Mind the Gap
Finding A Way Through Social Division
Our country is more deeply divided than it’s been in generations. When two sides can’t agree, they can go to war—or try this.
Americans are segregating themselves geographically, philosophically, and racially more than they used to. Behind the so-called tofu curtain here in western Massachusetts, I am surrounded by neighbors who mostly look like me, consume similar media, and vote the same way I do. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out with people who put me at ease, but when I come face-to-face with folks who have different perspectives from my own, I realize that sometimes (and slightly embarrassingly) I don’t know how to talk to them. More and more, folks on opposing sides simply avoid talking much at all these days. Until, of course, a conflict arises—and we begin shouting. From news outlets to social media sites to protests on my street corner, the shouting seems to be getting louder.
What I don’t know is what to do about it. Luckily, renowned social psychologist and UMass faculty member Linda Tropp has been thinking about social divides for a long time. “I study what I study because of where I grew up: Gary, Indiana,” says Tropp. Gary was once a big steel town, a prime stop on the Rust Belt. The rise and decline in steel production coincided with Black migration from the South and subsequent white flight. “When my older brothers and sisters were growing up there, the neighborhood we lived in was predominantly white. Most people left their doors unlocked, and kids would be running in and out of each other’s homes. But by the time I was growing up, in the ’70s and ’80s, the local population was 80–85% Black, and suddenly many homes had security alarm systems,” Tropp says. No more kids running into each other’s homes; no more doors unlocked during the day. But why, exactly? “I understood there were differences, but I didn’t understand why those differences mattered.”
Just because the problem is too big to fix by ourselves
doesn’t mean we can’t all pitch in to help.
Tropp, like me, is a white, Jewish member of Generation X. But she hasn’t always been pegged as such right away. Thanks to a study-abroad stint in Ecuador, Tropp is fluent in Spanish; she also happens to be petite and has an olive complexion. “Given my stature and skin tone, I passed as Ecuadorian all the time, and even when I came back to the United States, people assumed I was Latina,” she explains. The fact that she studied Spanish and racial justice issues at Wellesley College may have added to that effect. “I was ethnically ambiguous,” she says. “A lot of people thought I was a woman of color, and I remember some circumstances when I was asked flat out—and received a different response once they learned I was white. They no longer thought I was one of their sisters.” This offered Tropp a rare chance to toggle between an insider/outsider vantage point. “Through crossing group boundaries, intentionally or not, I became even more interested in how group memberships shape our relationships with others and our perceptions of the world. I tell my students all the time that our perspectives on the world are a function of our lived experiences. If we have different lived experiences, it’s understandable why we would have different perspectives.”
Tropp’s lifelong project has been digging into the who, what, and why of those differences. And she has been working closely with nongovernmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration and the Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit of the World Bank to help put her research into action. She’s also collaborated with the National Coalition on School Diversity, and she recently released Cultivating Contact: A Guide to Building Bridges and Meaningful Connections Between Groups with Welcoming America and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. This past summer, in partnership with Beyond Conflict, a nonprofit devoted to peacebuilding, Tropp also published Renewing American Democracy: Navigating a Changing Nation, a report on why we should care about social divides in the United States—and what we can do about them.
“We should reflect on all we’ve been dealing with these last few years and give ourselves and others some grace and compassion,” says Tropp. This isn’t just a call to being kind, it’s practical guidance—without a compassionate mindset, we quickly begin making damaging assumptions. “When we’re under threat we’re more likely to make snap judgments that can protect our cognitive and emotional resources,” she says. “We’re exhausted and depleted, so we have to be even more careful in this historical moment.”
Tropp notes that one thing that divides us is what exactly we’re divided about. Is this problem political? Racial? Class based? It depends on who you ask. “A lot of people would characterize the current moment as one of political divisions, mostly between liberals and conservatives,” she says. That’s my tendency, for sure. “But from where I sit, how we conceive of the problem depends on differences of perspective,” Tropp says. Researchers of social division are not immune to their own polarization, as Tropp has seen firsthand. “There were moments as we were working on this report where I could see these differences in perspectives play out. What I sensed was that some white contributors were more focused on the political divide, and more of the contributors who also happened to be people of color raised the question of what undergirds those political divides.” This dynamic may sound familiar—remember how in the aftermath of the 2016 election, people couldn’t agree on whether white working-class voters were animated by economic anxiety or racism? We tend to focus on things that we personally find threatening, and different groups sense different threats.
