Our VoiceNews & Politics

Can You Avoid Segregation? New website shows you how

Stephen Piggott • Sep 24, 2009

Staff at the Center for New Community recently discovered a new website dealing with the issue of segregation. Understandingprejudice.org has been in existence since 2002, but it recently added a very informative section called, “Can You Avoid Segregation?”. According to the “About Me” section, the website’s purpose is to “offer educational resources and information on prejudice, discrimination, multiculturalism, and diversity, with the ultimate goal of reducing the level of intolerance and bias in contemporary society.” Maintained by Scott Plous of the Social Psychology Network and professor at Wesleyan University, the new segment on segregation is based on the belief “that when students and others understand the dynamics of segregation, they will be in a better position to help reduce segregation and inequality in their own environment.”

How does this unique website break down segregation for the public? The “Can You Avoid Segregation?” segment bases its analysis on the the influential checkerboard essay by Dr. Thomas Schelling. The checkerboard essay argues that modest preferences on an individual level can lead to extreme segregation at the group level. Dr. Schelling demonstrated this by asking his readers to place pennies and dimes at random on a checkerboard and then to move them if they were in an “unhappy” position. For example, a penny is in an “unhappy” position if it isn’t adjacent to three other pennies. After reading the theory, the website allows you to personally test it. If you attempt to move tokens to satisfy the rule, that each blue token must be adjacent to three other blue tokens, you might be surprised. After I completed the process, my blue and green tokens were clearly segregated. The activity proves that large scale segregation can occur when people want a “same-group” of neighbors. This can be applied not only to race, but sex, ethnicity, language, religion, age, etc.

The fantastic thing about Dr. Schelling’s theory is that the theory can be reversed to prevent segregation, a process made possible when people want a “different-group” of neighbors. For instance, by asking the reader to put blue tokens adjacent to at least one green token shows how Dr. Schelling’s theory works in reverse. The results? A more desegregated checkerboard, even though the directions only require each blue token to be adjacent to one green.

The exercise ends with two conclusions:

First - “You don’t need to be a hero like Rosa Parks to make a difference. Whether segregation takes place in a neighborhood, cafeteria, school, or elsewhere, ordinary individuals have the power to integrate even the most segregated environment;”

Second - “Integration doesn’t require large changes in behavior. When we find ourselves in a segregated situation, what’s needed is for each of us to seek contact with at least one person outside our group.”

The website not only backs its opinions with data and facts, it engages the reader with interactive activities. Instead of leaving me feeling like I can’t do anything about the conundrum of segregation, the website left me feeling emboldened and encouraged. The last two pages provides educational videos, teacher lesson plans and many books and articles on the subject of segregation. Education about the dangers of segregation is extremely important, especially for children. This website is an essential tool for educators. It was an essential tool for me. Segregation is still an enormous problem in the United States and we cannot begin to confront it without first educating ourselves.

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