By Jim Shelton, New Haven Register
jshelton@nhregister.com / Twitter: @jimboshelton

NEW HAVEN — Elijah Anderson is always on the lookout for new branches of the cosmopolitan canopy.

He finds them in downtown coffee shops, along inner-city bike paths and, of course, on the Green. They’re places where people of all races gather in the public square and collectively adhere to a higher standard of civility — all without prompting.

Anderson, a Yale University professor and one of the country’s leading sociologists, calls this the cosmopolitan canopy.

“These are islands of civility in a sea of segregated living,” says Anderson, the William K. Lanman Jr. professor of sociology and author of “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.”

“You can take a person’s measure. You can see their humanity. That’s what people do under the canopy,” Anderson explains. “Without these spaces, we’d be even more isolated.”

With national attention focused on charges of racial harassment of Latinos by police in nearby East Haven, Anderson says the canopy is more important than ever. It is a hopeful oasis of tolerance and community in a world that isn’t always so, he explains.

“People always have a sense of certain neighborhoods being off-limits to other people such as themselves. It’s a powerful idea,” Anderson notes. “Believe me, (East Haven) is at work on repairing its canopy right now.”

Anderson has been at work for more than 30 years observing and documenting complex systems of human interaction, particularly in the black community. His books include 1978’s “A Place on the Corner,” a look at street corner men in Chicago; 2000’s “Code of the Street,” which examined the culture of youth violence in urban America.

His “Cosmopolitan Canopy” study focused on Philadelphia, where Anderson lived for many years before coming to Yale in 2007. But he sees plenty of canopy here, too, and across the country.

“I think we’re making progress,” he says. “Compared to what it was like in the 1940s and ’50s, we’ve come a long way. But we’re also a long way from a post-racial America.”

Anderson’s canopy concept has attracted a number of fans, including Wayne Meeks, the Woolsey professor emeritus of religious studies at Yale.

“It’s a way of talking about civility in the kinds of terms we can get our hands on,” Meeks says. “Why can people who are estranged from each other in some settings get along in other settings? We couldn’t need that information any more than we do now.”

Michael Morand, director of state communications and special initiatives in Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communication, has gone so far as to use the cosmopolitan canopy phrase in everyday conversation.

“What I like about Eli’s work is that it tells us, ‘Open your eyes and look around. This is happening,’” Morand says. “Maybe we’re together more than we think.”

In many ways, Anderson contends, the canopy is a tangible result of the civil rights movement. Greater equality in hiring practices, political representation, education and housing have created certain expectations that everyone is welcome at parks, restaurants, train stations, playgrounds and college campuses.

When people go to these places, he says, they drop their guard just enough to experience other cultures and communities. They watch people different from themselves interact with their children, discuss sports, complain about the weather and go about daily life.

“They become points of cultural convergence,” Anderson says. “If we didn’t have them, we’d be more limited as a society.”

In his book, Anderson distinguishes between “cosmos,” people who are open to diversity around them, and “ethnos,” who are more afraid of people different from themselves. He says the cosmopolitan canopy quietly encourages “cosmo” behavior.

Except when it doesn’t.

This is the tricky part, Anderson says. A racist remark in one of these public places, or an action perceived as discriminatory, is even more jarring than a slight that occurs elsewhere.
“Such moments represent points of profound tension, when the scales fall from the victim’s eyes and he realizes that his racial assumptions about his immediate environment are untrue,” Anderson writes in his book. “There is often a shock of recognition and a painful personal crisis.”

Fortunately, he says, the canopy seems able to withstand those incidents.

“It gets torn, but it’s strong,” Anderson says. “It’s resilient.”