Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A new us?

Together, apart: A dissection of diversity

People in the most diverse areas are the most likely to withdraw -- even from those with whom they have much in common.

By Gregory Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
Published: August 22, 2007

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, 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 multi-culti community events and tiresome "dialogues" in which the black activist meets the Korean-American activist, white kids go to day camp with kids of color, 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. 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. 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 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.

Study paints bleak picture of ethnic diversity

By John Lloyd in London, Financial Times, October 6, 2006

A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists.

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.

This is a contentious finding in the current climate of concern about the benefits of immigration. Professor Putnam told the Financial Times he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that”.

The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”

British Home Office research has pointed in the same direction and Prof Putnam, now working with social scientists at Manchester University, said other European countries would be likely to have similar trends.

His 2000 book, Bowling Alone, on the increasing atomisation of contemporary society, made him an academic celebrity. Though some scholars questioned how well its findings applied outside the US, policymakers were impressed and he was invited to speak at Camp David, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

Prof Putnam stressed, however, that immigration materially benefited both the “importing” and “exporting” societies, and that trends “have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed”.

In an oblique criticism of Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, who revealed last week he prefers Muslim women not to wear a full veil, Prof Putnam said: “What we shouldn’t do is to say that they [immigrants] should be more like us. We should construct a new us.”

The Downside of Diversity by Michael Jonas, Boston Globe, August 5, 2007

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