The American society is increasingly variegated, but it is also increasingly segregated. The melting pot society is a myth to dispel in order to understand the United States for what they are: an incomplete project.
By Michele Castrezzati/ ASG Italy
Translation by Ilaria Bionda
Immigration courses in the veins of the United States. The American, indeed, is someone who in the recent past left anything behind in order to chase that dream. Nowadays the star-spangled banner waves in his yard, reminding him what he is and making him forget what he was.
On the Statue of Liberty, which also came from overseas, these words are carved:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
America is the homeland of those who have no homeland. A society in which colours, languages, sounds and creeds are braided like the threads of that flag that unites them. This is the America studied at school, the America of the melting pot society: it is the Manhattan of Little Italy, the San Francisco of Chinatown, the poetry of Amanda Gorman.
However, there is something that does not check out. How can we explain the growing racial hate, the wall on the border with Mexico, the violence of the police, in a melting pot society?
The answer goes beyond Trump and beyond politics. It has always been an issue linked to immigration. It is segregation, the separation between white, black and Hispanic neighbourhoods that fragments an already divided society. American society, increasingly variegated, is also increasingly segregated. Maybe, the melting pot society, is not as blended as it is hoped. With these doubts I investigated the Internet. This is what I found and what convinced me that this story was worth telling.
The racial segregation in colours
This is the demographic map of Chicago, from the Washington Post website. The blue dots represent the Afro-American population. The red ones the white population. The yellows the Hispanic one. As you can see, Chicago is not a city. It is a continent. Those spots of colour are micronations with customs, norms, identities. To divide them, real borders: bridges and roads mark the internal topography of a divided Chicago, where blacks have their own neighbourhoods, schools, hospitals, as well as whites. And their paths do not meet.
Yet Chicago is considered a melting pot society. 33% of the population is white, 29% black, 18% Hispanic and there is a good 20% of “others”. Seen like this, it seems like a paradise for racial integration.
However, those numbers do not tell us where people live. Chicago is big, there is room for everyone, even for segregation. Thus, in Oak Park, a residential neighbourhood where Ernest Hemingway was born, the 90% of families are white. In Cicero, a few miles to the south, only Mexicans live.
It could be that Chicago has had a particular history, between ghettoization and wrong housing policies. Maybe in another city things are different. Spoiler: it is not so.
This is Washington DC. The river that cuts the city in two is the Potomac River, overlooked by the Washington Monument, symbol of the American Constitution. “We believe that […] all men are created equal…”. That point in particular divides the white Washington (red dots) from the black Washington (blue dots). The Afro-American population of the capital lives entirely east of the Potomac River.
What prevents blacks in Washington from crossing the river? There are nine bridges and two metro lines that connect the two banks. It is not a matter of comfort. There is a force that constrains Afro-American to isolate themselves, the same force that divides Hispanics and whites in Chicago, the same force that ghettoizes the Chinese in San Francisco or the blacks in the Bronx.
There is no American metropolis in which dots mix. This force has resisted Martin Luther King, the struggles for Civil Rights, decades of attempts at integration by local governments, the social disapproval of racism. This force is racial segregation.
Although more than 60 years have passed since the end of the Jim Crow Laws – the segregationist laws that relegated Afro-American to the margins of society – segregation remains, nearly unchanged, to split America in two, three or ten pieces of a mosaic that has no intention of discarding.
This is how the segregation is built
In his book Micromotives and Macrobehavior, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling tries to look at how our daily actions, added to the thousands of other actions that individuals around us perform, give rise to unpredictable macroscopic phenomena.
The most interesting pages of the book concern the mathematical model that Schelling constructs to explain segregation in American cities. According to him, the maps we have seen before are simply the result of individual discriminatory behaviors, even small ones, which by putting together one after the other build racial segregation. It is a domino effect.
What Schelling demonstrates is that, in short, it is not necessary a very racist society to have extreme racial segregation. It is enough that everyone is a little bit racist. Although Schelling investigates the phenomenon with rather complex formulas, his explanation is really simple.
