Integrating a Segregated State of Being

Friends who have housewarming parties plus Teresa,

We’ve all heard that famous Outkast lyric, “birds of the same feather flock together…. Hooty hoo.” As a child of immigrants, I grew up in an area where 99% of the people did not talk, walk, or mic drop like me. Scared of the unknown, my parents told me that surrounding yourself with people of similar minds and lifestyles lead to a secure, comfortable, but fruitful life. I’m not sho* sure anymore. (*Not a typo)

We live in a socially vexing period. Now more than any time in our history, human beings have the opportunity to fly to, read about, and digitally interact with a region or lifestyle they aren’t familiar with. Socrates, Einstein, Gandhi, and other men (and women) with a great thirst of tolerance, awareness, and knowledge would be jealous of the opportunities we all have to learn about topics we are unfamiliar with.

But we choose not to. A Economist survey taken in January 2012, found Americans are more likely today, in the TV and Print era, to watch shows similar to there way of life and log on to news sites that slant the news to their political liking. More than any time in the past fifty years, Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods, work, and socialize with people with similar socio economic status. Both NYTimes Op-Ed columnist Nikolas Kristof and Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams highlighted the fact that a majority of millenials (supposedly Uncle Sam’s most educated generation) would not consider dating or marrying someone with different political beliefs. Take one look at the numbers of how often people under 35 end up with spouses from different religions and/or race and you’ll think it’s data from the early 60’s.

This information begs us to ask four questions: How did we get so tribalistic, what’s the problem with a rapidly segregated society, how do we fix it, and why do white people ruin everything (Kidding, but I would like an answer to this question…. Chris).

Racial divisions aside (and yes I know this is a big point to omit, but we’ll get back to this issue), we weren’t always solely hanging around creatures with similar features. In fact people flocked to metropolitan areas to explore, meet new people, and attempt to integrate other viewpoints into their lifestyle.

Up until 1975, Presidential candidates from opposing parties would fly together and would hold joint town hall meetings. The only country to continue this tradition these days is Bhutan!

Today, if you stroll through all of San Francisco and surrounding Brooklyn you find predominantly homogeneous neighborhoods where the only eccentric aspect of the place is that vegan burrito joint that got funded on Kickstarter. If you could jump into a time machine and visit these places in the 80’s you would’ve entered a new universe. San Francisco was once home to the Fillmore district, a historic Jazz borough composed of musicians from all backgrounds and the Haight, was an area mixed with African American, hippies, and Indian doctors at UCSF who hated hippies. Two decades ago, Brooklyn was the Mecca of the most diverse art scene in the world. Graffiti artists from all walks of life would gather at midnight and literally paint the town red. Now, three of the newest restaurants in the area are artisan mayonnaise and olive oil shops (what the fuck).

So how did this all change? Economist Thomas Schelling explains the increase in segregated attitudes and environments can largely be attributed to changes that occur during economic downturns. The former Columbia Professor argues that during recessions people move in with their families and friends back home. This ultimately leads to a “nesting” period where people surround themselves with people like them, become comfortable, and have less of a yearning to leave their comfort zone and put in the effort to get acclimated to a new surrounding. It makes sense that current trends indicate millenials are less likely to leave their hometown than in the past forty years (unless it’s for Coachella).

However, that doesn’t entirely explain the attitude shift. Yes, it’s true we are less likely to live in diverse areas (or away from poppa and momma), but we are even less likely to surround ourselves with people who have a different opinion. At the end of 2014, the unabashedly liberal UC Berkeley protested progressive comedian Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at graduation. All across America, campuses are trying to shoo off potential campus visitors who hold a slightly different take on their brand of politics. Conservatives tried to develop a Facebook type platform just for conservatives…but didn’t know how to connect the cord for dial up Internet.

I blame this completely on technology. The app generation has allowed us to customize a lifestyle where whatever we eat, see, shop, sleep, and interact is tailored to our exact desires.

