Thursday’s webinar, the inaugural program in the What Our Citizens Are Thinking quarterly series, addressed two timely topics. With Steve Vancore, president of Clearview Research and VancoreJones Communications, and Holly McPhail, communications coordinator for the Florida League of Cities, we talked about Floridians’ perceptions of police and policing and about making sense of the plethora of election polls producing contradictory accounts of who’s up, who’s down, and which way things are going.
Among other things, we explored the large and statistically significant disparity between white and black respondents in their perceptions of policing in this nation. I couldn’t help but think of recent incidents in Charlotte and Tulsa, and also in Phoenix and New York City.
Today, I’m feeling an urgent need to visit my neighbors.
There’s a connection.
I live in an extraordinarily diverse neighborhood, which pleases me greatly.
But I don’t stop to talk. In part, that’s because of some of my personality traits. But in part, it is a less-than-constructive reaction to that very diversity.
You see, there is good evidence that we humans tend to associate with “like kinds” of people. While we popularly say that opposites attract (and, to some extent, that may be true of personality types), there is a tendency for people with similar demographic and psychographic traits to cluster together socially.
This isn’t inherently evil or a sign of true prejudice. If you love football, you probably have more fun being with other football fans on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon than with folks who hate the sport. And if you love grilling out, you probably have more fun with folks who like a little smoke in their burgers, a little charring of their hotdogs, rather than folks who love foie gras and caviar, or a healthy salad of mixed greens and tofu.
That’s not evil. And it’s not prejudice.
Take it a step closer to the problem, then. And I’ll bring it home to my world, so you need not be offended.
I have strong convictions about proper language. In an era when the use of f**k in some circles is so frequent that one might think the English language could not do without it, I still find its use offensive (along with the use of profanity more generally, especially when it is frequent). I’m also deeply uncomfortable when people use derogatory terms to describe their friends, lovers and offspring.
Not everyone feels the same way.
These are cultural differences. Some of them may associate with race or ethnicity. Some associate with socio-economic status, with family of origin, with level of education, even with profession or occupation.
Whatever the source or contributing factors, the result is a difference that I find uncomfortable.
What do I do when I’m uncomfortable? I avoid the context in which I feel discomfort.
In other words, I avoid certain people, certain households, certain families.
And if, as can be the case, there is some relatively obvious marker of difference, like race/ethnicity, age, region of origin, religion or sexual orientation, then the effect of my avoidance may be to foster in me a distaste for people “like that” (whatever “that” is). It also may foster, in people “like that,” a suspicion that I am prejudiced against them.
So we don’t talk. We don’t learn from each other. We build a social wall, one avoidance or judgment at a time.
Then, something happens. The wall comes crashing down as we run into each other, accidently, perhaps unfortunately. The collision, fueled by mutual suspicion and disrespect, can be catastrophic.
How often might this be a driver behind the tragic incidents that make headline news?
I am certain of this much.
From the beginning of this nation, we have asserted a vision of ourselves that is stunning in its breadth and nobility. We have declared, as a self-evident truth, the equality of all human beings. We have asserted their right to self-determination, bounded only by the rights of others and the good of society as a whole. And we have maintained the conviction that diverse human beings can and should govern themselves and live together in peace.
Anyone familiar with even a slightly unsanitized account of U.S. history knows how badly we have failed, how often, for how long, to live up to this noble vision. We continue to fail today. That’s simply the truth.
But today’s failures, in form and substance, speak volumes about how far we have come, even as they overwhelm us with the sorrow of how far we have yet to go.
To get there, to be who we say we are or aspire to be as a nation, we must get there together.
All of us. Together.
Don’t let the tragedies and our strong feelings and opinions about them stand between us and our neighbors. Indeed, let’s let the energy of this struggle propel us over the walls we have made that divide us from those we deem to be not “like us.” And when we land on the other side, and dust ourselves off, let us see, not an “other,” a stranger, but a “one like me,” a friend we simply haven’t gotten to know yet.
That’s the only hope. And, from where I just landed, that hope looks pretty darn good.