The False Promise of Diversity

The False Promise of Diversity

Liberals (myself included) love to talk about diversity — its benefits, its importance, its absence. Less mentioned, however, is its ever-increasing presence. According to U.S. Census Bureau, the United States will be a majority-minority country by 2044. Minority babies already outnumber non-Hispanic white babies, and in 78 counties the so-called “Browning of America” has been the demographic reality for awhile. It is clear that our country (read: white people) cannot continue to treat people of color (POC) as second-class citizens.

Most think-pieces and impassioned Facebook comments end with similar calls-to-action. And they’re right, they’re absolutely right. Change is needed. But once a good liberal utters that line, the conversation has ended. They’ve closed up shop for the day; they will hear no further arguments. It’s a pity, because diversity deserves a more thorough discussion. That’s what is in store for you, dear reader: I’d like to parse what a diverse community actually entails. It’s not as straightforward as you may suppose.

To begin, let’s look at the schools, corporations, and movie shoots that the studies above referenced. For them, diversity is top-down. It’s intentional. Their respective bigwigs — principals, CEOs, producers — choose which people to admit. Furthermore, the POC in those communities chose to apply to their positions — again, a selected diversity. No wonder the studies tout diversity as this shining beacon; everyone wanted to be there. I’ll call this “planned diversity.”

The   Office , "Diversity Day"

The Office, "Diversity Day"

Planned diversity is not the norm, however. Look at any major U.S. city. In New York City, for example, about 800 distinct languages are spoken. No governing body planned for or instituted heterogeneity. Immigrants simply plopped down in the boroughs. Yes, many Americans flock to New York to witness this colorful tapestry, that much is true. But no overseer sits at a control panel and handpicks the city’s ethnic makeup. It’s organic. Thus, I’ll call this “organic diversity.” To continue our dive into diversity, we must figure out whether folks in organically diverse communities enjoy each other's companies. Do they?

Nope, says Robert Putnam. An eminent political scientist, Putnam has spent the last four decades studying community engagement — specifically, its prevailing decline in American society. And in 2007 he published a comprehensive study detailing diversity’s effect on community life. The findings are rather bleak. We “hunker down.” More heterogeneous communities report lower levels of social trust (both inside and outside an individual's cultural group), civic participation, and happiness. Here’s his analysis:

"Diversity does not produce 'bad race relations' or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants 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, to 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. Note that this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."

It’s important to note that Putnam, himself, didn’t anticipate his study’s findings, nor was he happy with the results. What liberal would be? The findings from the largest and most comprehensive study that exists on community engagement promote segregation, not integration. Conservative pundits seized upon his work to push their racist agendas. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone, much less the “poet laureate of civil society.”

Then again, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Putnam’s findings mirror the status quo. Glance at a map of New York (below) or Los Angeles that shows ethnic or racial concentration. Solid blocks of color run up against each other with a hardly a blurred line between them. Segregation is not an outlier; it is the reality, the fundamental landscape of the American urban experience.

It appears, then, that “organic diversity” isn’t actual diversity. It’s a masquerade, a mirage whose true features only emerge upon closer inspection. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has a wonderful data breakdown that highlights this point. To account for the high rate of segregation in U.S. cities, he calculates both citywide diversity and neighborhood diversity. Chicago is the seventh most diverse city in the United States. It is also the most segregated. Then follows Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philly, St. Louis, D.C., Baltimore — most major U.S. cities appear at the top of the list. New York, the 4th most diverse, is the 13th most segregated. So much for 800 languages.

I find it fascinating that Putnam’s study functions like the Trump campaign in that both shine a spotlight on our prejudices and uncover ugly, irrefutable truths about our country. Regardless, I still gravitate towards diverse communities. (I feel hokey saying this, but) I really do believe we can work it out. The benefits I discussed earlier are real. We just need to figure out how to transfer them from our intentional structures to our lived communities. Plus, Putnam says that prejudices towards unfamiliar ethnic groups dissipate in the long-term.

The first question I asked myself when I finished Putnam’s, paper was, “How do we fix this?” Whatever it is, it must cross cultural boundaries and I'd prefer another answer than war. (Members of the American military have more interracial friendships.) Sports and religion stitch together broken cities on Sundays. That's something. But we've got six other days; we got work to do. I still hold out hope that Putnam is wrong, that some whip-smart academic will uncover flaws in his method. Until then, let’s follow my namesake (St. Timothy) and fight the good fight.

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