In diverse cities across the nation many Americans have adopted a “pervasive wariness” of one another, says sociologist Elijah Anderson. In his book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Every Day Life, Anderson writes that too often, people “divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter.”
But in Philadelphia’s Center City, Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, has found a place that offers a respite from that well-ingrained wariness. The city’s Reading Terminal, with its bustling multi-ethnic market and busy lunch counters, offers a neutral space where all kinds of people feel comfortable enough to drop their usual defenses and interact with total strangers.
Which is exactly what happened to Anderson one afternoon at Reading Terminal’s Down Home Diner, where a man visiting from Sacramento “gets a pancake or two, sits down next to me, and we chat.” In a very short time, the man, who was white, told Anderson, who is African-American, that he “has friends who are white supremacists … And he’s amazed at the civility, the diversity, the wide range of different kinds of people he sees, and the civility that is palpable at the Terminal.”
It’s a mixed bag, but the one thing that characterizes this space is civility. Civility across racial lines. – Elijah Anderson, sociologist
Elijah Anderson’s new book points up an identity crisis.
In the late 1980s, I fell in love with the discipline of sociology by reading books written by patient, perceptive observers like Elijah Anderson. As I told my father excitedly during my sophomore year in college, these scholars helped me see my immigrant anxieties as “normal” and a signature American experience. Concepts like identity and ethnicity let me express sentiments that until then had been inchoate and threatening. Going deep into the pockets of American society and hanging out at length, sociologists could draw on the human ballet to examine our cherished beliefs and institutions as well as our stereotypes and misguided social policies. This seemed to me to be a great magic trick, taking us into foreign, seemingly impenetrable worlds and emerging with useful insights.
For over a century, sociologists were some of our country’s influential truth-tellers. They gravitated to those issues—race relations, social inequality, and the workings of government—that were part of the American experiment to build an open, free democracy. Think of battles to end school segregation, ensure fair housing policy, and promote public sector accountability. A data-carrying sociologist—St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, James Coleman—was often at hand, gathering evidence, providing analysis, writing intelligibly for the citizenry. Anderson’s own ideas shaped criminal justice, welfare, and urban development policy. The sociologists may not have been household names, but they were important cogs in the civic wheel.