The fourth-grade teacher in Virginia who performed a mock slave auction in her classroom April 1 — with the white kids pretending to buy and sell the black kids — was duly chastised by school officials for her racial insensitivity. Given that she meant to be giving a lesson on the Civil War, she should also have been scolded for pedagogical inaccuracy.
Think about it. If she really wanted to have her students act out a representative scene from that conflict, which began 150 years ago this month, she should have moved the black children to the side of the room and let the white kids start tearing each other apart.
For all our legitimate concern about racial tensions in this country, it's easy to forget that the deepest and most fundamental social fault line in the nation — the one that provoked the nation's bloodiest war — is between two halves of white America.
Sure, in our increasingly diverse society, we face all sorts of tensions among racial, ethnic and religious groups. Less than half a century ago, we endured bloody fights over racial equality. More recently, racially tinged battles over immigration have captured headlines.
But today, more and more Americans tell pollsters that racial stresses are subsiding and that it's the battle between two sides of white America — what
sociologist James Davison Hunter has labeled traditionalists and progressives — that has taken center stage.
According to a 2008 survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, the last two decades have seen a dramatic decline in the percentage of Americans who feel that "there has been an increase in the level of tension between different racial and ethnic groups in American society," to 35% in 2008 from 76% in 1992.
Instead, the tension in American society over the last quarter of a century has increased over cultural issues, such as abortion, the role of religion in public life and gun control. The fever charts on these issues generally track divisions among white Americans. Although nonwhites may take sides in the debates, they're generally not on the front lines.
These issues have divided us politically and added to concerns that polarization and partisanship are tearing the nation apart. Our mixed-race president notwithstanding, the political standard-bearers for both sides in these fights are generally white. That makes sense, because 96% of U.S. senators are white, as are 81% of House members.
The academic recognition of these differences has been growing along with the divide.
In his new book, "Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present,"
historian Russell Jacoby suggests that social scientists' fixation on how people treat the "other" — the stranger, those we perceive as different and dangerous — is overblown. The truth, he writes, "is more unsettling. It is not so much the unknown that threatens us but the known. We disdain and attack our brothers — our kin, our acquaintances, our neighbors — whom we know well, perhaps too well."
Jacoby argues: "From assault to genocide, from assassination to massacre, violence usually emerges from inside the fold rather than outside."
U.S. crime statistics certainly bear this out. According to a 2010 report from the Department of Justice, most murders are intraracial. From 1976 to 2005, 86% of white victims were killed by whites; 94% of black victims were killed by blacks. Similarly, despite all the fear of strangers that adults instill in children, 90% of child abuse is perpetrated by family or friends of family. Almost three-quarters of rape victims know or have met their assailant.
Nearly a century ago, Sigmund Freud theorized that our enmity for those most like us stems from an inability to tolerate too much togetherness with our fellow man. He called it the "narcissism of small differences," and he said that it was precisely "the little dissimilarities in persons who are otherwise alike that arouse feelings of strangeness and enmity between them."
In the coming months, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of one after another of the signal events of the Civil War, we would do well to reboot our sense of America's tragedy. Racism may indeed be this nation's "original sin," but sameness, not diversity, is what poses the single biggest threat to social cohesion.