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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

August 10, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Downside of Diversity

Demographers tell us that it is an indisputable fact that American society is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. In fact, current projections state 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. Further, in many metropolitan areas, counties, and even a few states around the country, Whites are already a minority. Within this context, liberal scholars and activists — yes that includes me I suppose — have consistently maintained that this racial/ethnic/cultural diversity represents a strength, rather than a liability, for American society as a whole.

That is, the assumption is that multiculturalism and diversity bring people in closer contact with each other and 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 the inevitable globalization of the world in general, it is ultimately good for American society that we are becoming so culturally diverse.

However, a new study has come out that 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 capital 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 statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. 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.”

I have not read the study yet, nor do I know anything about Prof. Putnam’s work or career. But as an academic myself and given the descriptions of his credentials, I will presume for now that Prof. Putnam’s study is indeed methodologically sound and that its results are scientifically valid. The question then becomes, what do they mean?

After reading the Boston Globe article and after getting over the initial shock of it, 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.

In trying to understand and explain these findings, one quote kept coming to mind and struck me as a profound rebuttal to the study’s results — Audre Lourde’s famous quote “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

In other words, as applied to this particular study, I think part of the answer to the question of how would diversity harm American society is to say 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 and social climate that have and continue to frame such demographic changes.

That is to say, I believe that 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 they feel threatened — the “fight or flight” instinct.

People can get that way as well. So within that context, when you add racial/ethnic diversity into that 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.

I believe that 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.

This is also why I feel that if we were to take away or improve 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, 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, as Audre Lourde observed.

Therefore, for us to make racial/ethnic diversity a benefit once again for American society, we need to take a holistic approach and recognize that there is a larger political and social context that frames and influences how we see others around us, for good and for bad.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Downside of Diversity" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/08/the-downside-of-diversity/> ().

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