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Self-Segregation Re-examined

Matt's last post touches on an interesting tension within the anti-program house camp. (I count myself as a member, despite having lived in one for two years.) Most acknowledge that self-segregation tends to happen naturally on a college campus but still advocate for policy changes like randomized freshman housing. But if the former is assumed to be true, the latter won't improve anything. Right? Therefore, the status quo is acceptable.

I think that much of what the Facebook study unearthed was the operation of Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling's segregation model, which proved that even the slightest preferences toward interacting with people of the same race (or gender, or smoking preference, etc.) can drive individual living patterns that ultimately result in highly segregated arrangements...

Interestingly, Schelling's model operates entirely on the interactions of neighboring residents. That brings to mind one of the more well-established findings of psychology, known as the propinquity effect. It has been proven that people are far more likely to befriend those who live the least physical distance away from them. This also extends to mere exposure; people who live in high-traffic areas and come into contact more often with others (i.e., near a stairwell in an apartment complex) tend to befriend those they see the most. So is it that far-fetched to say that ethnic-based housing exacerbates, rather than alleviates, the problem of self-segregation by race?

I also think Matt is right to suggest that the problem is worse at Cornell, where there is more socioeconomic diversity than at many other comparable peer institutions. Much has been written about Washington, D.C.'s seemingly segregated neighborhoods; I'd also posit the same for some of New York City's boroughs. But take a look at a place like Silver Spring, Maryland, which is middle-class (and quite affluent, at that) and has a refreshing ethnic diversity. For example, its main high school, Montgomery Blair, has no majority ethnicity. So for a place that's so mixed yet has a lot less socioeconomic diversity, it's not that surprising that interracial friendships, dating, and the like are noticeably more common there (if I may be so bold as to note an observation).

Of course, that can't be an argument against recruiting for socioeconomic diversity. Just an admission that the practice can lead to unanticipated problems, and that said problems should be discussed openly.

Andy Guess | Posted on May 06, 2006 (#)

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