What color shirts are the refugees wearing?

Migration is one of the world’s most pressing issues. Western democracy is being reshaped by how people live – or don’t – with different cultures.

David Goldman/AP/File
Classmates (from left) Victoria Schalk, Nasteho Issa, and Melinda Blais share a meal at a Somali restaurant and market in Lewiston, Maine, in 2017.

Once upon a time, a group of scientists wanted to figure out how human beings think about one another. So they turned to kindergartners. Five-year-olds, after all, are pretty transparent. If you’re trying to learn how human beings are hard-wired, they are a logical place to start.

Here’s what the researchers did: They divided up the kids randomly. Some children got green shirts, some got red, some blue, and some orange. Then the scientists tinkered and observed.

Unprompted and seemingly oblivious, the kids broke themselves into groups by shirt color. And that was just the beginning. Kids shared more of their play money with their color group. They had more positive thoughts about fellows in their color group and felt they could trust them more. “All this arose simply because of randomly assigned T-shirt colors,” notes sociologist Nicholas Christakis in his new book, “Blueprint.”

So imagine what the people of Lewiston, Maine – residents of the demographically whitest, oldest state in America – might have thought when the first of 6,000 Somali refugees began showing up.

That’s this week’s cover story. And while the setting might be new to many readers, the subject will not be. Migration is possibly the most pressing issue in the world today. The story of how we live – or don’t – with people who aren’t like us culturally and racially is reshaping Western democracy. I touched on it in last week’s column, too.

But sometimes it’s useful to step back and ask why we as a world have arrived where we are today. Seeing the bigger picture can help us sift through the news for what’s most important. And when I think about what our struggles with migration are telling us about the human race I keep coming back to that experiment with kindergartners.

Bias for one’s own group is deeply ingrained in humans. And up until about 200 years ago, when life was largely just a fight for survival, that probably made some sense. But it doesn’t really apply anymore. We’ve built complex societies with institutions and impersonal processes to uphold fairness and security. The rules have changed. The world is asking different things of us now.

The mere fact that 6,000 Somalis are living in Lewiston is a sign of the times. At what other time in world history would this even have been thinkable? This is not to say migration brings no challenges and should be unfettered. Each society needs to determine its balance point. But to some significant degree, migration is a reality of open and prosperous modern societies. And that asks a question of us as human beings: Are we capable of adapting to that? Must we always want to divide ourselves by shirt color?

All these forces are not necessarily pressing us to accept every refugee, but they are absolutely pressing us to see everyone as the family of humankind. The good news: This is something we can do, too. And that, for the most part, is the story of Lewiston.

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