By JONATHAN TILOVE
July 3, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ Diversity is strength.
That sentiment has in recent years emerged as an article of faith in American public life.
But research suggests that faith in diversity is being sorely tested. New studies confirm earlier evidence that, at least in the short- to mid-term, diversity weakens civic ties, fostering mutual mistrust and detachment. Beneath all the “happy talk” about diversity, many Americans harbor a deep ambivalence about where it will lead.
“Most everybody says, `Yes, I’m in favor of diversity and I really like multiculturalism,’ but if there’s nothing to pull people together they get kind of nervous. And they really can’t articulate where to draw the line,” said Joseph Gerteis, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota’s American Mosaic Project, which is probing how Americans think about questions of diversity and solidarity.
The Mosaic work is complemented by a massive national study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who reports that in the face of large-scale immigration, many Americans are overwhelmed by diversity. Putnam calls it “socio-psychological system overload.” With stunning regularity, he found Americans in more diverse locales tending to “hunker down and pull in like a turtle,” suspicious not just of the new or different, but of everybody.
“They don’t trust their neighbors or shop clerks, they are not as involved in the community,” Putnam said. “The only two things that go up as diversity rises are protest marches and TV watching.”
These findings are especially striking because of how quickly and completely the value of diversity seemed to take hold in the last two decades.
As Gerteis and Mosaic colleagues Douglas Hartmann and Penny Edgell put it in work published earlier this year: “We are at a crucial and unprecedented moment. Across otherwise deep political and social divisions, Americans have come to appreciate diversity and to explicitly promote it.”
In their study, based on a national survey of more than 2,000 respondents conducted in 2003, they found that fewer than 5 percent considered diversity mostly a weakness in American life. Forty-three percent said it was mostly a source of strength, and 50 percent replied that it was equally a source of strength and weakness.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The authors note that in school and on the job, Americans are taught to value difference, and know by now that a positive reaction to diversity is the “culturally acceptable” answer. Thus even those with strong misgivings may ritually observe that diversity can be a strength.
The authors found disagreement and concern about exactly what diversity means. Many people struggle with their own mixed feelings and worry about disunity.
“Black or white, happy multiculturalist or ambivalent realist, Americans of all stripes see it as a problem if there are simply groups with no national culture to unify them,” they write.
Using the same survey to conduct in-depth interviews with respondents in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Hartmann and colleague Joyce Bell found that people were often tongue-tied when it came to concretely explaining diversity’s value.
They also seemed unable to talk about issues of race and inequality. Here diversity-speak emerges as a kind of “happy talk” in which “racial differences can be simultaneously acknowledged and even celebrated at the very same time that race and its problems are downplayed and disavowed.”
America has a lot at stake in its capacity to successfully manage diversity.
In 1970, the United States was 83 percent non-Hispanic white, 11 percent black, less than 5 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Asian. Today, largely as a result of immigration reform in 1965, America is 66 percent non-Hispanic white, 15 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and a little better than 4 percent Asian.
The younger the population, the less white it is. According to Mark Mather of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, in 1980, 26 percent of America‘s under-20 population was minority. By 2006, 42 percent of the under-20 population _ but only 20 percent of the 60-and-up population _ was minority. The gap is only going to widen.
There is peril here. According to an analysis by Mather, those states with the biggest gap in the complexions of the older and younger populations spent the lowest share of their economies on public education. The three most racially homogenous states _ Maine, Vermont and West Virginia _ had the highest proportional spending on higher education.
It’s been called “the Florida effect.” It’s not a new finding and it applies generally to the reluctance of white taxpayers to support a public sector they view as mostly benefiting people who aren’t white.
In 2002, economists Dora Costa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Matthew Kahn at Tufts University surveyed 15 recent economics papers on the impact of diversity on social capital and found that all had “the same punch-line: heterogeneity reduces civic engagement. In more diverse communities, people participate less as measured by how they allocate their time, their money, their voting and their willingness to take risks to help others.”
What Putnam found was a general malaise in diverse communities.
Building on his landmark work “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, he undertook a large nationwide measure of social capital, surveying 30,000 people in all _ 3,000 in a national sample, the rest in smaller samples in 41 different communities.
“We looked at how often people played sports, go to church, sing in the choir, what organizations they belong to, how much do they trust their neighbors and shop clerks, how many friends do they have and how often do they see their friends,” Putnam said.
“We were shocked,” he said of the results. “It hits you between the eyes.”
Those communities with the most immigrants and the greatest diversity were at the bottom of all the social capital indexes. “When you look at places that were high on trust, it was places like Bismarck, N.D., and the state of New Hampshire, and a whole bunch of smaller, more ethnically homogeneous places. And then, down at the bottom were places like Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta.”
Putnam embarked upon “a four- to five-year process of kicking the tires and trying to be sure we understood what was really going on deep in the data.”
He emerged convinced diversity was the culprit. But he believes that growing diversity is inevitable and ultimately desirable. He thinks America has to undertake more vigorous efforts to assimilate immigrant communities _ more English language instruction, more playgrounds, community centers and schools, and greater financial help for communities bearing the greatest burden of health care, education and other costs.
“What needs to be done is broadening the notion of `we,”’ Putnam said.
He says he is confident this will happen, given the assimilation of the last great wave, at the turn of the 20th century. But as critics have noted, that blending was accomplished over 40 years of very low levels of immigration. Despite the current rancor over illegals, there is little indication that current high levels of immigration will ebb soon.
Ultimately, America has no choice but to contend with diversity, and while Putnam wasn’t happy with his findings, he says it is important to confront them.
“People like me who are in favor of a more diverse society don’t do ourselves any favor by denying that building a diverse society is a difficult task,” he said.