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.
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.