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America's Racial Hunger Games

America's segregated past is still with us in the racial districts we live in.

A cannon booms.

A face is flashed across our Iphone-TV screens.

Another American is dead.

We wonder, from which district? Who is left to win? Our killing competition continues.

Not willing to admit it, we still think of ourselves only as a member of a particular racial district. But with no more legal segregation, neo-diversity means we are all encountering and interacting with people from different groups by way of sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, mental-health-condition, sex, race, and gender-identity. Our neo-diversity situation is causing a lot of border encounters because neo-diversity means we cannot avoid being in contact with people from the different districts. So every now and then we are in a situation so new and so disconnected from our comfort-zone-racial-district that we go on high alert. We are allowing our segregated past to cat-fish us into our own hunger games.

A Cheerios commercial with a mixed-race couple brings outrage[1]. Miss America 2013 is of India-Indian descent and oh my… the cries of disbelief and offense are loud: “If you’re #MissAmerica you should have to be American.”[2] A movie, based on a novel, becomes controversial because “the good characters” are dark-skinned; “Why did the producer make all the good characters black?”

When the first Hunger Games movie came out in 2012, there was actually that kind of reaction[3]. A stream of tweets put the outrage in sharp relief. Reporting on this for Jezebel, Dodai Stewart wrote: “…when it came to the casting of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, many audience members did not understand why there were black actors playing those parts.”

Let me just say that when I read the books, one thing that stood out to me was the descriptions of Rue and Thresh. And Dodai Stewart points this out as well saying, “…On page 45 of Suzanne Collins's book, Katniss sees Rue for the first time: “And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old-girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes…” Later… “The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue…” Putting it all together, Mx. Stewart makes this observation, “Dark skin. That is what the novelist, the creator of the series, specified. But there were plenty of audience members who were ‘shocked,’ or confused, or just plain angry.”

Disturbing as that may seem, there were worse tweets. Following the events as they unfold in the novel, Rue is killed in the competition between teenaged district representatives. When this angelic looking little dark-skinned girl dies, as I read the book, and as I watched the movie, a drizzle of tears came into my eyes. But among those who thought Rue shouldn’t be black anyway came this tweet: “call me racist but when I found out Rue was black, her death wasn’t as sad.”

Do all lives really matter in our American Hunger Games?

Race is an intergroup factor of neo-diversity that is cat-fishing Americans. We feel something is not quite right because our contact with “them” is only happening through an on-line connection. We try to figure out the situation and how we are supposed to behave. We find ourselves at a loss for how we should act in this virtual “relationship.” We feel awkward. We feel fearful. We feel as if we are in the dark. But we go along trying to represent what we think is our racial district. Why?

Sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and David G. Embrick[4] introduced the idea of a “white habitus.” Their hypothesis is that “…whites’ socialization and isolation… creates… a racialized uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates racial taste, perceptions, feelings and emotions and views on racial matters” Furthermore these researchers say that this white habitus means that “…a life centered on whites in youth will lead to a life centered on whites in adulthood.”

Using survey and interview data, Bonilla-Silva and Embrick establish that “…whites have very little contact with blacks in neighborhoods, schools, colleges and jobs” (even in the 2000s). From there they show that “…whites do not see or interpret their own racial segregation and isolation as a racial issue at all.” That has to mean that whites are unprepared to engage in real, face-to-face interracial encounters.

Habitus is the right idea, but the focus on whites is very misleading. What we have here is a failure to capture the real racial picture. Yes, whites are segregated from other racial groups. But so too are other racial groups segregated from whites and from each other. Even though by virtue of smaller numbers, racial and ethnic minorities come into more contact with whites more than whites do with racial and ethnic minorities, that does not make that contact interpersonal and meaningful. Having frequent, informal, friendship interactions across group memberships would be the most helpful[5]. Real friendship is important because that would mean that two people have learned to be with each other as people, not as representatives of groups.

For a very long time, social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew has studied whether and how contact between members of different racial and ethnic groups leads to less intergroup tension for those in contact[6]. Gordon Allport[7], who trained Pettigrew, put forward intergroup contact theory. That theory specifies that intergroup contact will lead to a reduction in feelings of prejudice if the situation in which the contact occurs meets these four conditions:

1. The groups in contact must be of equal status

2. The groups must have common goals

3. The groups must not be in competition

4. The groups contact must be approved of by higher authority

Over the years of his work, Pettigrew started to wonder whether “friendship” is a special case of contact that has its own special effects. Intergroup friendship would mean more than that two people are in interaction. For the interactions to be a relationship, Pettigrew points out that there must be contact and interaction, over time, with emotional concern. That would be a friendship. With those relationship qualities, a friendship is also likely to meet the four conditions that Allport’s intergroup contact theory indicates to be important to reducing negative feelings about the outgroup; equal-status, a common goal, no competition, approved by authority.

