Echo Chamber America: Why Discourse is more Important Now than Ever

Coauthored with Robert Ressler, Sociologist studying community organizations, education, and social relationships

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” – Nelson Mandela

In the aftermath of Harvey devastating our country’s most diverse city, images of neighbor helping neighbor stand in stark contrast to those that we saw from Charlottesville. Americans, however, still need to grapple with the divisions across racial, ethnic, geographic, and social lines that have driven this country to become isolated groups pitted against one another rather than fellow citizens. What could have caused our current situation and how can we remedy it outside of natural disasters?

Let’s start by looking back into our childhoods and the environments where we teach children what it means to be engaged citizens. Schools are more segregated now than they were in the 70’s. School personnel, teachers, and parents separate children into different schools, tracks, and classrooms in biased ways that are linked to race, class, and gender. Not only are students separated, they are frequently taught differently too. White, advantaged students are taught in environments that support independence while disadvantaged students of color are disproportionately in classrooms that deemphasize critical thinking and instead require students to follow strict rules and regurgitate information. Only some individuals reach elevated levels of education and status, positions others might feel are denied to them. Anger, hate, and resentment build within some communities, full of people who never truly recognized their own privilege or the inequalities others face.

In our current bifurcated world, we seldom interact with those unlike ourselves. This segregation has clearly limited our ability to work together and respect each other. In Democratic Classrooms, Diana Hess writes that it is the duty of schools to give students the skills for democratic deliberation. But how can students learn to speak to others different from them if these students are not in their classrooms? As adults, how can we minimize the deep-seated distances between groups that haunt us from childhood?

Sociologists use the term bridging social capital to describe ties between people who live different experiences, whether that be people whose families have different amounts of money, or friendships between youth and the elderly. Bridging ties between dissimilar individuals promotes happiness, security, and community well-being. Communities with more such ties, are generous, supportive, and recover quickly from disasters. Hurricane Harvey may have built a bridge across these divisions in Houston, but will these images of love across groups survive when the water subsides?

It is insufficient to recommend that minorities have the responsibility to interact with white people or the power to do so should they want to. Evidence suggests that we should instead construct social institutions and environments that promote collaboration between different people. We can build bridging ties beginning with modern desegregation in education; but also through public debates, volunteering at diverse organizations, or purposefully inclusive community actions. Hopefully America can see how ignoring hate allowed Houstonians to help each other in a time of need, and that connections across party, racial and class-based lines are only beneficial to our lives.

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