Jonas, Michael "The Downside of Diversity." Boston Globe 8/05/07. Via Foundation Center Online
Although it has become commonplace to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength, a new study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam concludes just the opposite, the Boston Globe reports. The largest study ever undertaken on civic engagement in America, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (38 pages, PDF) is based on detailed interviews with nearly thirty thousand residents in forty-one communities. The multiyear study found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings. According to Putnam -- author of Bowling Alone, which details the decline of civic engagement in the United States -- people living in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television."
While diversity may make people uncomfortable, discomfort isn't necessarily a bad thing. Recent scholarship has found that cultural differences can produce a dynamic give and take, generating solutions that might have eluded a more homogeneous group. Still, Putnam's study -- first published in Scandinavian Political Studies -- adds to the growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.
The findings emerge amid intense political debate about issues such as immigration and race-based admissions to schools. Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro diversity camp, worries that many who pick up the report wil read into it what they want to, and some conservatives are already citing his findings as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to a nation's social fabric. Putnam argues, however, that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied with targeted efforts and that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable but ultimately valuable and enriching.
"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity," he writes in the report. "It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conseratism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable."
Although progressives seem uncomfortable with the study's results, who is more tribal than progressives and the little tribes within it? How often have I had to sit in a circle among progressives and meditate, hug, dance, chant, or otherwise bond? It is worse than church or a fraternity house. When those progressive gatherings are "diverse," they don't mean by politics, religion (unless exotic) or even by geography. When I go to progressive gatherings up in the woods somewhere wearing my Dallas Cowboys cap and introducing myself as an insurance person from The Big D I notice that solidarity is not what it might be. They do hug me when ordered to do so, but with a little shrug of repugnance. Can't blame them. We all need times to flock with our own kind and other times when a little diversity might do us good. Speaking as a white male Christian Hypocrite from Texas, one of many here, I have noticed that diversity is often a little provincial and maybe none the worse for that.
. . .No fable is more bracing, or more absurd, than that all the sons and grandsons of the pioneers in Minnesota or in California, in Arizona or in Nebraska, are racy and breezy, unmannerly but intoxicatingly free. The grandchildren of men who in 1862 fought the Minnesota Indians, who dogtrotted a hundred miles over swamp-blurred trails to bear the alarm to the nearest troops—some of them are still clearing the land, but some of them are complaining of the un-English quality of the Orange Pekoe in dainty painty city tea-rooms which stand where three generations ago the Red River fur carts rested; their chauffeurs await them in Pierce-Arrow limousines (special bodies by Kimball, silver fittings from Tiffany); they present Schnitzler and St. John Ervine at their Little Theaters; between rehearsals they chatter of meeting James Joyce in Paris; and always in high-pitched Mayfair laughter ridicule the Scandinavians and Finns who are trying to shoulder into their sacred, ancient Yankee caste. A good many of their names are German. Sinclair Lewis, via Jeff
Posted by: tom | August 14, 2007 at 10:10 PM
Lovely to see such a chunk of prose in this mere blog. Who are today's Aristocrats? In a progressive gathering, I play-acted being Southern and choleric, "You think you're better than me, don't you? I exclaimed. "You think just because I am a Creationist, and am proud of my race and my country that you are morally superior to me, don't you?" They went silent A few murmured, "Yes, dammit, we do." One was a philanthropy advisor to a famous liberal philanthropic family. He shook hands later as we parted and he could not meet my eyes. This diversity thing that liberals insist on does not include rednecks as a group deserving of token inclusion. The suppressed Southern townsfolk know darn well they are looked down on, as knuckle draggers. Class comes into this and we are experiencing a backlash from the South against the bicoastal tendency to patronize traditional Southern culture and to impose diversity by force of arms, carpetbagging, or marches of smartass college kids behind black men like MLK. All the talk is about diversity, but the underlying issue is segregation of races, cultures, and classes. And the celebration of community that goes with exclusion and demonization of the other - of the racist for example. Inclusivity by liberals is a game. Everyone gets included except those who can't stand the whole concept; they get crushed, marginalized, and treated with contempt. These are the inner contradictions of liberalism, a philosophy gone so soft it has not even got the courage anymore of its own arrogance. Putnam seems confounded by his own data. Rednecks are happier than hippie liberals. Damn right we are! You carpetbaggers just go home.
