June 01, 2016

Connecting Across Race

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

The Black Lives Matter movement was made possible by social media, and offers an opportunity for different groups to have a conversation about race in America.

My grandparents were very religious and active in the civil rights movement. Bomb threats were directed at churches in the Washington D.C. area that planned to house southern African Americans making their way to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In coordination with their church, my grandparents housed dozens of men and women in their home. (For a vivid retelling of the time by one of the key figures in the movement, see John Lewis's graphic novel, March.)

Charged up from the experience, my (white, Irish) grandfather placed a series of letters to the editor in southern newspapers asking, essentially, "Why do you think an African American is any less of a person than you are?" and including the address of his P.O. Box for folks to respond to him. He received a lot of letters, and he responded to every one of them.

Despite all our similarities, humans certainly tend to draw meaningful differences, and often don't aspire to reach out to others to know what makes them tick, the way my grandfather did. We often divide people into "us and them," or "ingroups and outgroups."

Inspired by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Michele Lamont compared French and American professionals and working class folk to show how people of various groups use symbolic boundaries to designate who belongs and who does not. There are people that we are friendly toward, and others we subject to "distancing behaviors."

In her book Money, Morals and Manners (1992), Lamont notes that we reject people, to the point of aggression, based on morals, economic standing and cultural attainment (thus the title). (Americans, she finds, tend to care a little less about the latter than the French, to little surprise.)

With an explicitly racial focus, Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, "Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" posits something of a similar question: Why do we gravitate toward people who are similar to us? Her work is focused on how, in the age of desegregation, people still choose to segregate, and to self-segregate. This important question, and the knot of issues Tatum uses to answer it, ends on a note that greater inter-group dialogue is crucial. Indeed, Lamont was also primarily concerned with how these boundaries were created and maintained (a worthy enough task), and less about how they could be bridged.

My colleague, Linda Tropp along with co-author Thomas Pettigrew, provide more answers by studying intergroup interactions. When Groups Meet stands on the shoulders of hundreds of studies to point out that, even though we consistently highlight the conflicts between groups, it is excess contact that reduces prejudice and hostility, and nurtures trust and acceptance. This is, of course, under certain conditions. After all, my grandfather was placing his letters to the editor in the American South—a region with a great deal of intergroup interactions! Some intergroup contact is powerfully positive (e.g., intergroup friendships) and there are a great many roadblocks to achieving positive outcomes (e.g., stark pre-existing status differences).

Here is one answer. Penn State sociologists, Sam Richards, Laurie Mulvey, and a group of students developed a project called World in Conversation, designed to create dialogues across vast socioeconomic differences. According to their website:

Our conversations about social and cultural issues stand apart from others in that our facilitators don't tell participants what to think. On the contrary, in the process of employing the Socratic Method, they work toward to create an "ideologically neutral" environment. This approach allows participants to express what they think they believe, so that they can examine what they actually believe. In the first year, the Project sponsored 140 ninety-minute dialogues. Nine years later, we are sponsoring 1,300 of these dialogues every year.

Pretty fantastic stuff.

I wonder how media and technology increasingly plays its role. Lamont's and Tatum's books were written before a series of technological advances would allow for the rapid fire and cheap interaction social media provides (1992 and 1997, respectively), and Tropp and Pettigrew's book covers a lot of ground, but does not touch upon the topic social media or technology either. World in Conversation hosts in-person dialogues as far as I can tell. There are reasons for face-to-face interactions

Stark residential segregation kept people geographically and physically separate and self-segregation keeps folks apart even when desegregation brings them together in the same place, like a grade school. It is quite evident that we live in a different interactional moment. There are now venues for connectivity, the public square of old is now online. My grandfather, when faced with his issue, could have posted his question on a blog. Are these technologies of cooperation or conflict? With social media, there is a low threshold for interacting with people who are of different opinions.

And yet these technologies of connection steer us away from difference in ways that are even less evident than residential steering and housing segregation. These technologies do all the work of those unconscious habits and practices Lamont uncovered. Facebook, Apple News, and Google's search all have algorithms that seek to learn our interests, and helpfully guide us toward data we want. (The Guardian notes that Facebook's news is controlled more by editors, who tend to be more liberal-leaning than algorithms.) They do the boundary work of crafting in-groups and outgroups for us.

I keep wishing for a kind of inter-group chatroulette. (If you don't know what Chatroulette is, I wouldn't recommend it without a strong advisory, but it is a website that allows you to press a button and link up with strangers on a video link. It is at times amazing and at other times, discomforting.) Are there places where we can have inter-group conversations that bracket power, that strip down an interaction so that people from different communities can exchange thoughts and ideas?

Are online interactions more or less meaningful? Could they be an effective gateway toward mutual understanding or just another techno-utopian idea with limited impact?

What do you think? Where do you get to interact with people who are different from you?


I really like this article, in reference to the Black live matter movement, which is seen all over social media. They had a string off killings where black people were getting killed all over the country. I feel its good to have a movement of such sort over social media because a lot of humans view social media through Facebook, twitter, and many other social sites. But I don't feel it helps. There is still killings we read about each day in this world, and its becoming to be black on black crime.

Thanks for sharing

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