It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.
But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has 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 homogenous 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.
"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.
The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts. (link)
What makes this all more interesting is the fact that Robert Putnam is not himself a conservative, but a progressive-minded scholar who supports diversity. He didn't expect these findings when he started this project, and has worked hard to make sure they are understood correctly -- though anti-immigrant conservatives have definitely been eating this up.
I want to speculate a little on how South Asian immigrants might fit into the 'diversity problem' Putnam's study raises, but before that it seems important to get into a little more detail about just what Putnam is saying. Please forgive the long quote:
The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.
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." (link)
Wow -- that's a long list of problems associated with living in diverse communities! Personally, I've never felt the difference Putnam's study finds, but for the most part I've mainly lived in relatively diverse places. I've lived in glum diverse places (Malden, MA; Bethlehem, PA) -- where no one would give me the time of day or even stop and say 'hi' -- and somewhat happier diverse places (Potomac, MD; Parsippany, NJ; New Haven, CT; Durham, NC; and my current town of Conshohocken, PA). Most places I've lived, though, I've felt that most people do "hunker down" and spend their evenings in front of the TV. I've never lived in the vibrant downtown of a big city (sigh), nor have I ever lived in a place that was really ethnically homogeneous -- so perhaps I've only seen one side of this.
People interested in seeing more detail -- and hearing it directly from Putnam, might want to check out the article in question here. For the most part it should be readable for non-academics (it helps if you know what he means by "social capital"), though Putnam does get into some statistical analysis that goes over my head.
The other big questions are 1) why could this be happening, 2) what can be done about it, and 3) is it a permanent problem, or merely a temporary phenomenon associated with recent immigration, which will dissipate over time?
One can easily speculate that the answer to (1) has to do with the natural mistrust produced when people have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different cultural values, speak different languages, and so on. The answers to (2) and (3) are harder.
Again, thinking speculatively here, I'm not sure that anything can be actively done about (2), but I do feel quite confident on (3) that the mistrust and the lower "social capital" Putnam sees in more diverse communities is likely to dissipate over time -- as immigrants acculturate and/or assimilate. Here, one's experience as a second-gen South Asian American comes into play. And the high levels of interracial dating and marrying out of one's ethnic group seen among second and third generation Asian immigrants suggests that blending is already well under way.
Putnam himself agrees with that prognosis, and in his article, quotes Barack Obama to that effect. Obama has called for:
. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it's not something that determines people's life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (link)
Obama is in effect calling for "race" to start acting more like immigrant "ethnicity" -- for it to be malleable, and open to the possibility of its own diminishing value as an element of division. Are South Asians a "race" or an "ethnicity"? Though I'm proud of my Indian heritage and proud of being both an Indian American and a practicing Sikh, I tend to agree with Obama on the value of thinking of oneself as part of "something larger," and of not allowing one's ethnic background to determine one's "life chances."