Our 21st-century segregation: we're still divided by race [The Guardian]
Many Americans don't want to admit it, but I'll say it: segregation is still around. Sometimes by design. And sometimes by choice.
Let me be clear, this isn't the segregation of my parent's era. It's not a legally mandated and enforced system backed by public figures like former Alabama George Wallace, who famously said, "Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever," to resounding applause, in 1963. The "whites only" signs have ceased to lurk over water fountains, bathrooms, and restaurant counters.
Yet, 21st-century segregation exists overtly in our school systems, communities, and prisons. It also permeates our society in ways we don't even realize.
We need to continue the conversation about the shocking segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. According to a study last year, 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks go to schools where less than 10% of their peers are white. But beyond that, we often fail to talk about how segregation impacts us personally. How it permeates not only many of our public and private institutions, but American culture at large. We less easily talk about cultural or social segregation, an area that we have control over, via the restaurants we patronize, the bars we drink at and the places where we worship.
It's time for us to face the reality that for many Americans, even if we live and work around "diversity", our best friends and spiritual leaders, the people we invite into our lives and homes, often look like we do, reinforcing a de facto segregation. This social and cultural segregation isn't restricted to "uneducated" people living in the country. It is equally prominent in environments where smart, educated people are supposed to "know better". People who have studied race, spent months abroad in India or Africa, tasted the best fufu and mofongo, read Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Pablo Neruda, and who may even have black "friends" or lovers, still too often manage to have a community that doesn't reflect diversity in their broader city or nation.
It's understandable that we don't hear much about this type of divide. It's too personal for many, who often don't want to be seen as racist. It's a hard phenomenon to quantify. Talking about the numbers of blacks in jails or in a school system is easier than confessing that the last time you confided in your Latino "friends", Britney Spears was at the top of the charts.
Yet, some data can point us in the right direction – like looking at the number of interracial friendships (15% of whites say they have a lot of friends of different races), and the number of interracial marriages (at 15% as well), and the number of discrimination suits at entertainment venues. But we mainly have to rely on anecdotal information to talk about cultural segregation. Articles on social segregation in cities like Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and even New York, pepper online message boards, and crop up in the unlikeliest of places. Even New York Times food critic Sam Sifton weighed in on the issue, more honestly than many, stating:
"New Yorkers are accustomed to diversity on sidewalks and subways, in jury pools and in line at the bank. But in our restaurants, as in our churches and nightclubs, life is often more monochromatic."
But just talk doesn't seem to change much.
My knee-jerk reaction is to blame racism and discrimination. To complain about all the times that I've felt odd being the only brown face in the crowd. To get mad about how all the television shows that have casts that look like my family are segregated to the so-called "cable ghettos". To get angry at all the bouncers who say they have a racial quota in hotspots. And to wonder why all the books I like are sitting in a "separate" section … until of course, I realize, I'm guilty of many of the same offenses: I segregate, too.
I think about all the nights I plan out that were based on the racial and ethnic make-up of the crowd I am going out with. If I am hanging with black friends, I likely go to an all-black establishment, where I know my friends will like the music, and the mating potential. If I am hanging out with an all-white crowd, I immediately cross all black locations off the list, not wanting anyone to feel uncomfortable. Instead, I relegate myself to being one of a few blacks in the crowd. If it's going to be a night with mixed company, the venue would be more likely to be up for grabs. But an all-black locale still would probably be out of the question.
This isn't secret intel: many blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians seem to stick to these same guidelines, too, particularly in New York City, America's supposed great melting pot. There are still two Americas: one for brown people and one for whites, and both are heavily segregated.
If our social worlds were more integrated, perhaps we would see it trickle down to the way we govern and the way we dispense justice. Having some sort of connection, a shared experience is the only way I believe that we can get politicians, police officers, and everyday citizens (see Robert Zimmerman's recent comments) to truly understand race.
It may seem silly to connect major state and federal policies to something as simple as a night on the town, but our experiences are shaped not just by legalese and policy, but also by understanding and interacting with each other. Segregation in the 21st century is not just about being legally and physically separated, but about a cultural separation that still feels like it divides more than it binds.