Americans like to believe that our exceptional story was cooked up in the proverbial melting pot. And it’s true that we’ve broadly taken strength from our diversity. But the way we engage our differences has more recently begun to shift. We’re more tolerant today than we’ve ever been, but we’re also more likely to wall ourselves off from those who hold opposing points of view. As a result, the latitude to lead lives of our own choosing allows and sometimes compels us to narrow the horizons of our individual experience.
We’re right to celebrate the nation’s growing aversion to outright bigotry. Few things have been more startling than America’s broadening embrace of civil rights. The Pew Research Center has been tracking American values for decades. Its polling reveals that, as recently as the late 1980s, a bona fide majority of Americans thought school administrators should have the right to fire teachers simply for being homosexual; that figure has since dwindled to little more than a fifth. In 1983, a full half of Americans opposed interracial marriage; today, only a fraction of the nation’s adults hold the same view.
Oddly enough, however, all that newfound tolerance hasn’t led to a broader diversity in our everyday lives as much as it’s touched off a stampede toward balkanization. Empowered to deviate from any central norm by the erosion of prejudice, we have sought comfortable, familiar niches.