A few months ago, I came across an article by an anthropologist who was trying to make sense of the enthusiasm people displayed for Trump’s border wall. If I were still teaching, I’d have used the article to reinforce a couple of important lessons: (1) most issues are more complex than most of us realize, and (2) cultural attitudes are the product of multiple elements that may seem unrelated but really aren’t.
We need to connect those dots.
The anthropologist’s investigation was triggered by a conversation at a trade show.
The border’s like our back door,” a concrete salesman named Chris told me in January 2017. “You leave it open, and anyone can walk right in.” It was the day of Trump’s presidential inauguration, and we were chatting on the exhibition floor of a trade show in Las Vegas, called World of Concrete. Circular saws, cement mixers, gleaming new trucks – it was an unusual place to talk about the politics of immigration.
But the simple promise of a concrete wall between the US and Mexico had flung a business tycoon into the White House, and I wanted to understand what this was about.
Chris was a millennial from a small town in western Ohio. With a trim beard and short, sandy hair, he projected an air of casual self-sufficiency. “I don’t really like neighbors,” he quipped, speaking with a dose of wry humor about how far he chose to live from other people.
The author was perplexed by the appeal of what he termed “the fantasy of sealing off the country with a stark, symbolic barrier.” What he discovered in his subsequent investigation was that walls and barricades appeal to so many Americans because they “resonate with familiar boundaries in their daily lives.” He concluded that cultural and economic forces have operated to divide insider from outsider, fueling political polarization in ways we don’t always realize.
He focused especially on America’s ubiquitous gated communities. And when I say “ubiquitous,” the data bears me out: one out of every six American houses in a residential community is secured–gated– by community walls or fences.
Contemporary gated communities build on a century of intentional segregation and suburban white flight. Suburban interiors were designed as “escape capsules to enable their independence from the outside world”, architectural historian Andrea Vesentini has shown, built as shelters from the unpredictability of urban life. The pandemic has magnified the appeal of such distance and defense, with more features like security cameras, video doorbells and HEPA air filters built into new houses than ever before.
These histories have profoundly reshaped how Americans live in relation to each other, as much as where. So much of everyday life and leisure now takes place in secluded spaces. The front porch sessions with neighbors and passersby that once epitomized American social life have given way to more private gatherings on the backyard deck, or time with the television and other screens indoors. These changes lessen the chance for happenstanceconversation with neighbors and strangers.
There’s much more in the article, detailing the various ways today’s Americans wall themselves off from their fellow citizens. (Drive a Hummer?? Talk about separating yourself…)
I was particularly struck by the discussion of gated communities, because early in my academic career I became fascinated by the literature about social capital–especially the distinction between bonding and bridging social capital.
Social capital refers to the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society. Bonding social capital contributes to the “us versus them” phenomenon so pronounced in today’s America–it refers to the “bonds” formed within a group or community. Bridging social capital–essential in a diverse society– refers to the weaker but extremely important connections between people in different social groups.
I wanted to research a “chicken and egg” question: did the people who chose to live in gated communities make that choice because they had already developed “us versus them” tendencies, or did the experience of living in such a community inculcate such attitudes? Unfortunately, I discovered there was no intellectually-honest way to conduct such research. Too many variables and much too much subjectivity…
The author of the article notes that our fractured media has deepened the existing fissures of American society, helping to shield us from exposure to uncomfortable ideas, unfamiliar people and perspectives. As he says,
There’s a deep and pernicious history at work here. Longstanding patterns of neighborhood racial segregation have inflamed the prejudice against outgroups, bolstering stereotypes…. When such divisions are reproduced at an everyday scale, the gulf between self and other widens even further, and everyone becomes a potential outsider.
As my architect husband has taught me, the built environment matters, not just aesthetically. It profoundly shapes–and reflects–the culture.