Boulder, Colorado has long been notorious for its quirkiness. Often featured on lists like Most Active Cities, Best Places to Live or America’s Foodiest Towns, the city is home to a unique blend of rowdy students, yuppie entrepreneurs and nature lovers. Known by critics and residents alike as The People’s Republic, few would hesitate to call Boulder an anomaly. But do we have our heads too far in the clouds? According to Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist, the last half century has birthed a new upper class of highly educated Americans who are largely out-of-touch with working class white America. Murray notes that this new class is largely forming in homogenous ‘bubble communities’ such as Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto or Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
In his 2012 book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” Charles Murray created a 25 question quiz intended to test the ‘thickness’ of bubble communities based on ZIP code. Growing up in South Florida, I am no stranger to these bubble communities. My childhood is a vivid collage of white luxury sedans and soccer moms from gated neighborhoods.
But what is wrong with this? You may be asking. After all it is only rational to desire a high quality of life, and most of us with the status or wealth are willing to be mobile to find it. This may be, in some ways, a major part of the ‘American Dream’. There is indeed nothing wrong with wanting to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The danger comes in when that rung on the ladder becomes increasingly isolated from those below it. The people in the top percentiles include almost all of those who run the nation’s culture, economy, and politics who are living a level of normal that is far-removed from the average American.
While Boulder may be no Palo Alto or Upper West Side, we are well on our way to bubbledom. According to a survey by the Boulder Economic Council, only 32 percent of the people working in Boulder actually live here. This is problematic, particularly when we consider that a bulk of this work comprises the low-skill labor sector. Coupled with Boulder’s booming (bubbling?) housing market, this dynamic is only going to become worse.
Instances of racism, both institutional and informal, are becoming well documented as minority residents begin challenging Boulder’s progressive reputation. A recent study indicates that only 1/4 of African American students at CU feel “valued and supported” in the community. In the same study, less than 1/2 of students considered the campus accepting of diverse political opinions, and 22 percent claimed to have witnessed the derogatory treatment of people with conservative political beliefs.
It’s a closed loop cycle: the more we surround ourselves— whether intentional or not—with people like us, the less empathetic and understanding we become of different experiences. There are quantifiable benefits to being around people who are different than us, from increased creativity and work ethic, that are obviously lost when we exclude them, make them feel unwelcome or isolate ourselves. When it comes to choosing a place to raise a family, being wary of the bubble community is important. Murray found that it was the ZIP code of where you were living at age 10, rather than the ZIP code of where you are living now, that best corresponds to low scores (a thicker bubble).
So is Boulder a bubble? Maybe not just yet. But as the hot air continues to rise, we must come to terms with the fact that we are living very different lives than the rest of America, or the world. And even with the best intentions, it’s difficult to change anything that we are isolated from. This means that if we’re truly here to experience the world, if we’re truly here to make an impact, we may just need to try a little harder to burst that bubble.
Take Charles Murray’s quiz here