Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Are You a Segregationist?

Do we self-segregate in America?

In our modern America, laden with choose-your-own options for: news, entertainment, neighborhoods, and even states that lean one way or another - do we now choose to create our own echo chambers and surround ourselves with people with whom we agree on most things in life?

In some ways, it would be understandable.

Certainly it is easier to hang out with people who agree with you.  There is a short-hand for many things.  It's relaxing to be in a group which has a whole bunch of inside jokes and references.

And we live in the most diverse country in the world.  Diversity is a great thing in many ways, but there is a lot of effort that can be involved in communicating and understanding each other when not everybody shares the same reference points.

This may be partially a function of modern convenience.  We no longer have 3 major TV stations in every city, well, maybe with a couple of UHF channels.  When I was a kid everybody watched The Cosby Show and Family Ties and there were only a couple of kids movies out at a time, and only a certain amount of popular albums out at a time.  So when I went to college, we all had the same reference points.  Sure, some people liked Alternative more and some people liked Rap, but we all had heard most of the same stuff.  There are probably variations of that now, but with the number of options we have, and the fact that there is no set time schedule in the way there used to be (Spoiler Alert?  Either you caught the show or you didn't) means that people necessarily have fewer common associations across broad groups.

But it's also a function of choice.

And choice is great.  If I had to watch Mad Men I'd be a sad girl.  But along with that choice maybe we lose something we had in common.

The entertainment choice is not the only choice that has exploded into a myriad of options.  Greater development across the country and people willing to commute ever-further from jobs has meant that we have more communities to live in.  As that happened, many Americans have chosen to live in ever-larger houses and in ever-spread-out communities.  Which is great - many of us have choices.  And what that has meant is greater flight from cities, and, essentially, fewer people around us.

I like space.  Some people thrive in cities, but space can be really nice.  Relaxing even.

But perhaps we have lost something without actively deciding to lose it.  There is a lot of talk about how we are divided and how our government can't get anything done.  And there is evidence that part of the problem is a lack of collegiality in Washington.  Legislators don't stay in Washington long enough to become friends with each other.  That may sound silly, but when you view your job as fighting for a living, it can help to reach across lines and cooperate if you have a fondness for the people with whom you disagree.  I'm sure there are people in your family with whom you moderate your speech and views, because you love them and yet disagree with them on some issues.  Congress can be the same way, and often used to be.

And the overriding theme I feel in our political discourse is one of difference and division.

Not just Red State vs. Blue State - which is both inaccurate (it's really cities and inner suburbs versus outer suburbs and rural areas) and simplistic.  It's also the way we frame every issue.  That's not new, we have a two-party system, and two-party systems breed an either/or style of thinking.  But after 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how nice that one moment was (after the tragedy, of course), with Americans united.  Really with the vast majority of the world united.

And I think that feeling was something we have been running away from without realizing it.  We enjoy commonality.  A commonality of purpose and agreement and clarity.

It's one of the reasons we elected President Obama, I think.  He spoke a lot about that commonality.

And I think with all the choices and all the diversity and all the movement we have separated ourselves from one another.  And it has become harder to view ourselves as one people, one country.  Certainly there are politicians who actively encourage that us versus them thinking.  But I think we as a country have done some of that to ourselves.

And while we have done it, we have handicapped ourselves further by employing politically-correct self-censoring and a quick-to-judge/quick-to-get-offended filter over our political discourse.  Which has meant that over an increase of distance, a decrease in common associations, we have had further to reach to get a common understanding, and fewer words we are able to use to get there.


  1. We certainly seem to be getting segregated by political viewpoint, and that, I think, has a lot to do with the Internet and the myriad of t.v. choices. People are watching and reading just the viewpoints that they agree with and that encourage the opinions that they already hold.

    But I think one of the most important ways we are segregating ourselves is by income. The U.S. is far more segregated by income level than in the past; the poor end up isolated and poor kids end up in schools filled with other poor kids, and it's not good for society. My family has made a conscious effort to stay in the lower-to-middle class area where we live and to keep our kids in the local public school, even though many educated parents we know don't want to send their kids to school with poor kids and immigrants... but it's a tough decision. Thoughts?

  2. I think that's right. Supposedly one of the main reasons for white flight as a phenomenon was the desire to leave the poor and non-white/immigrant folks behind. And I suspect that has a real impact on attitudes about poverty and race, because if you never have any reason to encounter people who have less than you do, let alone poor people, your associations will be entirely based on popular culture and prejudice. It has an impact on cities, because the tax base leaves every night. One of the things I have been interested in for years is state-wide funding for public schools. Vermont did it, and Texas was on the verge of being forced by a court to do it at one point. It - in theory - levels out the discrepancy in funding from county to county, and takes away some of that drive to move to where the rich people live and away from poor people. The problem is the same problem with busing, however, a variation on a NIMBY theme - "not with my kids." Again, I'd say the perception of difference instead of community makes people dislike the idea of common solutions to problems. I think the important part is that your kids receive a good education, but I think that can happen in a school with poor and immigrant kids.