, subways, parks, building lobbies, retail stores, restaurants and bars, entertainment venues, gymnasia, workplaces and high-rise hallways — there is an unspoken yet unshakable narrative that Gray Americans practice: one that recognizes shared ownership. The concept of shared ownership is important, because if I share a park bench or a checkout line with someone from a different race or economic stratum, I’m going to realize that he/she/they has as much right to be there as I do; and that moreover, the same resources are valued by both of us.
Piggybacking on that truth, the more exposed I am to what makes a city work for those who live in it — including those on whom I depend to provide services, like nursing, or trash removal, or selling me a lunchtime halal meal on the street corner — the more I’m likely to support a national agenda that keeps everyone employed, healthy and busy.
It’s called self-preservation.
And it also edges on another concept: empathy for “the other”.
Next, more Gray Americans than Green Americans grew up somewhere else. The US Census Bureau reports that 19% of urbanites overall were born in another country. In some places, like New York City, it’s far higher, where nearly 50% — half — of all residents were foreign-born, according to DNAinfo.com. This phenomenon also levels the playing field, insofar as if neither of us is a ‘native’, then there’s a greater likelihood that we will recognize shared rights to the public realm, and her services. Humility — the notion that I, like you, am trying to eke out a living in the city we both chose to live in, and in which we have entered into some form of interdependency — will bond us to a shared (gray) landscape.
It is a significant Gray American truth: “I am not alone in my rights.”
Finally, there is the migratory trajectory of the black American, specifically. According to blackdemographics.com, the past century has seen a near-total urbanization of the black population. In 1910, 80% of African Americans lived in rural areas — there from the days of the plantation, until the plummeting price of cotton, the boll weevil and floods conspired to gut their livelihood. Two waves of mass migration — 1916–1930, and 1940–1970 — brought what now totals 80% of all black Americans to cities.
Pew reports that in cities, just 44% — a minority — of residents is non-Hispanic white. In suburbs, that climbs to 68%. And in rural communities, 79% of residents is non-Hispanic white.
Fear of “the other”, and the lack of interracial co-dependency in one’s community — for services rendered; for the health of the shared social realm; for the human decency that comes with seeing others suffer, regularly — all conspire to weaken the Great Gray Agenda in the wide-open, homogeneous landscape of Green America.
With that said, not every Gray American is the same. Some are selfish; some are outright racist or misogynistic; some become agitated and violent, under the same circumstances in which others grow more tolerant and inclusive, even championing one another’s agendas, as they have during the Black Lives Matter protests. In New York, where I participated in a week’s worth of the initial wave of marches, I saw at least as many white people as black people — maybe more — calling for fairness and equality for black Americans.
Even so, there is violence in Gray America. But. The degree of violence, I believe, depends at least somewhat on how mixed the physical landscape is. Said another way, in some urban areas, “ghettos” of isolated populations isolate residents from one another, acting like micro-versions of Green America — far more monolithic within each community than in other cities. Thus cities without physical limits, like water or mountains, tend to sprawl on and on, and in them, that kind of anti-density allows for greater micro-isolation, and thus intolerance, flaring up as violence.
It bears out in the numbers.
When looking at crime statistics, water-choked New York City — the densest of all US cities — has half the murder rate (3.39/100,000) of less dense, yet mountain-ringed, Los Angeles (7.01/100,000), but just one eighth the rate of flat, sprawling, limit-free Chicago (24.13/100,000). Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, Virginia Beach — all constrained cities — see far less violent crime than those cities in which expansive boundaries can blur the lines between what makes Gray America different from Green America: shared resources, and density-fueled proximity.
Of course, there are other influences. The economy of a city, the relative wellbeing of its residents, the panoply of services available to those who fall, catching them before they despair, and let despair turn into violence… regardless, density and forced sharing are powerful forces, when it comes to bridging difference. And these play out far more in Gray America than in Green.
There’s one final point I want to make about Gray America. City living is, by definition, a set of trade-offs. What one trades in personal space, one gains in shared cultural landscape. Thus those who move to Gray Zones tend to be psychologically primed to make concessions of some kind. Often, these are fueled by selfish motives, like making money before moving to a Green Zone, to start a family. At others, they are less self-centric, such as immersing oneself in the cultural landscape that others create in a place. But both bring Gray Zoners closer to one another; to the realm in which nearly all assets are shared, no matter who you are; and resultingly, into a place of greater familiarity, reducing “otherness”, and making room for difference.
Thus, Gray Americans tend to be greater champions of equality, human rights, tolerance, compassion, shared resources and services, and accordingly, what is often called “a liberal agenda”, such as a viable minimum wage, universal healthcare, free education, Medicare and Medicaid, and government programs that uphold those who need it most. This is because Gray Americans see the cost — the impact — of the failure to do these things each and every time they step outside their front door.
In Green America, space reigns supreme. Fully eighty percent of Americans live in cities, leaving 85% of the national landmass to just 20% of its people, according to Wallace’s map. According to former Director of the United States Census Bureau, John H. Thompson, it’s even more dramatic. He says, “Rural areas cover 97 percent of the nation’s land area, but contain just 19.3 percent of the population.” This is a sobering statistic, when we consider that the US Senate is a reflection of landmass, not population; and that the cities are not proportionately sprinkled throughout the Great American Landscape.
