Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Big Sort

One of the books I have been reading recently is entitled "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart." The book, written by journalist Bill Bishop with retired sociology professor Robert G. Cushing, argues that Americans are segregating themselves more than ever--by political beliefs and life-style. Well-educated liberals have been flocking to Portland, Oregon while conservative Evangelicals are swarming the exurbs of Phoenix, Arizona. Of course, Mr. Bishop assumes when he speaks of "Americans," "liberals," and "conservatives," that he is talking primarily or exclusively about whites; despite the fact that the white population of this country is steadily declining, it is hard for many whites to lose the habit of thinking of themselves as "people" who have varying characteristics, while thinking about others as just that: "others," who are monolithic and generally, can be safely ignored.

However, Bishop's insight about white working- and middle-class settlement habits does have some value to us as well, even if it is a value that he perhaps would not recognize: it explains why increasing numbers of black women are willing to seek out interracial relationships.

As Bishop points out, ideology and "lifestyle" considerations are shaping where greater numbers of Americans choose live, and those they choose to live around, than ever before. Bishop views this sorting through the prism of "Democrats" and "Republicans," and while most Americans probably lean more towards one party or the other, I think this kind of labeling is probably less than useful, considering the number of people who, if asked, would reject identification with either one. "Liberal" and "conservative" may be more constructive labels, but ultimately it is the sorting by a wide variety of values and lifestyle choices that characterizes the way that people choose to live today in the United States, a sorting that cannot neatly fit within traditional, narrow definitions, even if people all too often feel compelled to try and fit themselves within the existing constraints in the absence of any other options for socialization.

"Unchurched," pro-choice, affluent professionals with advanced degrees can be found in the suburbs of Dallas, but they are often clustered in the gentrified lofts of New York and L.A.--even if only psychologically. Born-again, blue-collar, anti-gay marriage activists without college degrees can be located throughout Manhattan, but more and more they are flocking to the suburbs of Orlando, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. These are certainly generalizations, but the statistics reflect a kernel of truth to these images that cannot be ignored.

This "sorting" process has not bypassed black women, and it has worked a fundamental change in the way many of us view romantic compatibility and relationships. While race still has huge importance in our society, a black women who loves old-school hip-hop--AND Japenese anime, rock-climbing, and Foucault--can find a population of black men who share her interests, but she will find an even larger population of non-black men who do. This isn't because black people are monolithic, but because as education and affluence frees more people--including black women in particular--to focus on their individual interests and needs, it inevitably renders race merely one of many touchstones of attraction and compatibility--or may even render it largely irrelevant in the individual case. Similarly, sisters whose lives revolve, for example, around their Pentecostal church and sharing their faith, may find a dearth of men among their congregations--and if their faith is paramount in their lives, it may well be more important to them that the men they consider marrying share their beliefs as much, if not more, than their racial background.

Bishop finds this "clustering" phenomenon disturbing, because he fears the fault lines that it has created in white America. But for black women with options, choosing men based on shared values and interests is ultimately freeing--and healthy. Rather than a retreat to groupthink, for us, it is an escape from it. And while we can be as susceptible as anyone to a rigid of closing of our minds to different ideas, the very act of refusing to be restricted by race in choosing our mates serves as a tremendous opportunity to liberate us from knee-jerk thinking and reaction. Instead of continuing to huddle in "clusters," we are becoming more and more empowered to choose to be open. For us, this is a crucial opportunity, and I hope more and more sisters grab hold of it.