Self-Segregation: Many Americans Surround Themselves Exclusively with Members of Their Own Race

In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, America has seen the issue of race once again come to the forefront as protesters took to the street seeking “Justice for Trayvon” and President Obama called for Americans to do “some soul searching on the issue.” The issue of race lies below the surface like a geyser ready to erupt, triggered by hot button issues such as the Martin case. Its greatest danger, other than sparking violence, is keeping Americans from talking about real issues, such as the merit and extent of self-defense laws, as they rehash stereotypes as part of learned behavior from past generations.

While more tolerant and integrated younger generations have eased some of the problems that were on display in the Civil Rights movement, current problems exist and much of that comes from unfamiliarity. A recent study by Reuters found that 40 percent of white Americans and 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by members of their own race. In a country where you can be completely surrounded by similar faces it is hard to learn acceptance through new experiences with ones that look just slightly different. The Reuters study gave the following example of the differences that come from living in segregated and integrated communities.

Respondent Kevin Shaw, 49, has experienced both integration and racial homogeny. He grew up in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and attended a mixed high school where he was one of only two white teenagers on the mostly black football team. His wife, Bobbi, is Hispanic. They met in high school and have been married for 27 years.

Eleven years ago, they moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburb of Liberty. "Soon after we moved in, my mother-in-law came to visit and a neighbor asked if she was my maid. It was just a matter of ignorance," he said.

In the time he has lived there the neighborhood has become less blinkered, helped by the arrival of younger families.

He also puts prevailing attitudes down to environment. "A lot of it comes down to where you grow up," he said.

For younger generations of Americans this theory also holds true, as they have grown up in a country that while not completely homogeneous is much more integrated than the past.  Because of this the issue of race becomes less of a factor in life, as interaction with different types of people is the learned behavior.  According to the study:

My Mom's school, they had ended segregation, but she told me there was still basically one side of the road for whites and one side of the road for blacks," respondent Carlon Carter, 18, said.

A keen athlete and music fan, his racially diverse group of friends in Birmingham, Alabama, comes from these shared interests.

"There's a big difference now. We don't see each other so much like 'you're white and I'm black'. If you like the same thing I like, then that's all that matters," he said.

President Obama touched on this in his post Zimmerman verdict comments speaking of his own daughters, saying younger Americans have fewer issues with race,

It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But...they're better than we are, they're better than we were, on these issues.

The truth is that racial mistrust and prejudice is born in both societal acceptance and ignorance. For those who live in areas where daily interactions must be made upon the entire spectrum of race, it becomes less of a factor. For those who only have to interact with those of a race different from them on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis — the scared of the unknown sets in and ignorance can lead to misunderstandings.   

While the polling shows a narrowing divide, the comments section predictably show the opposite. While most can agree that racial harmony in everyday interactions is continually improving, the Internet and its anonymity allow a voice for those with the most controversial of opinions. Also, the comments sections of news posts have traditionally become a place for trolls and those looking to stir the pot and see what they can start to get their kicks. An example lies in the words of commenter Eric 93 who wrote:

Birds of a feather, flock together. It’s a law of nature. All cultures through history which stuck together, survived. Those that didn’t perished. With mixed marriages, even between persons of the same race but different religions, you have stress and problems and divided loyalties. As for California, it is doomed. It will soon ‘spin-off’ as ‘The Peoples Democratic Republic of Mexifornia’.

These words were commented on an article that specifically talks about how California is one of the states that enjoys the most racial harmony. From the article:

As a group, Pacific states — including California, the most populous in the nation — are the most diverse when it comes to love and friendship. By contrast, the South has the lowest percentage of people with more than five acquaintances from races that don't reflect their own.

Yet, commenters looking to spout off their racial philosophies attempt to shout down the facts with their own version of such. In the immediate aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal, racial tensions became on edge as those representing the extremes of the issue, both good and bad, did most of the talking as most of the sensible middle were shouted down.  

While things are not perfect, they are improving, and as long as we realize that reality is what we exist in when we walk out the door and interact with others — and not what takes place on twitter feeds and comments sections — we should take solace in the fact that time will continue to heal our nation’s deep wounds. As for the concept of living in a racial utopia, where racism does not exist, that is unlikely to become a reality and perhaps it is for the best. Sometimes, it takes a person standing up and saying something racially inflammatory for the vast majority to realize how stupid it sounds to say such a thing when we are all just trying to get through life — a life we have much more in common than we do that divides us.

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Chaz Bolte
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