Ferguson: America’s cultural segregation fault lines

August 25, 2014


What’s wrong with living in your own private America

The crisis in Ferguson, Missouri., has refocused attention on racial divisions in the United States, specifically segregation. On a police force of 53, only three officers are black in a town that is roughly 67 percent African-American. Yet in some ways this attention obscures an even larger form of segregation that has been overtaking us for the past 40 years — cultural segregation.

Americans have managed to fracture themselves into clusters of the like-minded, the like-looking, the like-earning, the like-music listening, the like-TV watching and the like-movie-going.

Visitors play "Hearthstone" at the World of Warcraft exhibition stand during the Gamescom 2013 fair in Cologne We don’t live in America anymore. We live in thousands of Americas, many no farther away than our computer screens and the Internet. These are self-identified Americas. Beyond the usual suspects, Fox America and MSNBC America, we have hip-hop America, gun America, tree-hugging America, Tea Party America, drug America, sci-fi addict America, and on and on and on.

The fact that we have different interests, different perspectives, is certainly not new, nor is the fact that we band together, often through the Internet, with others who share our interests and values. What is new is that these many Americas that once cross-pollinated one another now exist in total isolation. Folks finally got the means to do what folks may have always wanted to do: Make the world cater to them. And the country is endangered because of it.

The late sociologist Robert Bellah in his path-breaking 1985 book Habits of the Heart described a country ghettoized by culture. He noted the rise of “lifestyle enclaves” — to which people could retreat largely because, in our increasingly diverse and mobile society, they needed something to, as Bellah put it, “express their identity thorough shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities.”

A man listens to Beats brand headphones on a street in New YorkBellah realized this form of identity came at the cost of community. That was his point. He could not have foreseen, however, all the mechanisms that now contribute to this kind of segregation — or the ways it would alter American life.

Not so long ago, the cultural — and for that matter, the political — majority ruled. The culture-making apparatus wasn’t interested in addressing different slices of the country; it was interested in addressing the whole thing — meaning largely those who are white and middle class. Hollywood made movies that it hoped would appeal to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, and, yes, black and white.  Not any more. Now Hollywood targets certain movies to kids, others to teens, others to the middle-aged (no one cares about seniors), and even a few to racial or religious segments of the population.

In a sense, the United States had a shared culture because of a lack of choice. In 1980, for example, 55 million Americans watched the three national network news broadcasts, which gave everyone just about the same framework. Today that figure is 22 million in a country with 80 million more people.

Obviously, Americans are still getting news. They just aren’t getting it as a community. Beyond the big cable news outlets, even more are getting information on tens of thousands of Internet websites. This fragmentation is true for almost every aspect of American life. There are very few nationally shared experiences anymore.

For all the talk about globalization and a flat world, one of the deepest impulses in modern culture has been just the opposite: to “nichify” ourselves, not only to find people who are exactly like us but also to make those cohorts ever narrower. Not globalization but individualization – what journalist Bill Bishop called “the big sort.” The advent of cable television with its 500 channels, the overwhelming diversification of music, fashion, consumer goods and, above all, the dominance of the Internet have all served to give each of us what we want. This has made each of us a member of smaller and smaller exclusive cultural clubs, since few of us want the same things.

The basic idea behind this cultural balkanization, beyond the obvious commercial implications, was that no one need be subjected to anything he or she didn’t really want. The tyranny of the majority and of the homogenization that went with it was over. You could call this an especially rampant form of democracy, and there is certainly something to be said for a society in which almost everyone seems to have an independent voice. The effects haven’t all been salutary, however. The need to cross cultural boundaries on the way to homogenization had fructified the country, exposing each of us to different forms, attitudes and styles.

Journalists look at "We Rose Up Slowly" during the press visit of the exhibition "Roy Lichtenstein" at the Centre Pompidou modern art museumWe wouldn’t have had rock ‘n’ roll without black blues having been transformed by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and later the Rolling Stones. We wouldn’t have had modern comedy without the Jewish Borscht Belt comics infiltrating mainstream life. We wouldn’t have had Pop Art if the low-rent culture of comic books, B-movies and mass consumption hadn’t entered the sensibilities of fine artists.

The best in American culture was usually not the product of segregation but often recombination. We formed a vital common culture out of many sources.

