Meyerland, a Houston housing community not far from my university, was one of the most beautiful places in America last week. Not, of course, because a horrific onslaught of water had inundated its yards, houses, and majestic oaks. That was the terrible, and not the beautiful part. The rains came down, and the floods came up, and the parking lot of the Meyerland shopping center sloshed back and forth like a treacherous inland sea.
No, what made Meyerland so beautiful this last week was the way the people were helping each other, regardless of race or ethnicity. The hurricane was relentless. But the rescuers and boats were relentless, too. Every few minutes the water would rise. And every few minutes, the rescuers would put out more boats, find families waist-deep in water in their living rooms, and return them to dry land.
It didn’t matter if you were young or old, black or white, Catholic or Muslim. In Meyerland this last week, the people of Houston were there for each other, through 20-hour days and beyond. That’s what we Americans do when the chips are down, the rains are raw, and the neighbors are sitting out there on the roof with grandma and the dog, praying against the deluge.
The heroism of the first responders in Houston was an incredible contrast to the hatred that the nation witnessed in Charlottesville just a few days earlier. The dissimilarity was palpable, almost unrecognizable. It felt like these were different Americas, co-existing somehow alongside each other. Apparently, we Americans are now two things simultaneously: a people who will rescue our neighbors from their washed-out houses, regardless of skin color, and a people who will foment the most noxious racial hatreds—or, alternatively, eagerly consume stories about those who do. Will the racial future of America be Meyerland? Or will it be Charlottesville?
There Is Still Hope For Racial Reconciliation
I think the evidence from hurricane Harvey is conclusive: there is still a great deal of hope for racial reconciliation in America. When life, health, and housing are on the line, we Americans are ready to sacrifice for our neighbors—even when they’re different from ourselves.
But why then did the Charlottesville protest happen? To grapple with the Houston vs. Charlottesville dichotomy, one must acknowledge how multi-faceted our racial problems are in America. They are problems of personal character. They are problems of inequality before the law. They are problems of housing, schooling, and voluntary segregation. They are problems of vengeance and history, with roots that date all the way back to the country’s founding. But they are also—and I think our current conversation underemphasizes this—problems perpetuated by our modern institutions: sustained by powerful behavioral systems that lie behind and beneath our surface-level interactions, systems which we might not at first imagine as accelerating our racial problems.
My takeaway from Harvey this last week, as I and 20 other volunteers hammered out the sheetrock in our neighbor’s house, was that our hopes for racial reconciliation do not lie in cultural institutions. Yes, it is true that the first phase of America’s racial healing—the civil rights struggles of the 60s—were aimed at large-scale legislative changes.
But the problem with continuing to do that now, in ‘phase two’ of America’s reconciliation plan, is that the intervening 50 years have seen such gross institutional breakdowns. Too many of our institutions are now corrupted and ill-equipped to be conciliatory instruments. In politics, the winner-take-all polling system gives our candidates abundant incentives to pander to their own factions—at the expense of everyone else. The anonymity of our financial markets motivates its participants to enrich themselves at the expense of a crowd of nameless others—including vulnerable minority populations.
Particularly broken are our modern media systems. The stories that they feature are unceasingly negative, and are primarily focused on conflict and hatred. To watch the nightly news is to be fed a continuous stream of marches, protests, and conflicts. Our media celebrities are palpably hostile toward their political opponents. The comments sections of our major newspapers are venomous and soul-shriveling.
Our Institutions Cannot Fix These Problems
In short, there is little hope now for an institutional solution to our racial conflicts because, quite frankly, too many of our institutions these days are unfriendly toward racial reconciliation. More often, they actively accelerate our conflicts. Consider again our modern media systems. At the heart of today’s media feedback loop is a body of perverse and self-perpetuating incentives. Eyeballs and clicks are the coin of the realm. They are, after all, what attract advertising dollars.
But to get those eyeballs and clicks, the media purveyors must offer the public an increasingly shocking and pernicious body of content. Prurience, back-biting, jealousies, sensationalism, and torchlight supremacist marches are all staple media fare these days, appealing as they do to our worst natures as content consumers. Such topics do bring in the eyeballs and clicks. But they also promote the agendas of fringe groups—and not racial healing.
Blame for media brokenness is not, however, solely attributable to content purveyors. The truth is that these purveyors do not have a lot of control over their content choices. Our tastes as media consumers are, all too often, tying their hands. You and I are the anonymous computer users who are tracking the most inflammatory protestor depictions, the most lurid white supremacist accounts, and the most sensational fake news stories. You and I are the consumers who lock media purveyors into an economic straightjacket, promoting conflict rather than reconciliation.
Savvy peripheral figures like Richard Spencer and the Antifa group are aware of all this, of course. They also know that the media’s attention loop means free publicity for their shadowy movements. All they must do in order to obtain that publicity is to foment some dramatic controversy—like a rally about the monuments—and present to the public, along with the media’s assistance, the impression of being a large-scale movement (even though their numbers are actually far smaller than the media suggest). Such attention, in turn, boosts their recruitment efforts, and perpetuates the hate cycle.
So the problem, in a nutshell, is that our modern media outlets are ideal systems for sensationalists and racial haters. From time to time they might mix things up with some feel-good rescuer stories. But the financial reality, over the long haul, is that our media systems cannot prioritize the hope and happiness of the Meyerland rescues. They are forced, rather, to prioritize Charlottesville.
Reform Must Start Locally, With Good Samaritans
There seems little hope at this point for reforming the perverse incentive loops that are our driving large-scale cultural institutions. That is why, while removing insulation on a muck cleanup team this last week, I concluded that our hope for racial reconciliation in America will have to come from somewhere else. Racial animosity, at bottom, is a matter of the heart. So reconciliation has to be about heart-to-heart changes.
That means ordinary people like you and me making the inconvenient decision to purchase groceries for the shut-in white neighbor, or driving the Latino grandfather down the street to the doctor, or teaching the black kids on the corner to ride their bicycles. The owner of the flooded house where we were working was a kindly black man in his 40s. Our team members were white, Hispanic, and black. We weren’t there in an institutional capacity. We were just neighbors helping our neighbors, brick-by-brick. First responders from earlier in the week also told a story of face-to-face, person-to-person sacrifices. They were building virtue in a coherent, local community.
Right now, Houston is a stricken city. Several hundred thousand cars are probably lost. The damage has hit countless hospitals, refineries, and corporate office buildings. Thousands of homes are unsalvageable. Dry wall and support beams are the future of the city, at least for the next few years. But bad as the disaster might be for the Houston economy, it has, truth be told, been terrific for the city’s character. Amid all the stories of sadness and despair, the hurricane has given us opportunities for multi-generational, multi-ethnic reconciliation down here in Houston—hammer by hammer and wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. The lesson of the first responders and the muck cleanup volunteers is that racial reconciliation is eminently possible—through the efforts of ordinary people who are walking the walk each day.
The future of racial reconciliation in America, quite frankly, is going to be in bathroom plumbing and sheetrock nails.