Posted by: Phil | August 14, 2007 at 10:52 PM
Dickens nailed USian diversity and liberalism, individuality and community, forever in Chuzzlewit:
"I have scarcely met a man since my arrival who wasn't one of the most remarkable men in the country!"
Posted by: tom | August 14, 2007 at 11:38 PM
Rednecks are really no more or less patronized than any lesser class. It's just that some of them think being white and Christian is sufficient to be in the preferred class, or at least it makes them better than all the lower races. Diversity for them means letting everyone else share the meager leftovers they have been privileged to.
Posted by: Gerry | August 15, 2007 at 08:40 AM
I live in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country, they say. Grew up here, been here most of my life.
A black councilman was recently elected to represent a district that is largely black but with a significant southeast asian minority. The new councilman was a star high school athlete, played local college ball, and had a short stint in the NFL. Then he lost his way, got strung out, busted and imprisoned. On release he put his life back together, got a job assisting his community, and now is the councilman in his mid 60's.
A columnist in the local paper spent a day talking to him while they toured his district, then wrote a big piece on it. The columnist is very white, an "Eastsider" as he puts it. The councilman is very black, a "Westsider" as the columnist puts it. I doubt the councilman would take offense.
At the end of the piece the columnist writes:
While we talk, I tell him there's no way an Eastsider like me can really understand his neighborhood -- even though I want to.
The councilman responds:
I appreciate someone like you coming in and taking a look.
Is the reader meant to infer that the councilman agrees and appreciates the noble gesture?
If so, would both men also agree that there is no way the councilman can really understand the columnist's neighborhood?
My sense is that people outside the "white community" would say they are capable of understanding it. Being bathed in dominant culture/media would give an outsider a leg up in that. And when one "aspires", one aspires "up", not "down", ie, down would certainly have a greater incentive to know up than up would down.
"Time" was another element implied in the columnist's statement, ie, there certainly is no way he can really understand the councilman's neighborhood -- in one day. How much exposure would it take and for how long? Would he have to live in the neighborhood to truly know it?
And what are the incentives, given that he "wants to"? Would his editors support a recurring series, once a week, say, over a year? Would his readers read it?
Posted by: bUM fREE | August 15, 2007 at 09:45 AM
Separate, unequal, and mutually understood, is that the ideal?
Posted by: Phil | August 15, 2007 at 04:31 PM
I saw it in the dark once. It was at a packed neighborhood movie theater (60-70 yrs old) with a crowd very mixed in ethnicity and age, plenty of kids there, too. Economic status was probably the biggest commonality, seats were cheap.
The film was about a little Italian village with a movie theater that was the hub of the town's social activities. Everyone attended, and interacted (willingly or no) as they shared the intimate dreamspace. Everyone was distinct, and everyone Italian.
The mixed American audience in my neighborhood was transported, raucously. Remarkable. The warmth persisted as the theater emptied, walking separately, together, back into the real world.
I watched it years later on videotape with my family at a holiday gathering. I had brought the tape, hoping to generate in my family some of what I'd experienced at the theater. It was a big bust. Too sentimental for some. Too provocative for others. They made me take it off.
And it *was* sentimental: the reminiscence of a kid who left the village, became a famous director and returned to find it changed. And it *was* provocative: It was about togetherness. And loss.
* Those who didn't interact were interacted upon.
* A mixed American audience watching a homogenous Italian audience watching old American movies.
* For better or worse, the theater was the town's heart. Where is ours?
Posted by: bUM fREE | August 15, 2007 at 08:06 PM
National heart is superbowl, brittany spears, brands we trust, american eagle, flag on fourth of july. Village heart depends on what tribe you belong to. Whom do you hate? is a good way to locate the group to which you belong. Hate is the great binding force, along with love. Who is lower than you? Higher than us? Art is supposed to bind us in community, instead now it is propaganda and marketing that splits us up, exacerbating ages old divisions.
Posted by: Phil | August 16, 2007 at 08:24 AM