Marvlieu Hall, a college-educated African-American woman in her thirties, lives with her family in a nearly all-black neighborhood of Queens in New York City. She attends an all-black church at which her husband is the pastor, and she is active in Jack & Jill, an African-American social organization. Joan Dauria, a white woman of Greek descent, lived until recently in Westport, Connecticut, an overwhelmingly white suburb. Her family, her neighborhood, her church congregation, and her social circle in Westport is entirely white. It is hard to see how the daily lives of Marvlieu and Joan would ever intersect. But they did. Marvlieu and Joan met several years ago at work and became good friends. Their friendship began in the hours they spent together each working day. But it did not end there. Although both have changed jobs and Joan has moved across the country, she and Marvlieu still visit each other and talk regularly.
The experiences of Marvlieu and her friend Joan are not quite typical, but they are not altogether exceptional, either. In discussions about the workplace, one generally finds ready and widespread assent to two heartening propositions: First, the typical workplace is a veritable hotbed of sociability and cooperation, of constructive and mostly friendly interactions among co-workers day after day, and often year after year. Second, of all the places where adults interact with others, the workplace is likely to be the most demographically diverse. In a society that is still largely segregated, the workplace is where working adults are most likely to associate regularly with someone of another race.
What happens inside the workplace, and what can happen there, responds simultaneously to two powerful but usually separate strains of contemporary social criticism in the United States. American society is suffering both from declining levels of social and civic engagement, and from the lasting legacy of slavery in the form of racial division and segregation. We are less connected to our neighbors than we were fifty years ago, while our neighborhoods—as well as our families, schools, congregations, and voluntary associations—continue