Curing 'Diversity Malaise'

by: Jenifer Fernandez Ancona

Thu Aug 16, 2007 at 19:00

Welcome Tom Paine readers. You can see more of Open Left's discussion on diversity here, and you can also read the entire Putnam study here, which is not nearly the right-wing piece others make it out to be. Also, check out the front-page of Open Left for more of our content--Chris Bowers

Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," released a new study this week on the effect of diversity on civic engagement, and the headlines in a Google news search are a uniform proclamation of Welcome to Doomsville:

"Greater Diversity Equals More Misery"

"The Case Against Multiculturalism"

"Diversity may not be the answer"

"The Downside of Diversity"

It goes on. The right-wingers have taken this and run with it, and they are unlikely to stop, especially as they continue to push an anti-immigrant and nativist agenda - at the federal level, but also in more and more states throughout the country.

My take: Putnam's research shows that just throwing people from different races together, with structural racism still very much intact, and without a stronger national anti-racist movement to counteract it, doesn't lead to automatic racial harmony. Here's how the Boston Globe (which by the way is the best straight-up read on the study thus far), puts it:

"People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' - that is, to pull in like a turtle," Putnam writes.

In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the "contact" theory and the "conflict" theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.

Putnam's findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.

Call me overly optimistic, but I just can't buy that this data means we are all headed for segregated homogeneous doom. This study is important, I'm glad Putnam did it and got it out there, and I think ignoring these findings would be a huge mistake. We can't move people if we don't truly understand what's going on with them, and these findings give a clearer picture.

To me this research points to an enormous opportunity. A progressive view of diversity means that serious, pro-active organizing across race and ethnic lines is necessary to achieve social change. In our own political realm, we can look to the concept of community organizing as one obvious solution to the civic malaise Putnam's research describes.

Jenifer Fernandez Ancona :: Curing 'Diversity Malaise'
People in homogeneous neighborhoods are inherently going to talk to each other more, and feel like they have a common purpose. Because of the complexity and the toxicity of racism that we are not addressing in this country in any kind of grand way, people of different races living near each other don't have such obvious common ground. But good community organizing can bring people together around issues that matter to all of them. The research proves that diverse communities need leadership - trained and well-supported organizers - to pull the turtles out from their shells and get them working in common purpose.

Models of this kind of indigenous, year-round multi-racial community organizing are being pioneered by Anthony Thigpenn and a network of groups around the country - in places as diverse as New York, Kentucky, and New Mexico - as well as by Deepak Bhargava and the Center for Community Change, which is active in multi-racial coalition-building in several states.

This kind of work can be applied to electoral campaigns, as well. In the wake of Sen. George Allen's "macaca" slur, activists for Jim Webb's campaign in diverse Virginia helped the Asian American community galvanize, and cross-racial movement-building work in that community is still going on.

But these organizations and campaign efforts are too few and far between, too often underfunded and understaffed, given the magnitude of the hill this research shows we have to climb.

It is clear from the study, however, why tackling this issue is important. Again from the Globe:

The image of civic lassitude dragging down more diverse communities is at odds with the vigor often associated with urban centers, where ethnic diversity is greatest. It turns out there is a flip side to the discomfort diversity can cause. If ethnic diversity, at least in the short run, is a liability for social connectedness, a parallel line of emerging research suggests it can be a big asset when it comes to driving productivity and innovation. In high-skill workplace settings, says Scott Page, the University of Michigan political scientist, the different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can be a boon.

So while people may be more comfortable in homogeneous societies, they also risk becoming stagnant and boring. Diversity creates greater social challenges, but also sparks greater social innovation.

As progressives, we should fight for a society that embraces the difficult challenge of overcoming our fears and distrust of one another. It can be done, but this study shows it will take real effort, including well-funded, pro-active organizing across race, ethnic, class and gender divides.

A simple step for any activist in the progressive movement living in a diverse urban area would be to start getting involved in local community-organizing efforts led by diverse organizations or coalitions (to those already doing that: thank you). These organizations are quite often strapped for help and support, so believe me, they will be happy to see you. For those who spend most of their activism time online, simply using the platform to promote organizations and individuals doing this work could be useful. If you work for or are involved in a campaign in a diverse area, you can use some of the models deployed by the Asian-American activists in Webb's campaign and apply it to the community you are working in.

On a larger scale and for the long term, I think the progressive donor community should look seriously at this study as a clarion call for putting way more of their resources into community-organizing efforts in the most diverse, and potentially progressive, parts of the country.

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Good ideas (0.00 / 0)
And hooray for Open Left for being, well, open to this kind of post and thought.

I think we do need a concerted campaign to bridge ethnic divides.

