The American Divide Is Not New and It’s Not Accidental

As a people, as a nation, as a world, we are more divided than ever. We always were, but the fallout from the 2016 Presidential Election forced each of us to reckon with that grim reality. Nor are we divided cleanly along a single axis—there are urban-rural divisions, left-right splits, and rich-poor gaps. Each group occupying its own section of an interlocking Venn Diagram, yet surprisingly disconnected, distant and siloed. Each group imagining the other without ever seeing the other.

I was not immune. Living in a city, I acceded to the conventional wisdom. I did not have to confront populist resentment or anti-immigrant sentiment and therefore, I assumed it was over-hyped if it existed at all.

But this is not a story about the 2016 Presidential Election. It’s not a story about coastal elites and pious countryfolk. At least, not directly. It’s a story about division. A story about divisions we all take for granted, that we assume are “natural,” when in fact that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Our story begins in 19th century Paris.

belle epoque camille pissarro

The image that materializes when we imagine “Paris” is that of La Belle Époque. The Paris with its grand boulevards, the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower—a period of peace and prosperity, a romanticized modernity. But as is true with every new era, the spoils were unevenly divided.

Encircling this spectacular oeuvre was an entire class of people denied access to the grand city. As Baudelaire records in his prose poem, The Eyes of the Poor, the contrast between the haves and have nots was stark. When someone from the outside wandered in, there was an overriding impulse to treat them as other. There was something unnatural about their presence.

…Not only was I touched by this family of eyes, but I was even a little ashamed of our glasses and decanters, too big for our thirst. I turned my eyes to look into yours, dear love, to read my thoughts in them; and as I plunged my eyes into your eyes, so beautiful and so curiously soft, into those green eyes, home of Caprice and governed by the Moon, you said: ‘Those people are insufferable with their great saucer eyes. Can’t you tell the proprietor to send them away?’Charles Baudelaire (1869)

The very same city, a city where rich and poor had lived side-by-side, had 30 years earlier been consumed by a working-class revolt. A new monarch tried to scale back rights granted a half-century earlier in the French Revolution, and the urban poor took to the streets in a guerilla-style campaign. They erected barricades in the narrow streets and the government struggled to reassert its control.

paris 1848

The monarchy was toppled and Louis Napoleon III (Napoleon’s nephew) was elected president of the Second Republic. With the help of his adviser, Baron Haussmann, he embarked on a major reconstruction of the city, razing much of the old Paris, replacing it with the grand boulevards, sidewalk cafes, and lavish architecture we think of today. While beautiful, this reorganization had a more sinister purpose—the new open plan made it harder to wage guerilla war and easier to move troops to crush dissent. It also made it too expensive for the poor to remain. “In the remaking of the city by Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s, the intermixing of classes within districts was reduced by design.”

La Belle Époque was made beautiful by removing what those with power found unpleasant.

19th century Paris is one example of a phenomenon that is not new and hardly isolated. In 20th century America, where race has always been more frightening than class, those with power found clever ways to keep people of color out of the city.

redlining the american divide

Although the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in 1917, through a series of private contracts, property owners agreed to only sell to other white folks. City zoning laws piled on, calling multi-family units (where most people of color lived) “public nuisances,” a designation that also included slaughterhouse and polluting factories. When the Great Depression hit and the federal government began to subsidize home ownership, they relied on racially-biased local maps. They loaned money to those who could afford to live in the suburbs while writing off the city as “too far gone” to save—a practice known as redlining. These policies created a self-fulfilling crisis in which people of color were forced into poverty and denied assistance or an escape.

As in Paris, local and federal policies intentionally kept different people apart.

America’s cities are still feeling the effects of these racial housing policies (some which continue today). But before solving or acknowledging them, we’ve turned to technology to make the problem worse.

The Internet was supposed to save us. It was supposed to bring people of different classes, races, and backgrounds together. Big Data would remove biases with math. Algorithms could sort through everything from resumes, to loan and insurance applications, to criminal backgrounds to produce more fair and equitable outcomes. Unfortunately, we’ve just coded our biases into infallible formulas and turned them loose.

A student who grows up in a once-redlined neighborhood has no choice but to attend a failing school—his parents, who grew up in the same neighborhood cannot send him elsewhere. His college application is not flagged by the algorithm that looks for high SAT scores. Because he did not attend college, his job prospects are limited. Because he doesn’t have a stable job, finance algorithms won’t extend good credit. Because he lives in the same neighborhood—poor, with high unemployment—there is probably some amount of crime. Police algorithms send the cops to that neighborhood in higher numbers and frequency. If he ends up in court, recidivism models predict that because he lives in a poor neighborhood with others who have committed crimes, he is likely to commit crime in the future. The cycle continues.

“The quiet and personal nature of this targeting keeps society’s winners from seeing how the very same models are destroying lives, sometimes just a few blocks away.”Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction

We desperately want to believe that people end up where they do because of hard work, or lack thereof. But that is rarely the case. Those with power do what they can to promote their interests and maintain power. With time, once conscious decisions are written off as “the way things have always been done” or as “natural.” We end up like Baudelaire’s lover, asking the proprietor to send the others back where they belong.

If we want to repair the divisiveness in our political discourse, it starts with recognizing the division in our public spaces—online and off.

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