This post combines my love of vacations (context), my habit of taking pictures of people in public places (data)*, and my sociological tendency to invent big conclusions from minor events (theory). As with last year’s selfie post , I hope you don’t take from this that I don’t really love vacations.
With 3.2 million annual visitors, Hershey Park is barely in the top 20 amusement/theme parks in the country. And unlike the top draws, all Disney properties, I reckon Hershey mostly draws a local and regional crowd, which means they’re not as rich as the average Disney visitor.
What interests me is the way this lower-middle amusement park creates the context for civility in a very diverse environment, even as racial and ethnic conflagration seems to be breaking out all over.
It’s very racially and ethnically diverse, and most of the Whites either aren’t rich or they’re hiding their wealth well.
Why didn’t Charles Murray, in his obnoxious “do you live in a bubble” quiz, which is supposed to test your exposure to and familiarity with working-class White culture (yes, just White culture, though the PBS promoters of the quiz only mentioned that after people complained), ask about amusement parks, where White working class people spend their vacations mingling with — or at least in close proximity with — racial minorities?
Including in the historically-fraught pool.
Some may be merely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from different races. But I saw more interracial couples and families than I usually see in my diverse suburb.
Are they just tolerating each other, or are they really getting along? Of course, I’m White and rich and blind to all sorts of things, but I’m not stupid. I have no doubt there were slights and insults and aggressions going on outside of my perception (though I was looking for them). But there were also the kind of casual moments of “us just getting along” that usually go unremarked, like when parents enjoy watching their kids having fun together.
I’m not making an argument about the relative racism apparent across classes. I know your feed today is probably awash in racist stuff coming from all over the social spectrum. I’m more interested in what the social context does to interpersonal interaction. The park is very leveling, economically. The poorest people are obviously excluded, and the richest aren’t interested. And then most people buy tickets before they arrive, and it’s in a remote place, so there is no one visible who can’t get in, no obvious fast lane for rich people (even at the rides, unlike Disney). We all ride the same tram from the parking lot to the gate, so the car interaction is minimized. We go through the same giant line to enter, and then wait in the same lines to ride the same rides and eat the same food once inside.
There are ways to spend more money conspicuously, buying extra crap, but there is less of that than I’ve seen at Disney or Universal Studios (have you priced a genuine Princess dress lately?). In short, it brings out what a lot of different Americans have in common: overpaying for entertainment, overeating greasy food, and alternately yelling at and loving on their children.
I’m reminded of two things. One is that there is less racial conflict and violence in the U.S. than there was in the past (dating the data trends here is obviously debatable). The level of racism — structurally and interpersonally — is still way too high, of course. But it partly stands out now because we have more casual, positive interaction, than we did in the past. Social movement scholars will tell you that periods of improving relations are ripe for upheaval and unrest, because expectations are raised and subordinate groups are empowered. Don’t draw from the level of conscious resistance we see now the conclusion that conditions are worse than ever, because that’s not how it works.
Two is that civility can be engineered. In 2002 my friend Jennifer Lee wrote of the “important untold story [of] the mostly quotidian nature of commercial life in neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem and West Philadelphia,” areas at the time experiencing racial tension erupting in occasional violence around the issue of ethnic turf and racism in retail spaces. This Civility in the City was partly the product of deliberate, conscious effort by store owners and employees to preserve it. The level of interpersonal conflict and expression of animosity is not determined by structural inequalities alone. That deep inequality remains the defining American problem of our time. I don’t know how the level of interpersonal conflict plays into our ability to confront and address that inequality — and I’m not saying we should settle for civility over equality — but I’m sure it’s somehow relevant.
* This is ethical and legal as long as I’m not trying to harm anyone – millions of people do it every day. If you happen to be in one of these pictures and want me to take them down I will happily oblige. Before you get mad about me using these pictures, close your eyes and think of all the pictures you’ve seen just this week of strangers who did not consent to have their pictures taken.