In a New York Times Op-Ed just today, Paul Krugman pointed out that “Wyoming’s 579,000 residents have as much weight [in the Senate] as California’s 39 million.” Sparsely populated states like Wyoming carry a disproportional weight in law-making and agenda-setting in the United States, skewing one branch of the government “almost seven percentage points more Republican than the average voter,” according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
So the first thing about Green Americans we have to note is that they live far apart from one another, allowing for more self-aggregated sameness in their county ranks, as residents easily isolate themselves from people unlike them. The impact of all this space is that there are few, if any, shared, public realm assets with which to build bridges, physically and psychologically.
Pew Research documents trends in US counties. In one article, they studied “prototypical” counties as “urban”, “suburban” and “rural”. Urban counties, they say, are typically less than 2/3 non-Hispanic white, while fully 97% — nearly 100%—of rural counties are non-Hispanic white. This means that Green America is ethnically monolithic. And as we saw earlier, the cities that sit at the nucleus of those “urban counties” are even more dramatic than the larger county context, and in which just 44% of residents are non-Hispanic white.
It is also revealing how territorially wedded Green Americans are to their communities. Just 4% of them, per Census data, were born outside of the United States; whereas fully 19% — or nearly five times the number — of Gray Americans were born elsewhere, on average. As we saw, that number jumps even farther in dense cities.
All of these things conspire to seed a “me and mine” mindset in Green America, and more of a “us and ours” mindset in Gray America.
Then, there’s education. The same data pool shows that Green Americans are less likely — just 19.5%, against Gray Americans’ 29% — to have a bachelor’s degree in college. Green American life, therefore, is less dependent on the higher education system and the jobs they train for. In fact, farming, manufacturing, forestry and mining still account for a quarter of all rural jobs, in aggregate, according to census.gov. Adding to the jobs tally, AGweb — a farm journal website — reported in 2017 that “while rural residents account for 17 percent of the entire U.S. population, more than 44 percent of [Armed Forces] recruits come from rural areas.” This is important, because the military is one of rural America’s major employers.
With far less density, there is also less local competition for jobs, in Green America. This ‘leveling’ of the Green profile — older (the median Green American is 6 years older than the median Gray), and less degree-dependent — makes government programs that aim to train citizens to compete against foreign nations outside of our borders — apart from the military — seem less important.
It also conspires to make Green Americans more threatened against outside influence, because fewer of them are the product of a bachelor-level career path, wedding them more to the specific skill set they developed for work. Accordingly, more of them per capita are predisposed to see outsiders—and higher-specialization jobs that aim to replace existing ones—as threats to their continued solvency; while militarily, more of them are primed to see whatever we perceive ‘outsiders’ to also be as threats. Plus, more of them are closer to the age at which they hope to retire, and stop competing; and so the idea of retraining oneself for a new job is an intrusion to be fought.
The psychological impact of these things can’t be overstated. To a Green American, difference is far more likely to be perceived as a foreign threat from outside of the community than a set of steps toward making one’s own community a better place to live. This psychology begins to address the stark difference in protesters clogging the streets today. Green Americans on television are more likely to be clad in riot gear or fatigues, and toting assault rifles; while Gray Americans are more likely to be carrying only signs, and dressed in everyday clothing.
Just turn on your television.
To a Green American, food stamps are a waste of money, but subsidizing the price of corn is a lifesaver. To a Gray one, polytheistic tolerance preserves the rich ecology of a city’s residents through forged empathy and culture-building; while attacking Roe v. Wade seems unduly prescriptive of a single dogma, and thus inhuman.
Gray America lives and dies by difference — accommodation and direct support — while Green America lives and dies by maintaining the status quo.
Said another way, Gray America is a work of progress, while Green America is a work of preservation.
The national political agendas of each party — at least officially — reflects this statement. “Progressive” is often used as a badge of honor by Democrats, and a major insult by Republicans. “Progressive” is also called socialist, elitist, and fascist, for reasons that escape me, since fascism is in fact “ultranationalism characterized by forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society” by definition, which seems to sit more logically in the Republican camp, and Trump’s modus operandi.
Anyhow, to see this at play outside of the American borders, we can look to Europe, aka America’s origins. In America, people live in houses that look like they were conceived in the 16th century. They are colonnaded; they have gabled roofs; they have finials; they are choked with crown molding; and they are covered in slats of wood which rot regularly in the exact way that they did during the old colonial era. By contrast, Europe moved on, 100 years ago. Apart from the homes actually built during the period they reflect, the new ones look like the residential version of an iPhone. Modernity isn’t feared, or fought, in Europe, in home design, or frankly politically, where most nations’ programs make the US look woefully out of step.
Europeans — I lived there for two years, and at least a third of my friends are foreign-raised — can’t understand why Americans are so wedded to the past, instead of living in the present, with their policies, their choices, and even their aesthetics, as illustrated in the home example.