A friendship, then, brings together the power of interpersonal interaction. Powerful enough, in fact, that the evidence from research is that individuals who have a friend or friends who are members of a racial outgroup show less negative feelings toward that particular outgroup.[8] Friendship, then, is a force that reduces intergroup tensions and uncertainty in intergroup interactions.

Knowing that in this age of neo-diversity legal segregation has been abolished, it would seem reasonable to assume that between-group friendships are happening for college students before they come to college. Again, not so; there is friendship segregation before students get to college.

Lincoln Quillan and Mary E. Smith[9] have studied the factors that influence the occurrence of interracial friendships among students in grades seventh through twelfth. Using a national sample and some sophisticated statistical methods they found that students in schools that are not very diverse have little chance of having friends of other races.

Ok, that is almost too obvious a point. But it is also true that if students of any group (white, black, Muslim) find themselves in the minority, those students are more likely to only have friends that are racially similar to themselves; they are more likely to have friends who are members of their own group. That is counterintuitive because it should work the other way. In a free and open social situation, if you are a member of a small group, by probabilities you should have more friends from the larger group. But, Quillan and Campbell indicate that:

“Disturbingly, we find especially high levels of segregation of blacks, including black Hispanics, from all other racial groups.”

Coming out of a multiracial middle and, or high school does not mean that either white or black or any students have had meaningful interaction experiences with African-Americans. In America, it seems, we have not simply a white-habitus but a racial-habitus for each group. With that in mind, I specify my racial-habitus hypothesis. I say that the racial-habitus of America is a socialization process that conditions and creates uncertainty among individuals of all racial groups about how to interact with members of other racial groups.

Without meaningful interpersonal interactions (e.g. friendships), our racial districts of origin rule how we judge social interactions between people from different racial districts. Two Americans interact in a negative way, a cannon sounds, a face is flashed across Iphone screens, and all we care about is which district won. From which district did they come: black or white, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or Muslim, civilian or police?

Who are you betting on? Do all lives really matter?

Yet, love is not the answer.

We have to stop talking about “love” as the answer. Stop saying, that to solve the intergroup problems tearing at the American-fabric “…we all have to start loving one another.” Love is too distant a goal in a society of people so psychologically separated from each other. Love is too big and vague as an immediate goal. Immediate love is not realistic because we don’t know what behaviors of ours will make for "love" in the eyes of our fellow Americans from our different districts.

Let’s work on respect.

Respect we can all begin doing from a distance. Respect is interpersonal and immediate. Respect means walking by a person not like you and looking that person in the eye to give them a small kindness for the day.

“Good morning.”

“How’s it going?”

“Oh please… after you.”

Respect from a distance is what we can start today. Respect from a distance is a realistic interpersonal goal we can all build into our everyday behaviors. Working on respect is important because respect from a distance will begin to build bridge-links between our racial districts, reducing the distance between us. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt by assuming we all deserve a little respect, we will be able to raise our hand to wave to a distant neighbor across district boundaries and see that gesture returned. Looking from our racial district into another racial district, we will then feel something new in our psychology.

“Huh… they seem friendly. Guess they’re not so different after all.”

Rupert W. Nacoste is the author of “Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect.” (NY: Prometheus Books, 2015)




[4]Bonilla-Silva, E. & Embrick, D.G. (2007). “Every Place Has a Ghetto…”: The significance of whites’ social and residential segregation. Symbolic Interaction, 30, 323-345.

[5] McClelland, K. & Linnander, E. (2006). The role of contact and information in racial attitude change among white college students. Socioligical Inquiry, 76, 81-115.

[6] Pettigrew, T. F. (1997). Generalized intergroup contact effects on prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 173-185.

[7] Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice.

[8] See Pettrigrew (1997) above.

[9] Quillan, L. & Campbell, M. E. (2003). Beyond black and white: The present and future of multiracial friendship segregation. American Sociological Review, 68, 540-566.

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