Who is my neighbor?

October 6, 2015

My husband was in the U.S. military for a number of years and, as a result, we moved fairly frequently.  When my children were born, we lived in a racially diverse area in which they had the opportunity to interact with people from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic groups.  They were still quite young when we moved to a more racially and socioeconomically segregated area of the country.  As time went on, despite our efforts to meet and spend time with a diverse group of people, my children had less and less contact with people who looked different than they did.  Although official statistics suggested that we lived in a diverse area, there were no people of color in my children’s schools, local “Y,” play groups, music classes, and precious few in our church community.  That’s the nature of modern-day segregation; it’s subtle and it’s toxic.  I know this because within a couple of years my children – who had as babies known many wonderful people of color – began to fear people who looked different than they did.

We taught them to love their neighbors, but because of the discreet racial isolation in which we lived, local society taught them a very limited perspective as to who their neighbors were.  Maybe this kind of situation explains all of the church-going folk I know who insist they believe in loving their neighbors as themselves, but don’t want people of color, transgendered, gay, mentally ill, or people with criminal records in their schools, churches and – above all – their neighborhoods.  They don’t even know that they are robbing themselves of the amazing experiences that come from being “neighbors” with people of different races, cultures and creeds.  They’re also causing themselves unnecessary anxiety.

“Stranger danger” is a primary component of preschool and kindergarten curriculums all over the United States.  Children are taught to be wary of anyone they don’t know and never to go anywhere with a stranger.  These are reasonable cautions.  The problem is the way in which what the children are learning outside of school interacts with the formal lesson plans.  In many places, like the one where we lived, children get imperceptible cues from the adults around them that anyone who is different – who doesn’t look like them or live in a neighborhood like theirs – is a stranger, even if they know them.

This subtle way of instilling prejudice is both effective and deadly.  But the reality is that teaching children to fear people that are different than they are actually puts them in danger.  Crime statistics indicate, for example, that the vast majority of murder victims under the age of eighteen are killed by their parents.[1]  Children actually have the lowest rates of victimization of all age groups in society.[2]  Crime data consistently indicates that individuals are most likely to kill others of the same race.  Perhaps most importantly, long-term Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that most homicides occur when the victim and perpetrator know one another.[3]  All of this information suggests that children are in more danger from those they know – and those that look like them – than “strangers.”

But people remain afraid.  Even though official data indicates that crime rates have been on a downward trend since the turn of the 21st century,[4] surveys suggest that most people think that crime is going up.[5]  Superimpose that idea on “stranger danger” and you discover a lot of very frightened and potentially reactionary people – because the more likely we are to think of someone as a “stranger,” the more likely we are to fear them.  A 2014 study exploring the relationship between fear and gender, race, and sexuality found that among adults surveyed, one-third were afraid to walk in their own neighborhood at night.[6]  Not surprisingly, women were statistically more likely to be afraid than men.  In addition, the authors found that gay people, Blacks, and Hispanics were significantly more likely to be afraid of going out at night than Whites and heterosexuals.  And both Black and White people are both more afraid of people of different races.[7]  Tellingly, however, this association was not found among individuals who had been part of an interracial relationship.

The truth is that, contrary to beliefs consistent with the idea that ignorance is bliss, what (and who) you don’t know can hurt you – and other people.  My children were deprived of opportunities for learning – not to mention love – by living in a society which taught them that their neighbors were only those who were like them.  In our case, we left that area of the country and moved to a place where diversity is prized – and we are all much the better for it.

Who is your neighbor?  Do you know?  What would happen if we all made neighbors of everyone around us – and then loved them as we love those who look and act like us – as ourselves.  Statistics suggest that we’d be a lot braver – and a lot safer.  And my heart tells me that we’d be a lot happier too.

[1]Ibid.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/cv14pr.cfm

[5]http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/sunday-commentary/20100326-Joe-Keohane-The-crime-wave-762.ece

[6]Doug Meyer and Eric Anthony Grollman (2014), “Sexual Orientation and Fear at Night: Gender Differences among Sexual Minorities and Heterosexuals,” Journal of Homosexuality, 61 (4), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00918369.2013.834212?journalCode=wjhm20

[7]William C. Marra, “Fear Toward Other Races Found,” Harvard Crimson, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2005/8/5/fear-towards-other-races-found-people/

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