Race Maps

We hear a lot about the inherent goodness, copious blessings, and paramount importance of diversity, but the obvious fact of history is that diverse populations frequently disaggregate, very often violently, into more homogeneous assortments. Shocking though it may be, there actually seems to be some truth to the obsolete and offensive notion that people, on the whole, prefer to associate with other people who are like themselves. It’s true that “like themselves” can represent alignment along a variety of traits — shared artistic, academic, or recreational interests, for example — and my own long experience of easygoing diversity within New York City’s amiable community of professional musicians, which I must say often feels more like an extended family, is a good example of a cohesive trait-group formed by people of highly heterogeneous backgrounds. But for the great mass of people always and everywhere, the primary trait-axes along which populations have differentiated and agglomerated themselves have always been, and still are, ethnic and religious.

When this sort of thing comes up in polite Western circles, counterexamples (such as my own, above) are sure to be produced: reassuring anecdotes of contented diversity in modern life. And they are real enough. But even in maximally (and more or less comfortably) diverse settings such as the sophisticated cosmopolitan university, a glance at the groupings in the cafeteria, or at other habits of socialization outside the classroom, confirms that the natural tendency still asserts itself. (It asserts itself forcefully in university curricula, too, which often focus very sharply indeed on differentiating people by various markers of “identity”.) That most people are happiest in generally homogeneous communities, though, and so group themselves accordingly when they can, is nothing new; the only thing that has changed in recent times is that this universal, and practical, human preference has lately been declared, for highly abstract reasons, to be morally reprehensible.

Great cities like New York, which function well enough despite being highly diverse (with only occasional flareups of mass intergroup violence, and a generally tolerated background hum of the same at the individual level), are also commonly cited as counterexamples — and the wary uneasiness in the public square, and general diminution of trust, that are documented effects of high diversity are thought to be amply compensated for by eclectic culinary offerings, a varied artistic scene, and other manifestations of “vibrancy”. Perhaps they are: New York is certainly a stimulating place to live, if not a relaxing one. New York is also a very unusual place: this “Alpha++ world city“, arguably the cultural and financial capital of the world, attracts a great many high achievers of various sorts who can, and do, form stable trait-groups along axes other than the usual ethnic and religious lines.

Today I ran across an interesting item in the UK’s Daily Mail, which you may have seen before (apparently it’s been discussed a lot, but this is the first time I’ve seen it): a collection of “race maps” of some U.S. cities, created by cartographer Eric Fischer. Below is an image of the archetype of the modern, diverse city, my home for the past 32 years. In it every dot represents 25 people; red represents white people, blue is for black, orange Hispanic, green Asian, and grey stands for everybody else.

A couple of years ago, shortly after the Obama inauguration, I wrote that in my lifetime America had clearly undergone what I described as a great racial and cultural “annealing”, and I still think that in many ways it has. But I also think, two years on, that my metaphor somewhat naively overstated the case, as many others were quick to point out at the time. Annealing of metals harmonizes their internal structure, relieving and diffusing tensions at crystalline boundaries — making them less brittle, less prone to fracture under stress. But what we see in this map, even in the most diverse city on Earth, is only a tessellation. It is certainly nothing like an alloy, and it is still, I’m afraid, prone to fracture.

You can see more of these maps, in better detail than this resized version, in the Mail article, here.

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