Friday, July 6, 2007

The End of Integration

July 6, 2007


Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration. This dream has illuminated American life for the past several decades — the belief that the world is getting smaller and that different peoples are coming together over time.

Over the course of the 20th century, the civil rights movement promised to heal the nation’s oldest wound. Racism and discrimination would diminish. Blacks and whites could live together, go to school together and gradually integrate their lives.

The end of the cold war promised to heal the rift between democracy and dictatorship. More nations would be welcomed into the community of free peoples.

The trauma of Sept. 11 promised to heal the rifts between red and blue America. Then there were the integrating forces of globalization and technology. The growing movement of people would pave the way for multicultural societies. The movement of goods would increase interdependence. The revolution in communications technology would increase global conversation.

All these promises hung in the air, but then crumbled, even in the past few weeks.

The progress in civil rights has not produced racial integration. Amid all the hubbub about last week’s Supreme Court decision, we were reminded that five decades after Brown, blacks and whites do not live side by side, even when they share the same income levels. They do not go to the same schools. And when they do go to the same schools, they do not lead shared lives. As several people noted last week, many educators are giving up on the dream of integration so they can focus on quality.

The movement of peoples, meanwhile, provokes as much rage as assimilation. The immigration reform bill was defeated last week by Americans who feel their country is being torn apart by outsiders who don’t play by its rules, and by a ruling class blind to the threat.

The fall of communism hasn’t created a global community of democracies. It turns out the Russians don’t want to be like us. The Arabs don’t want help from infidels. The Iraqis’ democratic moment has turned into sectarian chaos. The Palestinians have turned theirs into a civil war.

The threat of terror hasn’t united Americans, but divided them. The globalization of trade has sparked nationalistic backlashes. The revolution in communications technology has brought media segmentation, as people seek out newspapers and shows that reinforce their preconceptions.

Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest.

It could be that all we need is a change of leadership in order to rediscover the sense that we’re all in this together. That’s what the Obama and Bloomberg boomlets are all about. It could be we just need to work harder to overcome racism and tribalism.

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.

If that’s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it’s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

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.

This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company