Diversity may not be the answer

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People all over the planet are on the move, and whether anyone likes it or not, with each passing year Western nations will become more racially and ethnically diverse. But is that a good or a bad thing? According to most American politicians -- even Colorado’s anti-immigrant zealot Rep. Tom Tancredo -- diversity is a national boon. You’ve heard the rap: Diversity is our strength. We should celebrate it, blah, blah, blah. But are they all protesting too much?

I’ve always suspected that what’s beneath all that celebrating is a deep fear and an article of faith. Armed with hate crime statistics and gang stories, the media love to keep us informed of all types of racial and ethnic conflict. But through it all, assorted do-gooders, foundation program officers and government functionaries still promote the belief that the best solution to the conflicts created by social diversity is diversity itself. That’s why they arrange those cheesy multiculti community events and tiresome inter-ethnic “dialogues” in which the African American activist meets the Korean American activist, white kids go to day camp with kids of color, etc., etc. The idea is that more contact breaks down barriers and helps us achieve Rodney King’s dream that we’ll all just get along.

But according to a provocative new study by Robert Putnam, one of America’s preeminent political scientists, it’s just not true. No, Putnam isn’t regurgitating so-called conflict theory -- the notion that diversity strengthens group identities, thereby increasing ethnocentrism and conflict. He’s not predicting racial Armageddon. What he did find in analyzing a massive survey of 30,000 Americans, however, is a whole lot more interesting and complex than either “Kumbaya” or “Crash.” Diversity, he argues, is turning us into a nation of turtles, hunkered down with our heads in our shells.


According to the study, there is a strong positive relationship between interracial trust and ethnic homogeneity. In other words, the less diverse your community, the more likely you are to trust the people in it who are different from you. The flip side is also true: The more ethnically diverse the people you live around, the less you trust them. So interracial trust is relatively high in homogenous South Dakota and relatively low in wildly diverse Los Angeles. But don’t think it’s just because we don’t trust people of different races.

In addition to asking respondents what they thought of people from different backgrounds, the survey inquired about whether respondents trusted people of their own race. The answer was surprising. It turns out that in the most diverse places in the country, Americans tend to distrust everyone, those who do look like them and those who don’t. Diversity, therefore, does not result in increased conflict or increased accommodation, but in good old-fashioned anomie and social isolation.

According to Putnam, residents of diverse communities “tend to withdraw from collective life, 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” and to spend more time sitting in front of the television.

Putnam considered and had to reject all kinds of other explanations for his findings. In the end, some adhere to this pattern more than others, but the numbers are discouraging all around: Diversity depresses trust and sociability somewhat more in poorer neighborhoods, but altruism suffers somewhat more in richer areas. It seems to affect sociability more among conservatives, but it’s also a problem among liberals. The effect is felt more among whites, but nonwhites are not immune. Twentysomethings seem a bit less distrustful than older generations but not enough to alter the overall pattern. Women are equally as affected as men.

None of this means that we are doomed by diversity. But it does suggest that simply celebrating it and promoting it is not going to help us get along. Putnam points to a need for everyone to construct new social identities. He recalls growing up in a Midwestern town in the 1950s, when religious affiliations acted as strong social barriers between neighbors. Three decades later, he says, Americans had “more or less deconstructed religion as a salient social division.” Although it was still personally important, religion’s power as a social identity had diminished significantly.

More important, perhaps, whites and nonwhites alike will have to create a more generous and expansive sense of “we.” If, as the study suggests, increased diversity leads us to withdraw even from our own kind, we may indeed find some sense of togetherness and common purpose in a truly broad, overarching identity called American. Maybe once we achieve that, we’ll volunteer more, vote more and be more willing to pay to fix our bridges.