When the consumer internet first emerged in the early Nineties, many people were touting it as a tool that could allow people to seamlessly communicate across continents. When I first saw the web, I was sure I could use it to get my high school students across Prospect Park. The days of segregated classrooms and ideas were clearly numbered.
At the time, I was teaching African American literature at a high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. On a day when the class was discussing Native Son by Richard Wright, we had a guest student who was visiting from Los Angeles. This was the only time during my New York teaching career when I wasn’t the only white person in the class.
We had reached the point in the novel where its main character Bigger Thomas had committed his second murder and was hiding from police in Chicago’s tenements. I began that day’s class with a simple question: If you lived in neighborhood where Bigger Thomas was hiding and you knew his location, would you tell the police?
The question set off a heated debate in the classroom. A third of the students said that they wouldn’t turn Bigger in to the police because the justice system was too biased and Bigger would never get a fair trial. Another third of the class said that they’d feel compelled to turn him in because, regardless of the failings of the justice system, murder is morally wrong. The remaining students explained that they too would turn Bigger Thomas over to the police — but for a more concrete reason. They didn’t want to be the next victim. A violent person on the streets simply increased the likelihood of getting killed.
I then asked the students how many of them had either been victims of a gunshot or knew someone who had been murdered. Every hand in the class went up.
At the end of the class, our guest from Los Angeles approached my desk to let me know that her Advanced Placement English class had just completed the same novel. During the two weeks they spent on the book, not a single issue we had just debated ever came up. She said that if I had asked the same opening question to her class, every student would have said that they’d turn Bigger over to the police. They might have even thought the question was a joke.
Of course, we didn’t need to travel across the country to find a classroom of students who would have been shocked by our discussion. The same disconnect would have existed if our classroom guest had been from a high school on the other side of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
It was at that moment that I realized that the widespread multicultural education movement of that era was largely based on a fallacy. The focus of the effort was to make sure kids read books by authors from diverse backgrounds (although too often, that really meant reading more books by people from their own ethnic or racial group). But neither the students in my class nor the ones in the AP English class in Los Angeles were truly experiencing multicultural education. What we really needed was to get the two classes together to discuss the book. Any book would become part of an effective multicultural curriculum if the people discussing it came from multiple cultures.
At that time, the notion of congregating a socioeconomically diverse classroom of students seemed like an impossible task. But then we all saw the introduction of the web. As soon as this new technology began to take hold, I was sure that it would provide the perfect channel to connect kids — not just across the world but across the park.
After moving back to the Bay Area, I started a non-profit site to accomplish this very goal. The pitch was simple. We no longer had to wait for politicians or intolerant citizens to grant approval for diversity. We could use the web to tunnel under all the social blockades and connect kids and teachers like never before, from Crown Heights to Park Slope, from Pacific Heights to Hunters Point. A broken system of segregation could finally be subverted. It would be busing without the buses.
The site’s success was ultimately thwarted by timing. Most schools were barely getting online back then. But my certainty about an increase in diversity across schools and neighborhoods remained strong. And now the web is beyond anything I imagined. The tools capable of hammering through the historic barriers between communities are always on and nearly ubiquitous.
Yet while I spend much of my life in front of this screen, I find myself in a pool of ideas that is even more segregated than the high school classroom where I once taught. There is almost no racial and ethnic diversity in my web experience.
Amazingly, I also encounter less diversity in the media I consume. When I lived in New York, I read Newsday cover to cover during my subway commute. My media consumption reflected the communities beneath which the 3 Train traveled. Today, a huge percentage of the media I consume has been shared by folks in my direct social network. I know a whole lot about Zuckerberg sweating the privacy issues and how Steve Jobs feels about Flash, but I have absolutely no connection to any of the conversations taking place in neighborhoods a couple miles from my front door.
Somehow the forces that separated us in the offline world have maintained their power even as our ability to connect has dramatically increased. We’re still stuck in our silos of homogeneity.
I’m sure I could blame the lack of diversity on my age, my location, and my addiction to the internet industry. But I doubt that’s all there is to it. The first time I loaded up Netscape I was certain that the walls between people and neighborhoods would come crumbling down. The young, idealistic, school-teacher me would have never have believed that nearly two decades later I’d feel, in many ways, more isolated than ever. And although I haven’t been back for awhile, I’d guess that the high school kids in Crown Heights are still stuck on their side of the park.