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    Obsessed with Segregation

    by | Jul 21, 2010

    photo_by_dean_terryRobert Frost was clearly in tune with his country’s sentiments when he wrote in his poem, Mending Wall

      ‘Good fences make good neighbors’

    and had his neighbor mindlessly repeat it yet again, to contradict the poet’s own perception:

      Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

    Americans love walls. Indeed, segregating populations, enterprises and anything that’s unpleasant or unwanted seems to be the universally approved solution. Unless, as in the case of toxic chemicals and waste, the solution to pollution is dilution — still another form of separation, on the molecular level.

    So, it should not have surprised the plaintiffs in Plessy v. Ferguson, when the Supreme Court’s decision, in resolving their challenge to the separate accommodations mandated by a Louisiana statute, set the stage for a half century of legal segregation for the whole nation. Considering that native Americans had been designated as distinct and supposedly “sovereign” nations from the time when the Constitution was adopted, they should not have expected that the principle of individual equality would trump politically designated separation. Indeed, even when the Plessy decision was finally over-turned (by Brown v. Board of Education), the principle of equality ended up being restricted as an obligation of political jurisdictions (public corporations) — one which could be easily over-come by simply assigning social responsibilities to non-state or apolitical entities. In other words, instead of extending the principle of human equality to all facets of American social organization, the Brown decision had the eventual result of segregating the principle itself.

    Or, to put it another way, social differences could be maintained and affirmed, as long as it wasn’t a political entity doing it to what came to be referred to as “protected classes” — classes which are, of course, separate or segregated designations themselves. And, more recently, based on the perception that the “protected” categories are too broad and the “exclusive,” and the excluding patterns that have emerged under the umbrella of accumulated wealth are too democratic, the segregationist impulse has been focused on citizenship by birthright to agitate. However consistent it is with the original premise of the Constitution that “all men are created equal,” relying on an accident of birth to define who’s to belong to an exclusive club and who’s to be shut out has proved unacceptable to the national/nativist crowd.

    It could be argued with some merit that the strongest opponents of segregation on the basis of skin color or other superficial personally identifying characteristics are partially at fault for the persistent reliance on separation as a solution to all sorts of problems. Because, by focusing our attention on personal characteristics we have been led to overlook how extensive the pattern actually is — how it accounts, for example, for a multitude of decisions to relocate thousands of people from the vicinity of a Love Canal, instead of prohibiting and preventing industrial enterprise from contaminating their environment with toxins. Setting aside industrial zones via zoning regulations to prohibit residential uses at the outset isn’t much better. Whether it occurs before or after the fact, segregation is still not a preventive of negative and/or injurious behavior.

    Nor is it, ultimately, a solution to any man-made or natural problem, regardless of whether it’s employed as a voluntary strategy, as exemplified by “gated communities” and housing designated by age (elderly) or occupation (student), or the involuntary variety commonly known as prisons.

    Fences do not make good neighbors and yet, like Robert Frost’s neighbor, whole states (New Mexico, Arizona) are now intent on walling Central and South America off — under the auspices of our federal government which, if it learned anything in Iraq, should have concluded that dividing Sunni and Shia and separating them with blast walls could not insure conquest.

    But, the Iraq experience does raise the question whether the impetus for segregation is just “his father’s saying” or a variation on “divide and conquer” — a tool for domination. Is segregation a lesser alternative to the whip? Is that what accounts for Frost’s assertion that

    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,
    And to whom I was like to give offence.*

    Walls are offensive? And yet, it’s pretty certain that the proponents of separate enclaves segregate themselves because they are basically fearful and insecure. But, if defensive measures are perceived as offensive, then doesn’t that defeat their purpose? Does the cowering prey appear offensive to the predator — ready to spring at a moment’s notice? We might lament with Robert Burns:

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!

    *Sharron Angle likes that spelling.

    ###

    Monica Smith

    Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."

     

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    • http://journalism.wlu.edu/J216/ Doug Cumming

      Enjoyed this. Walls, like China’s great one, do run through our history. And who better than our great American poet to speak elliptically, if not cryptically, about those walls?
      But Frost doesn’t exactly take sides in this poem. I have a recording of him giving a reading at Agnes Scott, and he teasingly says that he can’t decide which side he’s on. It’s the conflict of “good and good,” he says. He also jokes that, when asked what he meant by “Good fences make good neighbors,” he told someone, “I don’t know, I’m just quotin'” and pretends, mocking Eliot, that he got it from “The Pantra Tantra.” It’s old, old, he said.
      Also, I don’t think he meant that the wall was “likely to give offence.” Read in context, the offense is what might happen without a fence (offense? Defense?): His apples wandering into the pines of his neighbor?

      • Monica Smith

        Well, without a line, there’s nothing to defend or offend against. But, I quite agree that Frost is not taking sides. Though, the frost doesn’t like walls, or roads either.

        That good fences make good neighbors strikes me as one of those preconceived notions that harden into prejudice.

        We have ten acres of what used to be a much larger (40 acre) lot and a number of new owners have tried to mark their property lines by planting evergreens/pines down the middle of hay fields. It turns out the winter winds whipping over the fields are not kind to pines and stunt their growth, so they fall victim to the hay mower when the farmer can’t see them in the tall grass. As for the apple trees, there are some dispersed throughout the piney woods, remnants from when cider production was a major enterprise in the early colonial days in New Hampshire.
        Monoculture, as far as I can tell, is a human predilection. Left to itself, nature tends towards the diverse.

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