Sunday, July 08, 2007

Segregation As "Sad" But Inevitable?


David Brooks penned a column, The End of Integration which opens with the lament, ("Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration"), but (suprise, surprise) he's shedding crocodile tears. And, as is his wont, he relies on a child-like presentation of social anthropology to justify his actual position:
But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism — a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us — the people who will protect you — and them — the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups — no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction — they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.
So integration is analogous communism? (Did I miss his "Nothing is sadder than the fall of the Iron Curtain" column?)

When Brooks describes people who say they want to live in integrated communities but actually seek out segregation, I suspect he's speaking of himself. This supports any number of "shorter David Brooks" synopses of his column:
  • I live in a neighborhood that's primarily white, went to white majority schools, and I've never had a black friend, and I turned out okay.
  • Why are people carping about this racism stuff, when they should be addressing real problems like make-believe anti-Semitism?
  • I have a black neighbor - every Tuesday - and I would be saddened if he moved away.
I will concede in fairness that David Brooks contends that his comments about anti-semitism were a "joke", although (as with the factual errors that he reinvents as jokes) his delivery of the punch line was a bit off the mark.

The obvious point Brooks somehow overlooks is that whatever divisions may naturally flow between "us" and "them", race does not have to be a principle point of division, or even a significant point of division.
Maybe the health of a society is not measured by how integrated each institution within it is, but by how freely people can move between institutions. In a sick society, people are bound by one totalistic identity. In a healthy society, a person can live in a black neighborhood, send her kids to Catholic school, go to work in a lawyer’s office and meet every Wednesday with a feminist book club. Multiply your homogenous communities and be fulfilled.
Of his examples...
  • You can live in a "black neighborhood" or move out of a "black neighborhood" without regard to your race;
  • You can attend a Catholic school without regard for your race;
  • You can work for a lawyer, or even be a lawyer, without regard for your race (if we assume the lawyer doesn't discriminate when hiring you);
  • You can be a feminist without regard for your race; and
  • You can join or quit book clubs without regard for your race;
But you can't change your race. Hatred and division predicated on race is qualitatively different, because race is a status and not a choice.

There is no question that society can change its views on race and ethnicity. Many groups which were once subjected to active discrimination are now integrated into our society. Many people who are overtly racist nonetheless display extreme partisanship in favor of a local sports team which is largely black. The color of somebody's skin may present an easy basis for distinction between groups, but the fact that it is easy does not mean that it is desirable or even tolerable within a modern society.

Am I wrong in believing that Brooks would not shrug off another person's dismissal of the segregation of Jews with, "This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available"? I suspect he would most likely accuse the speaker of being actively anti-Semitic, or at least of holding anti-Semitic sympathies. I suspect he would be correct. And yet that's his response to racial segregation.

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