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  • Ellen Bassett

Urbanization and "the Other"

This past week in Portland, Oregon a White Supremacist murdered two men on the city’s light rail train. The men were trying to stop him from harassing two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. A third man—a student from Portland State University where I used to teach—survived his slashing. (Photo credit above--Memorial at Hollywood Transit Center, Michael Klepinger.)

The attack has really riled me. (There are other verbs that come to mind—saddened, sickened, and unnerved.) Part of it is that I know Portland very well and I have been at the transit center where it occurred many times. In urban planning circles, Portland is a very lauded city for many of its progressive policies (e.g., transit, regionalism) and strong environmental protections (urban growth boundary). My husband and I own a house there and it is definitely the place in which I am going to retire. (Someday!) Ditch that car, amongst other attractions for the aging. (Legal medical marijuana and a right to die law round out the list.)

While there has been extensive coverage of the murderer himself and the demonstrations and counter demonstrations, one element of the attack that has gotten a bit less attention is the young women themselves. One had a hijab; the other was a person of color. There was hate in many dimensions—gender, color, and religion.

One of the supposed benefits of urbanization is the mixing of groups—races, sexualities, religions. This mixing—casual daily encounters with difference—is supposed to lead to learning and an examination of one’s stereotypes of “the other.” Urbanites are multi-cultural, sophisticated, and tolerant—they are supposed to shed the parochial views of the village.

We might be over-estimating the power of the city to foster understanding and acceptance.

In Nairobi, for instance, while migrants move to the city for opportunity they definitely cluster in ethnic enclaves residentially, particularly the lowest income groups. The city’s informal settlements are ethnically sorted—the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper calls it “Nairobi’s little tribal villages” (Sunday Nation, August 3, 2014). Kawangwari is Luhya, Makongeni is Luo, Bahati Estate Kikuyu and so on. The pattern even holds in the USA—with Kikuyus in Massachusetts and Abagusii in cities like Atlanta and Houston. I was told by a member of the Public Service Commission of Nyamira County that they call a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota “Little Keroka” (a really small place near Kisii.) There are lots of reasons this occurs for migrant communities—opportunity for a free place to land, access to employment, and barriers due to social class (they can’t afford to live in the more multi-ethnic gated communities.)

But ethnic sorting can get dangerous—particularly in highly political environments. The brutal ethnic clashes that took place in Kenya after the 2007 election was essentially stolen from Raila Odinga by President Kibaki are in the back of everyone’s minds now in the face of the August general election. (I append a photo below of the time done by a very brave photographer, Boniface Mwangi, published in a book sponsored by the US Embassy called Kenya Burning.)

Potentially the best way to get to know and understand others is through inter-marriage. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Sheryll Cashin talks about “ardent integrators”—people who pursue interracial relationships motivated by love; she argues they are the greatest hope for racial understanding. The number of mixed marriages is growing (although blacks and whites are still less likely to intermarry than other groups). This is good for tolerance and understanding. She notes that “for whites in particular, intimate contact reduces prejudice. Whites with reduced prejudice, in turn, have a worldview similar to that of many minorities; that is, they support policies to reduce racial inequality.”

Maybe what is needed is time—it is 50 years after the famous Loving decision that invalidated laws against mixed marriages. So perhaps I shouldn’t be so gloomy. Perhaps the growth of cities in Sub-Saharan Africa will one day see a similar phenomenon. One of my ministerial colleagues used to note that her kids had a joke. She was a Kamba and her husband was a Kikuyu. So the kids called themselves “Kyu – Kambas” (get it: cucumbers.)

So here’s to literally embracing difference!


Cashin, Sheryll. 3 June 2017. “How inter-racial love is saving America.” The New York Times.

Nation Media Group. 3 August 2014. “Why low income dwellers define themselves by ethnicity.

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