September 05, 2007

The Downside of Diversity?

author_cn By C.N. Le

Demographers tell us that American society is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.  In fact, current projections suggest that if current patterns continue, somewhere around the year 2050, whites will cease to be a numerical majority in this country --that for the first time since the Native American Indian population gave way to European settlers and their descendants there will be more non-whites than whites in the U.S. 

Of course, whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group in the country; they just won't constitute a numerical majority.  In many metropolitan areas and in a few states around the country, whites are already a minority.  Liberal scholars and activists -- yes that includes me, I suppose -- have consistently maintained that this racial/ethnic/cultural diversity represents a positive change, rather than a problem for American society.

This is because multiculturalism and diversity bring people in closer contact diversity13 with each other. According to the "contact hypothesis" (one of the core principles in the sociology of race and ethnicity) more interpersonal contact with people from different backgrounds will lead to greater communication, understanding, mutual respect, and social harmony. Combined with globalization of the world in general, it is ultimately good for American society that we are becoming so culturally diverse.

However, a new study fundamentally challenges this basic assumption about the benefits of living in a culturally diverse society.  As the Boston Globe reports, Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam has released the results of a comprehensive survey of over 30,000 respondents around the country and has found some rather sobering, perhaps even shocking results:

[Putnam's study] found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam. After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social cohesion, independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.  "People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's." 

But even after taking all these factors into account statistically, the connection
remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social cohesion. In his findings, Putnam writes that those 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."

After reading the Boston Globe article and after getting over my initial shock, I sat back and reflected on what it means for American society in general and me in particular as one of many who has sincerely believed all along that cultural diversity does indeed produce more benefits than costs for American society. 

diversity7As I tried to understand and explain these findings, I remembered something that poet and activist Audre Lorde once said. Her words struck me as a profound rebuttal to the study's results:It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."
In other words, I think that the respondents in this study may not have been reacting to high levels of racial/ethnic diversity per se, but rather, to the political discourse that continues to frame such demographic changes with trepidation.

The war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, diminishing individual liberties, volatile economic times, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses around the world have all created a perfect storm of factors that have made Americans more fearful, uncertain, pessimistic, defensive, and/or distrustful of many things, not just increasing racial/ethnic diversity.  You might think of it in terms of the basic animal instinct of recoiling and withdrawing when threatened-- the "fight or flight" instinct.

When you add racial/ethnic diversity into the mix, it is understandable if humans retreat into the basic primordial, "homo-social" tendency of feeling more secure and comfortable around others who look like them, or as translated into the American racial vernacular, people who belong to the same
racial-cultural group that they belong to.

This would explain why people living in racially homogeneous communities would probably not feel as threatened with the state of the world's affairs as would people in racially diverse communities. In racially homogeneous communities, they feel more socially supported and integrated into their social environment -- a finding that I'm sure Prof. Putnam's research confirms.

If we were to change the present political and social climate and all of those factors I mentioned that make us feel threatened, racial/ethnic diversity would not bother the vast majority of Americans nearly as much.  In other words, as Audre Lorde observed, it is this political and social climate that has made it much more difficult for us as a society to recognize, accept, and celebrate our racial/ethnic differences.

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Comments

It is astonishing that in a world that encourages diversity from a very young age, the results appear negative. Though these results, for now at least, seem negative, I believe with time, diversity will become ultimately positive. If/ When the war on terrorism ends, and when the economy rises, the fear in America will decrease, making diversity a more approachable goal.

This is why i visit you site daily. Great read thanks. Incidently http://www.rapidhawk.com has a similar topic.

Technically European-Americans will become a minority in 2050 and America will have a large percent of Whites/Asians/Blacks/Hispanics. But time is never frozen and that population is not going to stay the same. We are really in a period of transition, the white population is plummeting both in terms of percentage and in absolute numbers, so after 2050 the white population is going to continue to shrink. At 2100, from the few demographers with the balls to say anything about it, white people will make up anywhere from 10% of the population to 20% of the population...

So, diversity...You were saying ? It looks like we are transitioning from a European dominant society to a Hispanic, Black and Asian society. But is it a good thing ? Thats asking if diversity is always a good thing. And you know what, theres nothing saying it is always a good thing. Would America becoming an extension of Haiti be good ? Haiti is horrendously poor and violent. Mexico is similar to Haiti.

Offtopic - Do note that I am aware racism is always brought up when someone is negative towards certain population trends, so I will throw it out that I am Asian [from China]. My point here, is that when I chose a country to study at...The options were limited. The USA is a fine country to study at. Canada is. Most any European nation is. Do you see the trend there ? Canada, USA and Europe are all European built societies...And they are successful. Losing they're European descended majority populations IS going to effect America in a very large way. For all we know, America will become a balkanized nation and will slip into a Third world status nation since its head has been chopped off [European people no longer running it].

The same can be said of China. Replace my nation's people with people from Sri lanka and guess what ? China is still China in name, but it is not China in culture.

I also don't want to seem racist. As I am not. I live near a diverse metro area in the U.S. Midwest. I personally want harmony within our diversity. I must however, point out the flaws in the bloggers optimism. This "fear factor" - caused by terrorism, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, etc... sounds logical until you realize that these events had not yet taken effect because the study was complete prior to 9-11-2001. Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right - that must have taken at least a year. The data was collected during the rather "good times" of the late 1990's. Sorry, I wish the news was better too. But we are human animals - perhaps we are instictively made to gravitate more comfortably toward ethnicities of our own. This, of course, can and is overcome by the more enlightened of the community. But it may not be what that masses tend to do. Just sayin...

Thanks for confirming what I already suspected about sociology and sociologists, they are just emotion, opinion and ideology.
"Diversity" has social costs, costs that the economic elite which promotes it with all their strenght anbd means just won't assume (at least directly and in the short term), they just think about liberalizing labor force. Wishful thinking social-utopians in academia will just sing along, aganist that "scandal of nature" that is ethnic identity and preference.

Our current social climate tries to force diversity. That never worka with the american mindset of freedom of choice. If allowed to naturally happen results would likely be more harmonious. But we have the foolish mindset of "diversity must happen and anyone opposed is racist" that needs to be trashed.

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