Friday, October 30, 2009

Demographic clustering and the self-segregation of America

This post is inspired in part from this commentary, "Suffer the Little Children," by Southern Beale, and this incident, "Hate Begets Hate," reported by Southern Female Lawyer, who recalled this conversation with a stranger while shopping:

They have a young child and just couldn’t bear the thought of their child growing up in this sort of cultural environment … But the straw that broke their hearts was when they were at a local flea market … and there was a vendor there selling Klan material. And as it turns out, this woman and her family are of a group that is frequently targeted by the Klan …

Here is Southern Beale’s follow-up commentary:

What is the point of all the battles over de-segregation and all of the ground gained over the past 30 years if we’re going to self-segregate anyway? I certainly can’t fault anyone for doing what they think is best for their children … But the entire conundrum depresses me.

Indeed, one can hardly fault any family for wanting to keep their children safe from bigots. Yet, this tendency to self-segregate runs deeper than we realize. We no longer cluster along ethnic, racial, or economic lines; we self-segregate along political and cultural lines... with potentially dangerous consequences.

This is the thesis of Bob Bishop's landmark study, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. According to Bishop, the terms "red state" and "blue state" no longer refer to those states that return Republican or Democratic majorities, but to groups of people clustered within communities who self-identify across an array of opinion: liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, and religious versus non-religious, as examples.

As evidence, Bishop cites major changes in the electoral map over the past 33 years. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency by a razor thin margin; yet 26.8% of the vote came from landslide districts where Carter won or lost by 20% or more. The number of landslide districts had grown to 48% by 2004... almost double since the Carter era.

Another study compares educational attainment and geographic mobility. In the 1980s and 1990s, 45% of Americans with a college degree moved from state to state within 5 years after graduation, compared with only 19% of the population having a high school education.

It is not difficult to imagine how and why we make conscious decisions that alter the electoral map. When we canvass neighborhoods looking for a place to live, we tend to notice the McCain-Palin or Obama-Biden signs in front yards. We may look for a bookstore or a gun shop, or a fundamentalist or Unitarian church in town. When choosing where to live, our decisions are not necessarily guided by economic considerations, but by cultural and lifestyle choices.

(O)CT(O)PUS is no less guilty. I am a northern transplant living in a southern state. There is a saying where I live: "The further south you go, the more likely you will meet northerners." I have witnessed racism at both ends. Racism is palpable and visible in the South; racism renders you invisible in the North. In the South, racism is a snake that strikes suddenly; in the north, racism means a slow, agonizing death by venom.

After the hurricane season of 2004, I turned refugee. I sold my beachfront home and moved to Lake County along the central ridge where I learned: Racism is cultural and systemic, not merely historical.

Lake County Florida is infamous for the case of the Groveland Four, an all-too-familiar story about the alleged rape of a white woman by four men who were beaten and forced to walk barefoot over broken glass until they confessed. It is the story of a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall who appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, about a sheriff who was a Klan member, and the murder of two civil rights activists whose home was bombed on Christmas Eve.

I witnessed weekly acts of racism in the local cafes; the harassment of a black woman at a lunch counter; epithets hurled at a black family by a passing bigot. As I witnessed these encounters, I felt assaulted. When I spoke out, I almost got assaulted.

After a year, I returned to the coast where I bought a condo. My Lake County home along the central ridge, my refuge from coastal storms, remains unsold. Having witnessed racism first hand, I can well understand a family's concerns for the welfare of their children.

Yet, we pay a price for surrender. Over time, according to Bishop, a preference for living with like-minded neighbors in extreme homogeneous communities incubates ever more extremist views. Voters in landslide districts tend to elect more extreme members to Congress while moderate candidates shun public office. Among highly polarized lawmakers, debates degenerate into shouting matches as legislators engage in obstruction and gridlock. That is how our most urgent and pressing issues go unresolved.

Due to clustering, we are less likely to converse with people holding different views and more likely to caricature them. Democrats and Republicans alike are more likely to assume the worst, each regarding the other as "incomprehensible." Even in the judiciary, Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. As Bishop states:

We now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.

So what do you say, fellow creatures above and below the waves? Shall we swim against the tide and give conservatives a chance to establish themselves as friends and neighbors before we dismiss them outright? I welcome your comments.

(Cross-posted at The Swash Zone.)

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