I blog on

I haven't read the study, only -about- the (0.00 / 0)
study, but is there any reason to assume that it's the ethnic diversity that's causing the malaise? Why does he think that's the causal relationship? Surely there are other factors at play in diverse vs. non-diverse communities?

I admit I haven't read the whole thing yet either (0.00 / 0)
But I intend to! But my understanding is that in the methodology he factored in all those outside factors and still came upon the results that point to diversity.

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.

[ Parent ]
I'll wait for your report, (0.00 / 0)
because I'm too lazy to read the thing myself. But the implication for the left blogosphere is interesting: if we _do_ succeed in making it more diverse, it will also become less vibrant.  (At least if we succeed in making it a single more diverse large community instead of a number of smaller less diverse communities.)

[ Parent ]
I read the original (4.00 / 2)
The analysis seems relatively sound - because it is in a policy journal it doesn't have the level of analytical detail I'm used to, so I may have missed some stuff.

Diverse communities (at least in the US, that's what I know about) are different from more homogeneous communities in a million different ways. Whites are now the most segregated group in the US - and diverse communities tend to be poorer, have more crime, higher mobility, and a million other things that also contribute to less social capital and lower civic engagement. Putnam geo-coded everyone using census data, and his main analysis is at the census tract level and he tries to control for all of these other factors. He also tries some HLM to account for the nested nature of the data, as well as some other techniques - his findings are robust across methods.

To me, the more problematic thing with his analysis - which he acknowledges - is that it's static (a single point in time). In my experience living in Brooklyn (which is pretty segregated) diverse neighborhoods tend to be neighborhoods that are in flux - where one group is moving out and another is moving in. I'm not sure that controlling for residential mobility really captures the dynamics of those transitions - emotions can run pretty high.

By the way, I wouldn't generalize to the blogosphere from these results - people need to live somewhere and blog participation is entirely optional. I don't think it would be possible to build a less vibrant but more diverse blogosphere. Why would people come to something that wasn't meeting their needs? I think it more points up the challenges of doing something that Americans aren't so great at in the real world.

[ Parent ]
Putnam looks at the short term (0.00 / 0)
I remember this report coming out awhile ago and my impression was that there was nothing too insightful or discouraging about this.  Of course diversity is a struggle in the short term.  Remember, a couple hundred years ago Catholics and Protestants, even if they were the same race/nationalility, hated each other.  Now that idea is laughable, even to the racist right. 

In the short term, people don't like change and increased diversity is a huge change.  The more appropriate question is do we think our kids will be more tolerant and accepting of racial differences than us? Racial tolerance is a long term struggle, and with the exception of African Americans, the history of this  country is filled with examples of people who used to hate/dislike each other because of some perceived difference and then eventually, as generations go by, getting over it completely.  That;s the side of history we should be on. 

Three Things (4.00 / 2)
I said pretty much the same things in a comment at Digby's:

(1) Putnam's earlier "Bowling Alone" work was questionable on grounds that the sorts of organizations he was tracking were, in some very real ways, less relevant to people's lives than they had been.  This is not to discredit his whole thesis, but rather to question just how far and deep its significance goes... and to raise parallel concerns in this case.

(2) However, it is well-documented that support for welfare state social services is higher among more homogeneous populations, so the basic finding is not surprising.

(3) But, so what?  When did progressives ever accept that the way things are is the way they should be?  Such thinking comes naturally to conservaties.  What makes us progressives is the fact that we question the status quo. Because we can imagine better, we know we can do better.

I will add a fourth point:

(4) The best model for diversity in cooperation is among creative people, be they musicians, writers, artists, artisans, designers, cooks, whatever.  The work such people do, and the search for new ideas, new approachs, new challenges makes cross-cultural influence a natural part of their lives.  The more you invest yourself in something beyond yourself, the more natural it is to identify with that, and pay far less attention to your particular social background as a source for your identity.

One way this translates into activism is to focus on problems, challenges, and opportunities that naturally cross  group boundaries--education, health care, community development, the environment, etc.

I'm not saying to take on these issues as defined by others.  That would totally defeat the strength that comes from diversity.  What I am saying is that if you're working on health-care in the Latino community, it makes sense to spend more time networking with health-care activists in other communities.  We all too often spend more time trying to get others within our communities to change their priorities, when we would gain more, grow more, learn more--and in turn be more attractive to others within our communities--if we spent more time interacting with folks from other communities who share our same focus.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

The study (0.00 / 0)
I took a look at the study and tried to quickly cull and filter the important details of the study in my diary. Please take a look. The link to the study is there as well.

I you want health care, work hard. If you want universal health care, vote for liberals.

Addendum (0.00 / 0)
Here is the link to the article from Putnam. Sorry I neglected to post this in the original diary; I thought it was linked from the Boston Globe story:


Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.


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