Of course, there can be more than one threat in play, which is both good and bad news. Does greater racial diversity in a community breed a sense of threat, or does it provide opportunities for greater contact, leading to greater ease? It turns out that both of these things can be true at once. Tropp explains, “If we merely have the knowledge that people from other groups exist in our communities but don’t personally know them, we’re more likely to feel threatened, but if we get to know them on a person-to-person level, we feel lower levels of threat and anxiety about navigating differences.” She adds, “You can see both pathways in the data.”
“We tend to call people names rather than differentiating between the fundamental goodness that there is in every person versus a person’s behavior,” says Tropp. “Understandable—people get defensive. When we feel a wholesale judgment made against us based on something we say, we shut down or respond in kind, and that’s how conflicts escalate.” You don’t have to be best friends to do this; even campaign canvassers have learned that asking a few questions about the person on the opposite end of the phone can lower defenses, allowing for deeper listening. It can be hard to remember that a person who just said something you find cringe-worthy still means well, but if they trust you, you can explain the problem with what they’re saying in a way that makes an impact. “We can harness the relationship toward deeper communication,” Tropp says, “rather than simply allowing distance to grow.”
Luckily for Tropp and her colleagues, the differing pathways ended up validating both sides of ongoing debates about diversity. That’s crucial, because feeling validated is a necessary starting point for communication. “When it comes to how we see and associate with others, there are many important processes going on in the brain,” Tropp explains. “We have very basic needs, which include a desire to belong, to feel safe and secure, a desire to feel valued and good about who we are, a desire to understand our world and to feel understood.” This is elemental stuff, akin to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—food, clothing, shelter, and so on, all the way up to self-actualization and transcendence. “When we don’t feel safe, we have a choice—either we try to find safety or we live in fear,” Tropp says. Oftentimes, to find safety, we flock toward other people like ourselves, which is why we see deepening spots of red and blue across our political maps. “We fear those who are different because we don’t know how to act, what to do, or how they’ll respond to us,” she says. “We do what we can to fit in, or we have to face feeling alienated or excluded, which can be traumatic.”
“I would encourage people to invest in their local communities. Get to know neighbors who might be different in various ways but have some shared goals,” Tropp says. This means getting out into the physical world we inhabit to meet real, live people. “Public parks, sports leagues that draw people from many different backgrounds, community gardens, dog parks, playgrounds—all of these are structures within our communities where different groups can live and work together toward shared goals.”
So much of what Tropp is talking about comes back to a sense of inclusion—to a sense of identity, really. An overlay of identity on top of philosophy and values makes for a powerful sense of kinship. But that means those on the outside become Others. “We give the benefit of the doubt if someone acts rudely or aggressively in our own group,” Tropp points out, “but we’re more likely to fault a person in another group for the same behavior.”
This tracks with my experience of, oh, everything in the last five years or so: people referring to those with opposing political views—or opposing politicians themselves—as “evil”; discourse online getting so accusatory that many of us squirrel away in our own echo chambers, resulting in a steady stream of confirmation bias; violence breaking out over actions as seemingly inconsequential as driving a little too slowly in the passing lane. We’ve been undergoing a mass reckoning regarding race relations and the police, sexual misconduct in Hollywood and a host of other fields, and oh yeah, a global pandemic, one where large swaths of people can’t seem to agree on mitigation strategies like masks and vaccines. “It’s a lot. It’s a lot,” Tropp agrees.
Stick to It
“When we first start to get to know others across group lines, don’t talk about differences. Get to know each other. Feel each other’s humanity,” says Tropp. We didn’t find ourselves in this situation overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight either. “If we live in a bubble, the first time we have a face-to-face encounter with someone from a different group, we can’t expect to have that deep level of engagement during our first interaction. Those first interactions involve building a sense of trust and rapport, so we grow to feel more comfortable with each other and trust we’ll be given the benefit of the doubt,” says Tropp. It’s going to take time and goodwill. Deep breaths, everybody—we can do this.
What do we do when it seems like the only thing we can agree on is that we don’t agree? The challenges we face are much bigger than what any of us can solve alone, of course, and some folks stand to profit from the deepening polarization. “There are societal structures and influences that continue to stoke the flames of division, and that works against what might be possible at that person-to-person level,” Tropp says. And yet, just because the problem is too big to fix by ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t all pitch in to help. “My hope,” she says, “is that as we move forward, that we will not simply focus on these broad societal divisions, but that we will be able to connect across divisions at more local levels, where we recognize that we actually do value a lot of things in common: we want to be good neighbors, we want our kids to be happy and healthy, we want to live in safe neighborhoods. There are a lot of really fundamental things we have in common and could use to find common ground toward shared goals.”
Read the recently published guide Cultivating Contact, where Tropp shares more strategies and activities for connecting across groups.