Monday, September 12, 2005

Dorcasina's adventures in Wonderland

Because Dr. B recommended it, I've been reading Sheryll Cashin's excellent The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream. Cashin's basic premise is interesting because not only does she explore the psychological, economic, and social factors behind our continued segregation, she attributes it largely to our "winner take all" society and the grotesquely competitive attitude it fosters toward conspicuous consumption. She's very persuasive in pointing out that our increasing comfort with tremendous disparities of wealth between classes (often but not always contiguous with race or ethnicity) may very well spell the death of any kind of meaningful democracy. I haven't yet come across anything shockingly new or unfamiliar in her arguments, and she relies a bit too heavily on a few studies and anecdotal evidence, but her book has the tremendous benefit of being lucid, quick-moving, and free of the kind of finger-pointing that might make white folks too eager to dismiss her. She's also candid and nuanced about her own position as an African American woman, and about the social and political conditions in which most of us are, however sadly, far more comfortable among our own race (a reality even more true for white people, who tend to become uncomfortable when they are not in the significant majority at any gathering).

I've just finished her section on the few genuinely "multicultural" or diverse areas we have in the U.S., and serendipitously, I paid a visit to just such an area this weekend. In some ways, had I not just been reading her book, I would have dismissed this area out of hand. It sits on the fringes of my beloved Cosmopolitan Metropolis, where the last outposts of the "city" dissipate into what was obviously unincorporated county land (my husband called it "the place where building codes come to die") and then encounter the sprawling suburban city next door. Aesthetically, the area (it's too large to be a neighborhood, but encompasses parts of several actual "towns") is wildly uneven: ramshackle cottages peer from behind years' worth of overgrown shrubbery, many of the roads and alleys are unpaved, and few of the older homes have seen a coat of paint in the past decade. These homes are too far from the center of CM to figure in its cultural imagination, and the only way to CM's large shopping districts is up the single arterial and through the ghetto.

Just past this neighborhood that time forgot lie ostentatious new housing developments with pretentiously meaningless names like "The Hillsides at La Riviera" and "Toscana Tristesse," interspersed with miles and miles of shopping centers, mini-malls, and auto showrooms, each surrounded by acres of concrete parking lot and capped by a garish logo. The 8-lane roadways here accommodate an ungainly mix of urban and suburban types: young black men in gigantic, lowered American cars; Asian guys in hopped up little imports; ancient black women in their Sunday best, painstakingly maneuvering their magnificent and unmarred Buicks; and fat suburban "mommies" in sweat suits and frosted hair piloting massive SUVs.

Sounds like hell, right? But as I stood in the bankline, with 15-20 other people, I realized that this area embodies many of the functioning elements of genuine diversity. It is home to a long-time population of middle and working class black families, prevented by custom, economics, or prejudice from buying into the more desireable neighborhoods closer to the city center. It has a sizeable population of eccentric "rural" white folk who prefer to live free of the most insidious regulations city living brings. Its affordability and population density have made it a welcoming spot for various Asian and African immigrants, who in turn provide most of the alternatives to the corporate outposts. Finally, as city prices have edged up, and up, and up, it's become a haven for young white professional families, as well as for the blue collar families of all backgrounds who are employed at the nearby heavy industry. A single income can still buy a house here; a professional salary or two incomes provides entry into the area's "gated" subdivisions and its thriving, if not outstanding, schools.

And these folks are not merely tolerating each other. They may not all be friends yet, but there was more cordiality and warmth in that small group--no crowding, no complaining--than in the "nice" white neighborhood we used to live in. The bank tellers themselves were a microcosm of the line: an older white woman, a young Asian man, and a slim and stylish African woman. The center may not hold. The increased demand for those subdivision dream homes may well spell displacement for the original residents--black and white--who can no longer afford to hold out against gentrification. Or the black population might feel the friction of being pressed up against the new Asian influx, against whom they are so often disfavorably compared. As Cahill points out, the challenge with a truly diverse neighborhood is to hold onto it; in so many cases, the diversity is a mere moment in a larger transition from one demographic to another, and not a stable characteristic. But on this one morning, I got a tiny glimpse of what it would mean to have communities defined by something other than economic, racial, and cultural homogeneity. I hope I can go back, soon.


At 7:32 PM , Blogger bitchphd said...

Nice. I'm glad you're reading the book; I enjoyed it. The last chapter, on the Bush administration, becomes a bit too partisan--while I agree with what she's saying, of course, she doesn't support it as well as she does her arguments in the rest of the book. But yeah, it made me think of some neighborhoods back home in a different light.

At 11:31 AM , Blogger Demetri said...


I ordered on bphd's rec too. I'm about 100 pages in and will knock out another 100 today. It's got me thinking a fair bit as well. I'll tell you what I think when I've finished. I give it high marks for readability at this point.


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