One of the most compelling books I’ve read in the past few years was Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, which attempts to explain why America is so politically and culturally divided. Bishop argued that people have sorted themselves into communities of like-minded individuals, so that the American landscape is now dotted with ideologically homogenous communities. Republicans tend to live in Republican enclaves, where everyone else feels the same about guns, God, and gays; Democrats populate Democratic neighborhoods where everyone else feels the same about Republicans. And so on. Since we moved to North City, I’ve seen how the same thing happens racially. Unlike the Big Sort, however, the racial divisions were not voluntary, at least not originally; “red lines” were drawn around certain parts of town by the City of St. Louis, then later, after the Supreme Court declared that practice unconstitutional, the the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange developed restrictive covenants to keep certain people in and certain people out. Housing segregation is no longer so overt, but continues in more subtle forms. To give one anecdote, our first real estate agent refused to take us to see houses in North City, not because we were white, but because “nice people like you don’t want to live up there.” How thoughtful.

Residential segregation is plain to anyone who can see through a ladder, but does it matter? Can’t we just agree that it’s easier to live with people who look and speak and shop and eat and dress like us? Isn’t part of the problem we’ve been seeing the result of culture misunderstandings, conversational misfires, unintended offenses?

James Baldwin, brooding

Perhaps, but the easy way rarely leads to truth. Or love. When we lock ourselves into communities of people like us, everyone we see is like a mirror-image of ourselves. Our conceptions about the world and about ourselves aren’t challenged; rather, they are reinforced. Bishop uses the metaphor of an echo-chamber, in which my voice and my view gets amplified through discussion with people like me. The novelist James Baldwin saw this same phenomenon back in 1963, when he wrote of the “tyranny of the mirror” in his classic memoir The Fire Next Time. Listen to what he says:

[A] vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits out there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s cheques, visits surreptitiously after dark. How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should? I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced the being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being.

Whether or not you agree with everything in Baldwin’s polemic, his main point is undeniably true. We Christians took Jesus very seriously when he said to love our neighbors. But we thought we outsmarted God by choosing neighbors like ourselves, who are easy to love. Until we undertake the difficult and costly process of getting outside our zone of comfort and be-neighboring people who are different from us, we will never experience the depth of love and the true freedom which transcends black and white and to which Baldwin – and Jesus – point us.

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