But there is another, more pernicious effect of cultural segregation. It shrinks the world rather than enlarges it — reinforces what already is, circumscribes people within their own worldview. In a segregated world, especially the virtually segregated world we now have thanks to the Internet, we need never leave our own cultural ghetto.

This creates a terrible form of narcissism, as well as self-satisfied extremism: You know what you know and that is all you need to know. As Bishop explains in The Big Sort: “Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”

What we are seeing in Ferguson, where black and whites seem to perceive the world differently, is a mirror of the national condition in which so many enclaves each see the world differently so there is less and less empathy that would help us cross the borders among those enclaves.

We live within the prisons of ourselves. Unfortunately, we are not likely to escape.


PHOTO (TOP): Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones and Little Richard. REUTERS/Combination/Files

(INSERT 1): Visitors play “Hearthstone” at the World of Warcraft exhibition stand during the Gamescom 2013 fair in Cologne, August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A man listens to Beats brand headphones on a street in New York, May 29, 2014.  REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Painting by Roy Lichtenstein. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer



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A nice piece. It is true. And the reality that people will not leave their neighborhood is true also.. Going out on the internet does not qualify. Too much is lost.
I am sure that the book “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History” by Nicholas Wade has some relevance here…but the CYA scientific community has been cowered into submission and they will never acknowledge and credence of truth.

Posted by VinoYcafe | Report as abusive

People are fine with each other in private. It’s the peer pressure of groups and the natural ‘tribe’ mentality of humans, that interferes. I often wonder why there supposedly needs to be perfect equality on the side of whites… but somebody like Spike Lee can spend a lifetime making films that are predominantly black, and that’s OK. Seems a bit of a double standard. It’s easier to hate people when you don’t have to be around them.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

What you are actually realizing is the “utopia” everyone dreams of is not physically possible with Human Beings. There will always be a difference of opinion. Even in homogenous groups where everyone things and believes in the same religion, way of life, set of rules, social norms there will always be outliers and those who feel/think/do differently.

It’s the whole reason a FEDERAL level Government is doomed to failure. Individuals need to group them selves with like minded individuals in order to survive in harmony. State Governments need to decide what is best within their state.

The internet is just another mechanism in a social process that has been “The Human Being” since the beginning of the “civilized” human.

Posted by autoxinvr6 | Report as abusive

Well done, your article rings true, especially in the last paragraph. Empathy for one another is at an all time low. I know because I am a highly empathetic person, and regularly, even amongst my friends, feel misunderstood.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

The cultural divides don’t really seem all that different than in previous times. The only change has been the particular issues that divide us. Show some evidence to back up your claims.

Posted by charliethompto | Report as abusive

A very odd article and once again and one that doesn’t ring true with the America I know. Once again, a commentator reduces everything to “black and white” which is now badly outdated in multi-racial and multi-cultural America. The Asian-American and Hispanic communities in the United States have had a tremendous influence, for example, on everyday eating habits. The diet has literally changed, as has the possibility for more social interactions. I don’t see more “cultural segregation” but less. Where I live on the West Coast the big differentiator is no longer race, but education, income, and class. And whites are often a minority in the elite schools and no longer automatically the richest people in the room. Globalization has brought cultural choice and not segregation.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

After reading the article I was left wondering – should we all dress the same way, listen to the same music drive the same cars and live in standardized housing so that we can bridge the cultural divide? Nah – I don’t thinks so.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Increased stratification comes from the planet filling up with now7 billion people, most of whom none of us want to meet. Throngs of good people can be exhausting; throngs of bad people are dangerous.

Posted by timebandit | Report as abusive

Good observations that give us a lot to think about. I agree we no longer hear a unified “truth” from only 3 broadcast channels, and, I admit I find the current gulf between the popular rappers and my rhythm preferences far wider than Mick Jagger ever was. Yet, I do enjoy the diversity of real people I meet today over the “Stepford Wives” of previous eras. Maybe this is a business opportunity to provide cultural translation services…just a thought.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

The country appears disintegrated. Everybody believes human influence is important. Everyone is united by that unrealistic thought. It’s a motive that can’t really produce anything other than conflict.

Posted by tvlover | Report as abusive

The great divide in America is caused by the very same group of media scum that wrote the article.

Posted by sana4spa | Report as abusive