Last week I wrote a column about my personal experiences on the South Side of Chicago. My purpose was to frame the issues in terms of sequestration: when a region or area is overwhelmingly of one socioeconomic or racial class, it gets cordoned off – literally and figuratively. Other classes know little about it in experience and understanding. Stereotypes predominate. Economic and cultural gaps persist, even widen.
This is a two-way street. An obvious example is the gap in understanding between people who have lived all their lives in hyper-urban areas – say East 55th Street in Cleveland – and people who have lived exclusively in very rural areas – say farm country near the Ohio River. When the only experience of another way of life is popular media, the lack of understanding can be fractious indeed; witness the current divisions in American politics.
When inequality is added to this dynamic, when the two-way street becomes a gradient, an upward slope from one group to another, then the issues become more than just about understanding; they become issues of social justice and the universal welfare of human beings. That’s the lesson I learned from my experiences in Chicago.
What troubles me about the situation with the Adirondacks is that I see exactly that kind of sloped sequestration, but in each direction – in other words, a deleterious gradient that cuts both ways. The relative lack of understanding of non-white urban populations that we see in the Adirondack region is an unfortunate thing and the relative lack of understanding of the Adirondacks by non-white urban populations is an equally unfortunate thing. Everyone’s losing.
In his related column earlier this week, Paul Hai described the issue in terms of relevance, a way of framing the issue that I like very much. He also quite correctly described diversity in terms of more than just racial diversity, suggesting instead a definition that focuses on urban populations with their richness not just in race but in culture, ethnicity, ability and economic status. I think that he’s largely right, but from the standpoint of both experience and demographics I see the non-white aspect as critical. So I’ll take Paul’s lead and modify it a little, posing two key questions:
How can we make the Adirondacks more relevant to non-white urban populations?
How can we make non-white urban populations more relevant to people in the Adirondacks?
Many will ask if these uncomfortable questions are necessary, if they represent as serious a problem as I claim. One of the things that really motivated me to write this series on diversity was the reaction – or lack of reaction – to Brian Mann’s sensational Prison Time Media Project. Brian himself noticed a lack of reaction or discussion; he wrote an essay in response entitled “Why don’t we talk about prisons in the North Country.” For his trouble he got lambasted with reactions defending Corrections Officers, which missed the larger point.
The lack of substantive attention to the Prison Time project, my own experience in the Adirondacks and many of the comments made on my diversity series demonstrate that there are plenty of people who don’t think we have a problem here – live and let live, they will say. But that fails to recognize how deep this sequestered misconception and lack of understanding runs. Listen to Senator Betty Little’s quote in this excerpt from North Country Public Radio’s story on Governor Cuomo’s statement about the “madness of an incarceration society”:
State Senator Betty Little, speaking yesterday afternoon, said Cuomo’s language about New York’s prison industry doesn’t play well in the North Country, where corrections work is a major part of the economy.
“It doesn’t, and I think we think differently about crime we think that there should be punishment and penalties for committing crimes and I’m not so sure that people in the New York City area or the metropolitan area think about that as much as we do.”
This is a textbook example of sequestered thinking. Note the we-they tone, for starters. But it’s more than just that. Perhaps it will help to imagine for a moment that you are a non-white resident of a poor and violent area of New York reading that quote. A white politician from the Adirondacks, where the crime rate is a tiny fraction of what it is where you live, is saying that up there they think differently about crime, that there should be punishment for crime. She then goes on to presumptuously tell you how you think, that you don’t think about crime and punishment as much as she does, even though you live daily with the profound effects of both on a scale utterly unfamiliar to most people in the Adirondacks. Furthermore the prisons in her neck of the woods are filled with non-white people, courtesy of a drug war that is demonstrably and inarguably unjust and racist. Can you imagine how you would feel? Would it be easier to try this thought exercise if you actually had experience of life in urban New York City?
Whether voiced by a politician, a resort worker or a Corrections employee, these kinds of sequestered sentiments do nothing to improve the welfare of people in urban communities beset by a raft of problems born of discrimination and socioeconomic inequality. That speaks directly to questions of social justice. But these sentiments also do nothing to make the Adirondack region more relevant to the urban population. Instead the Adirondack region becomes even more sequestered in perception. That speaks directly to the future of the park.
As I will share next week, the demographic evidence to support this model of sequestration is overwhelming and it shows little or no material improvement so far. But as Paul Hai’s column showed, lots of people are working hard to change that. And there is more on the horizon. But first we must begin with recognition. We are on a dangerous and morally troubling two-way street and everyone is losing for it.