America at 242: A nation of self-imposed segregation

A recent editorial cartoon by artist Gary Varvel features what appears to be a biracial couple at the maitre d’ podium at an upscale restaurant. The pompous-looking greeter’s line has stuck in my mind ever since I saw the cartoon in my local newspaper: “Dinner for two … liberal or conservative section?”

Yes. This is what we’ve come to, I suppose. So many of us purposely isolate ourselves into groups who think like we do.

Then I read about a school in the tony section of Manhattan, New York, a school where celebrities send their children and whose tuition costs a bundle that is under fire for separating students into classrooms based on their skin color. Apparently, the under-the-radar practice has been going on for a while.

Philip Kassen, the director of Little Red School House, explained to angry parents and inquiring reporters, “Research points to the academic, social, and emotional benefits to being in a classroom with others who share racial, ethnic, linguistic, and/or cultural backgrounds.”

Say what? When you put black kids in one place and white kids in another, that is segregation. Period. We had an ugly and prolonged fight in this country to do away with such practices. Do we really need to go back and review the angst-filled lessons from the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka?

We just celebrated our nation’s independence this week, and it sometimes appears we’re on a 360-degree course to change what so many fought so hard to achieve.

Our forefathers struggled to win independence from the iron-fisted rule of Britain so that all citizens could express their opinions without fear of retribution. Revolutionaries like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison dedicated their lives to build the United States of America. Civil rights leaders in the ’50s, ’60s and beyond stood up for unification and the rights of everyone to live life judgement-free regardless of their religion, race, sexual identity or political beliefs.

And where are we now? Several government studies have concluded what most of us already know. Fallout from racial discrimination has lessened but still exists in the areas of education, housing, police practices and employment opportunities. But add to that the consciously applied political and sociological segregation citizens practice today and we have truly become a nation divided, not so much along racial lines but ideological ones. It tears at the fabric of this country.

Americans have become uncomfortable speaking about so many topics lest they inadvertently offend someone. We are wary of speaking about current events for fear we will be ostracized by one political faction or another, labeled as a scorned “progressive” or “fascist.” Our national leaders — from the president to members of Congress from both political parties — hurl invectives at one another, setting a horrible example for respectful discourse. This is today’s trickle-down theory of outrage.

Those who think government should oversee more and those who think government should get out of the way make holiday get-together conversations painful and thrust families into schisms that may never heal. Anonymous posters on social media write the most hateful and threatening things, comments no civil person would ever make in face-to-face conversation. Today’s gender fluidity makes it difficult to know which pronoun to use, and incorrect usage brands the speaker as a discriminating bigot. People tend to shun others now because it’s easier than having to ascertain what kind of interaction with them is appropriate.

Frankly, it has just become too hard to mingle with those who we are unsure of, too easy to harshly criticize those who say suspect things.

This is what we’ve become: a population that self-segregates.

In 1814, Francis Scott Key declared the United States to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Later, in “America the Beautiful,” patriot Katharine Lee Bates wrote we are a land “God shed His grace” upon and crowned our “good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea.” Given our internal battles today, I wonder what a modern-day songwriter might come up with about our prospects for the future. I shudder to think.

No legislation can be devised or debated that would make this Season of Self-Segregation we’re living through any easier. There is no action in Congress or in a statehouse that can fix this. There are no laws that can be passed to restore civility or tolerance of others’ opinions. That is up to each and every one of us.

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