Why So Many Americans Feel Left Out

From a Washington Post column by Theodore R. Johnson headlined “Why so many Americans feel left out”

A refrain all too familiar to many Americans has been tossed at elementary students in Minnesota, on high school football fields in California, in mailboxes during the pandemic and even allegedly among police in New York City. The list goes on.

The saying? Go back to where you belong.

Cultural differences are usually at the root of this intolerance. The implication is that race, ethnicity, immigration status or accent — anything other than an outdated stereotype of conventional Americanism — marks a person as not, or less, American. It insists that belonging involves muting aspects of one’s identity or experiences. And it contributes to a culture of exclusion that is anathema to a nation that professes civic equality.

A new report suggests that feelings of exclusion may be spreading and creating a crisis of belonging, with downstream effects that pollute social and civic trust — while providing steam to anti-democratic politicians and activities. The study, titled “The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America,” is the product of a partnership between nonprofits Over Zero and the American Immigration Council.

One insight from the Belonging Barometer speaks directly to our current moment: White Americans — who have long been offered as the fullest approximation of Americanism — feel that even they don’t belong. This is not good.

A quick word on the concept of belonging. Psychologists assert that the need to belong is a “fundamental human motivation” that requires frequent positive interactions grounded in care and concern. Those who don’t feel a sense of belonging are more likely to be unfulfilled, to experience health and socioeconomic difficulties, and to engage in antisocial and destructive behaviors.

The Belonging Barometer project asked people to rate their agreement or disagreement with 10 statements assessing factors such as whether they feel valued, how comfortable they are expressing their opinions and whether they feel accepted for who they are. Scores were tabulated, and each respondent was categorized as having a sense of belonging, of exclusion, or of ambiguity between the two. Belonging occurs when people feel agency and are socially connected. To feel non-belonging is to feel either ignored, ostracized, or ambivalent about being accepted and connected.

To me, one result was particularly shocking: Sixty-eight percent of Americans report feeling a sense of national non-belonging. Just 1 in 3 White and Hispanic Americans, and only 1 in 4 Black, Asian and Native Americans feel they are nationally accepted, connected and seen as a good fit for the nation we have.

Some 64 percent of us feel alienated in our workplaces. That number climbs to 74 percent in our local communities.

We are a nation of self-declared misfit toys. Many Americans in past generations used the sense of non-belonging to push the nation to be better, to live up to its ideals, to make room for more belonging. But this data suggests those whose place in America was once a given feel it has been lost.

This feeling is ripe for exploitation by unprincipled political leaders who thrive on division and resentment. Culture war skirmishes and the rapid rise of grievance politics are directly connected to a heightened sense of non-belonging. It cannot be a coincidence that political protest and violence has accompanied a feeling of being treated “less than others” among some White Americans. The torchlit marchers of Charlottesville, chanting “You will not replace us!” found an echo in the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Few have spoken as directly to White disaffection as Donald Trump. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” openly evokes a time when White people’s Americanism was generally unquestioned. Indeed, it could be a euphemism for making them feel like they belong again. Through the lens of non-belonging, Trump’s words before the Jan. 6 riot take on new meaning: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Earlier this month, Trump raised the rhetoric another notch. “I am your warrior,” he declared. “I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

Today’s politics tap feelings of non-belonging and seek others to blame for the feeling. The problem with this framing is obvious: To feel like you belong — whoever you are — you must find someone else to be excluded. A nation as large and diverse as the United States cannot afford to have every group difference thus weaponized. But that’s exactly what the crisis of belonging is exacerbating: social and political divisiveness along lines of party, race, class, geography, sexual orientation and gender.

There is some good news. Belonging can be cultivated. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most productive strategies for feeling connected is to develop and nurture diverse friendships and get to know people who are different from us. Further, the word itself — belonging — is a rare neutral term, both widely understood yet politically non-polarizing. A study last year by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement found that negative impressions of the word are exceptionally low across party lines and across racial lines. Whereas words such as privilege and social justice had high negatives, and the word pluralism is unfamiliar to many, “belonging” evoked positive feelings on par with “unity” and “liberty.”

We cannot allow the belonging crisis to devolve into a full-blown identity crisis. To the extent “We, the people” describes a fully realized America, perhaps the most critical step we can take as a nation is to foster the belief that, in our multiracial democratic republic, there is a place for everyone. This is arguably the entire point of the American experiment.

Theodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, is a senior adviser for New America’s [email protected] initiative and author of “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America.”


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