For example, in a city where different ethnic groups live together, a family wishes to live in a neighbourhood where at least 30% of the surrounding families are of their own ethnic group. Basically, it is enough not to be surrounded by all and only neighbours of different ethnicity. However, if all the families in that neighbourhood are willing to move until they are satisfied with that percentage of 30%, the result is that of the figure below.
Even a low percentage of racism leads to a high degree of segregation. Transfer after transfer, people tend to isolate in their own ethnic group and to erect social boundaries with other groups. With Schelling’s model of segregation in mind, demographic maps assume a whole other meaning.
According to Schelling’s model, the concentration of whites in Manhattan (in red on the map) and that of Afro-Americans in the Bronx (in blue on the map) is the result of the lifestyle choices of New Yorkers, who, like all their compatriots, demonstrate this intrinsic tendency to segregation.
Seen in this way, the problem seems unsolvable. How can we hope for racial integration if even in New York, where countless studies reveal a low degree of racial prejudice among its inhabitants, colours still tend not to mix? Is it really mathematically impossible to have an integrated society, where different ethnic groups mix in schools, on the streets or in supermarkets?
There are two possible solutions. According to Schelling’s model, if a family is willing to be surrounded by families of other ethnic groups, if it fully accepts coexistence with other groups, then segregation can be avoided. But this, unluckily, requires a cultural effort that is difficult to predict. The other road to integration passes through politics. And there are those who have already taken it.
Singapore, the solutionIn Singapore, an independent island-city-state south of Malaysia, there are 6 million inhabitants. Singapore does not have a nationality: its identity is based on the diversity of its population. There are 4 official languages and an indefinite number of ethnic groups. To give an idea of the differentiation in Singapore, this graph represents its religious affiliation: there is everything.
Harmony between different ethnic groups has been the cornerstone of the prosperity of Singapore ever since it gained independence in 1965. As a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, there is a collective effort to ensure that Singaporeans have greater possible opportunities to interact with people of different ethnic groups, right from when they are little.
For Singaporean politicians, the key ingredient in their recipe for social harmony is EIP (Ethnic Integration Policy: quite eloquent). The EIP ensures that in every apartment building in the city there is a mixture of ethnic groups, setting a percentage beyond which individuals of a certain ethnic group can no longer take up a home. For example, no block can be composed by more than 65% of Chinese.
In this way, it is avoided that only Chinese, or Malaysians, or Indians are concentrated in one area. This form of forced integration allows to Singaporeans to unite under a single flag, despite the somatic, linguistic and cultural differences that divide them. So, there is no neighbourhood in Singapore where people only speak Chinese, or where people only play cricket, but everywhere there are colours that mix, different hands that shake. Singapore is a melting pot society. New York is not: but it could be.
The barriers of racial hate arise above the physical barriers that separate us. If we leave people free to isolate themselves, out of prejudice or fear, they will end up self-segregating. And if there is no contact between different ethnic groups, there is no social harmony.
Racial integration can only be the result of racial interaction. As the contact hypothesis presented by Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport demonstrates, staying in close contact with people of different ethnic groups significantly reduces the prejudice. This is what happens to those who study abroad: when the walls around us are removed, those inside us also collapse.
For this reason, it is necessary that different people interact on a daily basis and become interdependent with each other. This is how the real melting pot society arises.
The United States are a promise. With all that diversity there really is a chance to paint a magnificent picture. This only happens if the colours mix, starting with those dots on the maps. It depends on our idea of social harmony, on our idea of victory, hoping that it reflects the word of Amanda Gorman, who in the poem she recited at Joe Biden’s inauguration writes:
“Victory won’t lie in the blande,
But in all the bridges we’ve made.”
If you are interested in learning more about the topic of spatial segregation I recommend:
This interactive article by Washington Post
This page of the government of Singapore website
This short video on Schelling’s segregation model