Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

The reading file: Charting the racial divide and meeting the neighbors

Charting the racial divide

With events in Ferguson, Mo., once again exposing racial fault lines in America, here are some good background resources that rely on hard data. A summary of "The Real Record on Racial Attitudes" — based on decades of responses to the General Social Survey run by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago — and highlights of other good research can be found at tbtim.es/race2. Also, the Upshot, a data-driven New York Times blog, compiled statistics about blacks and whites in America. Read more at tbtim.es/race1 tbtim.es/race1. Here's one chart and an excerpt from the Upshot.

By most measures, black and white Americans are still living in radically different societies — and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Many other gaps — between men and women, between non-Hispanics and Hispanics — have shrunk substantially over the last few decades. But the black-white racial divide remains as central to American life as it has been for centuries.

Dysfunction and decay

In Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama warns about an "America in Decay." If you register, you may read his essay in full at tbtim.es/usdecay. Here's an excerpt.

Political decay thus occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances, either out of intellectual rigidities or because of the power of incumbent elites to protect their positions and block change. Decay can afflict any type of political system, authoritarian or democratic. And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change. This is precisely what has been happening in the United States in recent decades, as many of its political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. A combination of intellectual rigidity and the power of entrenched political actors is preventing those institutions from being reformed. And there is no guarantee that the situation will change much without a major shock to the political order.

Anna Karenina's nose

Peter Mendelsund, who has designed hundreds of book jackets, has written a book of his own — What We See When We Read — about how we picture literary characters in our head. The Paris Review published an excerpt, which you may read in full at tbtim.es/seeread. Here's a sample.

I canvass readers. I ask them if they can clearly imagine their favorite characters. To these readers, a beloved character is, to borrow William Shakespeare's phrase, "bodied forth." These readers contend that the success of a work of fiction hinges on the putative authenticity of the characters. Some readers go further and suggest that the only way they can enjoy a novel is if the main characters are easily visible: "Can you picture, in your mind, what Anna Karenina looks like?" I ask. "Yes," they say, "as if she were standing here in front of me." "What does her nose look like?" "I hadn't thought it out; but now that I think of it, she would be the kind of person who would have a nose like …" "But wait — How did you picture her before I asked? Noseless?" "Well …"

Stranger, no danger

In the Atlantic, James Hamblin says that "people who know and trust their neighbors are less likely to have heart attacks. New research builds on the understated health benefits of a sense of belonging and community." Read "Always Talk to Strangers" in full at tbtim.es/talkstranger. Here's an excerpt that isn't so much on point as irresistible.

My building has three units, and I had been living in mine for a few days before Stephen and I actually crossed paths. We introduced ourselves, talked a little about the neighborhood and our mutual intentions to be respectful and communicative, possibly even social, and then said good night. He turned and started walking to the stairs. But then he stopped and turned back. "Oh, and, I probably shouldn't be telling you this." Of the sentences I realistically expect to hear in life, that may be my favorite. Do go on. "The last tenant in your apartment, he was your age … he died in there." Stop. "But everything should be fine now," he continued, and turned to leave again. "Well, good night." No one brought up this fact prior to my moving in. Stephen was right, he probably shouldn't have told me. He would have spared me nights and nights of unwanted speculation. Gas leak? Murderous robbery? Something to do with the plumbing? But on the whole, I'm better off for having met my neighbor.

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