This is a problem. While this new surge in technology is making our life easier, it’s making us utterly stupid. In an October 2013 WIRED magazine poll, an alarming 32% of millenials believed that they had a harder life than those who had to live through the Great Depression. We’ve all seen countless hours of footage where people don’t know the leader of the free world (Hint: It’s not Beyonce….Chris). Compounding the matter, the plethora of news outlets tailored towards certain belief systems blinds us from getting a different perspective.

So what you say? Even if your colored shorts, boat shoes, and Warby Parker sunglasses allow you to only look at this issue at a financial angle you should be worried about your trust fund. Harvard business professor Clayton Christenson has studied innovation and financial ecosystems for thirty years. The money nerd argues that one of the keys to a successful innovative society is a place where different background and perspectives are shared, honest and brutal discussion take place, and there is an uncomfortable period motivating people to come up with better solutions. Historically, the bedrock of economic creative disruption has occurred in largely diverse and grungy metropolitan areas such as New York, London, Tel Aviv, and Mumbai.

A lack of diversity also tends to create barriers from accepting much needed ideas. You may believe you are seeing a new movement of female empowerment. Granted, we are seeing more females in leadership positions such as Marissa Meyers, the CEO of Yahoo and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. However, the NYTimes Dealbook columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin points out that there are a smaller percentage of females in leadership roles in this surging tech market than there were than the tech boom in the 90’s.

The most alarming trend of this new flock together mentality is in the way we refuse to accept the truth. Kevin Hogan (no relationship to Hulk), author of “How to Persuade Others: The Psychology of Persuasion”, claims that in the past thirty years people are less likely to be moved by the facts. His team has found that if one presents mountains of evidence to someone who is wrong about an issue, they will become MORE inclined to cling to their irrational belief. Even more worrisome, a March 2014 Gallop Poll survey found that 39% of Americans are more likely to lie or cover up for someone who has a similar background to help them get out of trouble.

There is no doubt that we as humans have always been tribal spirits. But we have also been able to educate ourselves, adjust, and fix problems in our society. It’s certainly not easy to break habits, but there are things that can be done to become more aware of other lifestyles. For starters, call out those in your own “tribe”. Far too often do we dismiss the uncouth actions of those in our corner, while aggressively chastising our opponents when they commit the same egregious act. This is hypocritical and in the end does nothing to advance your cause. Being balanced whistle blowers gives us all a chance to be candid about our shortcomings and learn from them.

Secondly, invite people with different background to events where they may be the minority or aren’t familiar with. This may be incredibly uncomfortable at first, but doing this pays huge dividends in the future.

Maybe it was a cruel joke, but when I was a freshman in college I was assigned to live in the athlete’s dorm. For those of you living in a cave or were raised Mormon, you may not have guessed that 99% of my suite mates were black and church attendees. During the first semester, I rejected the offer to attend gospel church numerous times. A year later, I finally attended service and loved it.

The most ironic thing you find when you step out of your comfort zone is how most people want the same thing. The sermons at gospel church on education, strong families, building communities, and love, were all lessons you would probably hear at a Jewish synagogue, Hindu temple, or Baptist church in Alabama.

When I was faced with health issues and financial hardship, the conservative veterans I worked with in Nevada showed me the same compassion as my liberal comrades in Berkeley. Too often we forget, there is no liberal career quarter century crises, or Republican disease (aside from Sarah Palin), but a common desire to help others and leave the world a little better than we found it.

So speak up and speak out often. Changing a comfortable habit takes time, but the pragmatic optimist in me believes that if you voice your opinion, more people will be willing to listen than you think.

But alas, I am no exception, and I should hold myself to the same standard. So I will throw the first stone. For as long as I remember, I have been unabashedly liberal. So much so, the only cheese I eat is blue. But I’ve become incredibly concerned about how progressives discuss diversity. This blog is already too long and Chris just called me to criticize me about my Kama-sutra, 50 Shades certified, sex tactics. So stay tuned for my next post. Or come join me at the next Gospel Choir Veteran Berkeley cheese tasting event.