The same holds true of language. While this is a more arcane example for my American countrymen, my native Montreal — a French city founded in 1534 — speaks a version of French that confounds every Frenchman who visits there. In Montreal, language stalled upon arrival, and has been protected stringently ever since, resisting all attempts to modernize it; whereas in France, they have continued to adapt the language with the times over the centuries, without fear. Thus a “hot dog” in France — an English-language term no Frenchman resents adopting — is a “chien chaud” in Quebec (literally, a ‘hot dog’); similarly, “le weekend” in France — another English term — is called “la fin de semaine” (the week’s end) in Quebec, in an attempt to Gallicize everything. The act of preserving a language is what prevents it from evolving, or modernizing.
A very visible — if different — example of this holds true in Green America. The 100,000 assault rifle-toting militants in the USA today live almost exclusively in Green Zones, where they arm themselves in case of a potential attack, as allowed by the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. As in Quebec, Green Americans’ staunch defense of the Second Amendment is incomprehensible to a Gray American, who sees that law as an outmoded contextual response to when Indigenous populations ran free and regularly attacked those who stole their lands, and before there was a world-crushing military to rely on to defend all Americans, not to mention a nation-wide network of trained, licensed officers, at the municipal, state and federal level; and as if that weren’t enough, before there were multiple covert intelligence operations that collectively guaranteed our safety, too.
And so arming oneself to the teeth in case of attack is the Green American equivalent of the “chien chaud” I grew up with. And like the French who laugh in my face when I utter those two Gallicized words, Gray Americans think AR-15-toting Greens are living in another century.
One Boat or Many?
The greatest threat to Green Americans is the one that changes the status quo. Immigrants, gay marriage, abortions, transitional housing, food quality oversight and clean energy all threaten the stable way of life of the Green American. It will either drain financial resources away from the things they care about — that directly affect them; or it will create undue risk to the notion that one day, someone could take their job, increase the cost of their own living, or threaten the hegemony of their religious or sociological views, which are mostly unchanging, after generations of stability (remember: just 4% are born outside their country).
Gray Americans realize the cost of entry for urban life is the investment in the things that make it work; and that the lack of funding these things makes life less pleasant, all around you. Your walk to the store; the streets themselves; the direct threat of violence, on your doorstep; the things that enrich the places you’ve chosen to set up shop for a year, or fifty.
To deny these inclusive laws and practices in Gray Zones is to sink your own boat — the one you share with all those different people. To deny them in Green Zones is simply to make sure no one gets close enough to your property to sink your boat. And this plays out literally in Green America, everywhere. I’ve personally heard many Green Americans proudly share the fact that their guns can pick off anyone approaching their property within a few hundred yards. They laugh when they say it, but it’s no joke. “A few hundred yards” in a city reaches several hundred people.
The quantum makes all the difference.
The only solution I can see stems from the the idea that Gray and Green America are two different nations. In school, many of us participated in exchange programs. That is, we left our homes for a week or a month, and stayed in someone else’s home in another city, or country, while someone in our exchange city swapped places with us.
The reason we did this was to come to know something about one another. It wasn’t about the travel, physically, but rather the travel, psychologically. In this way, bridges were built between cultures. Languages were learned… at least a bit. Cultural exposure, close up, meant that the experiences had become part of what was considered ‘normal’, or at least ‘now familiar’. And often, if only later, these early experiences elicited a wistfulness in us for what somehow felt part of a now-reduced “otherness” to those we spent time among, because like every human, we became nostalgic for our past experiences.
In Saudi Arabia, I have met and befriended several Muslim moderates who told me of their time in America or Canada, where their best college friend was Jewish, leading them to change their views of often volatile home rhetoric. In Quebec, I still feel connected to farmers, because I spent a month as a ten-year old on a working farm in French Canada owned by the Veilleux family, eating at their table after an honest day’s work, and growing up for a spell with their thirteen children — all of them farm hands. In Providence, RI — a Gray Zone — a suburban man I spent an hour exchanging stories with came away no longer resenting a white woman he liked for choosing to date a black man, because on our ride, he suddenly recognized his own unfounded prejudices, at the hand of his parents — of what he’d learned. And at the Terry Fox Canadian Youth Centre, in Ontario, where I spent a week as a high school senior, an entire generation of Canadian students would gather for a solid week, every year, for the sole purpose of connecting far-flung students from across the world’s second largest — and least dense — national land mass. That is, we were there exclusively to build bridges between wildly divergent experiences and home contexts: bridges the government hoped would seed future collaboration, and tolerance.
My closest friend in Toronto today—a black Canadian whose sister just became the nation’s first-ever black (and also Jewish!) major party leader—was a friendship that emerged from that week at Terry Fox.
We met 35 years ago.
So the antidote, as I see it, is to accept the Two Americas for what they are — different nations — and to institute global outreach programs, like exchanges and summits, that can rebuild the bridges that have been knocked down, one by one, as the nation has lurched toward an increased internal polarization over the century.
Maybe then, one day, we can sit a table together, Green and Gray, and agree, like the Veilleux, that today we did an honest day’s work, together.