Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Downside of Diversity? (part II)

Previously ( we discussed the findings of Harvard Professor, Dr. Putnam's exhaustive research which found that the more diverse a community is, the lower the level of civic health and community involvement are. For all but the most stalwart ideologues, Dr. Putnam's conclusions hold weight and are worthy of serious exploration. So, the question is what elements of diversity are not conducive to the development of strong, civic minded communities. To understand this we need to explore the key components that strong communities share and that many diverse
communities lack. Here are several factors that I believe are pertinent:

1. Communication: the basis of community is communication and in diverse communities, many members face linguistic barriers that limit their ability to form amicable relations with their neighbors, let alone engage in organized civic involvement. For example, in my street, many Latino and Polish immigrants are unable to communicate with each other in English, let alone their native tongues. And in Uptown at least 46 languages are spoken, which makes it a vibrant, interesting neighborhood, yet it certainly provides barriers for the development of social and civic connections.

2. Shared Culture, Values & Visions: from the religious Amish to the secular Kibbutzim, we see that strong communities are characterized by shared values and visions. Such shared attributes help facilitate stronger social ties, as well as cooperative (social, cultural, political and economic) communal efforts. And needless to say, shared traditions and celebrations facilitate greater social interaction and connection. And something as seemingly banal as shared television shows and music help facilitate social interaction. If a Seinfeld or Springfield fan moved next door to me, we would at the bare minimum have something to chat about. Thus, I would say that a lack of shared interests is a far more prevalent factor than racism in explaining the social segregation that occurs even in communities that are demographically integrated.

By definition, the more diverse a community is, the less likely we will encounter shared values and visions, which effects the day-to-day relations that are a vital aspect of forming and maintaining viable communities. Many of my Polish and Latino neighbors possess very distinct visions about what constitutes acceptable public behavior. For example, many do not see eye to eye on issues of noise, litter and loitering, which is a source of underlying tension that limits amicable social and communal interaction. And rather than use this as an opportunity for constructive dialogue, most neighbors, as Putnam puts it "hunker down" and "pull in like a turtle."

3. Clash of Diversities: most "progressives narratives" present diversity as a phenomena that involves whites learning to overcome their resistance and racism towards diverse populations. The problem with this narrative is that it fails to take into the account that most of the communal tension is not found between whites and diverse populations, rather it's found between diverse populations.

And interestingly, the passion for "celebrating diversity" is rarely found in non-western cultures. In fact, the taboo against openly expressing racist sentiments is rarely found outside of American and western cultures. If you doubt this, go have a beer with a Russian and ask him what he thinks of Tajiks and Azeris.

In Los Angeles, we encounter a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the values, visions and economic interests that divide Korean and African-American Throw in the often difficult economic relationship between both communities and the relationship can become violent and highly destructive, as seen in the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.

In Los Angeles high schools riots have occurred between African-American and Latino students.

In my experience as a realtor I have witnessed many whites enthusiastically moving to Latino or African-American neighborhoods, a prospect that would terrify most East Asian or Indo-Pakistani clients.

And many of my Mexican friends have expressed strong preferences for the treatment they receive from native born white employers, as opposed to Asian or even Latino employers.

And paradoxically, when a community reaches a "diversity tipping point," it may become less socially and economically welcoming to diverse individuals. A good example would be neighborhoods in Paris or London that shifted from European Christian to Moslem majorities that are no longer welcoming towards gays or Jews. In other words, in most white neighborhoods there is a greater tolerance for diversity than in many minority neighborhoods.

3. Divergent Economic Interests: unfortunately in many cities, class and economic lines largely overlap with ethnic lines. In areas like Cook County and Los Angeles County we find that European-Americans and Asian-Americans are largely middle-class and Latinos and African-Americans are largely poor and working class. Accordingly, support for redistributive economic policies (such as food, housing and medical subsidies) is far greater among the latter groups than they are among the former. If you doubt this, I suggest that you attend an Acorn March and A TeaParty Gathering and you will see that the ethnic composition of both groups is markedly different. The issue is not which groups have more sound arguments, rather the perceived divergence of interests makes for amicable relations and positive civic involvement more challenging in diverse communities.

One fact that we must consider is that the few examples of successful welfare states are seen in relatively homogeneous states like Sweden and Finland. Conversely resistance to redistributive policies are most pronounced when there is the perception that the redistribution is occurring across ethnic lines. Most likely this is because people to tend to attribute the misfortunes of those who possess similar cultural and behavioral norms to exterior forces, like "the economy" and accordingly they are more apt to assist them. Whereas, most people are likely to attribute the misfortune of other groups especially when there is a noticeable divergence between behavioral and cultural norms. Under those circumstances, individuals are far less inclined to permit the redistribution of their resources to others, via a generous welfare state.

4. Ability To Pursue Cooperative Communal Action: without shared values and visions and perceived economic interests, the formation and pursuit of shared civic and political goals are extremely challenging. Imagine if a community was granted $100,000 for community and social development and had to collectively decide how to spend it. Even in a largely ethnically homogeneous community in (let's say North Dakota) this would be challenging, because we would encounter some philosophical and economic diversity within that community.

Now, imagine trying to accomplish that in a community as ethnically, socially and economically diverse as Los Angeles; it would be dramatically more difficult, to say the least. To begin with, most individuals would fight to direct as much of the resources as possible towards projects that narrowly benefited their own group, like in Chicago where there exists a "Hispanic Housing Development Corp." And even if the individuals genuinely sought projects and programs that broadly benefited the entire community, we would encounter tremendous differences between what members of each ethnic group believe constituted the "public interest."

Take Chicago's Avondale neighborhood: American hipster might push for the development of an arts district, Polish families (with children in Catholic Schools or grown children) would most likely push for property tax relief and many Latinos (who generally have larger families) would presumably want the funds to be directed towards the construction of more schools.

Let's say the groups agreed to a park project, after that they would face the challenge of organizing and executing it, which would present whole other areas of cultural conflict. For example, an older Korean man would be uncomfortable taking orders from a younger hipster. A Moslem man might be uncomfortable having any woman hold authority over him. American style compromises would be alien to many rural Mexicans. The Hindu might view an afternoon of labor as being below him. The Orthodox Jew would not work on Shabbat. And without a doubt, most groups would have very different ideas about what constitutes an optimal use of public recreational space.

5. Are there other factors at work in diverse communities? I believe that the lower rate of civic and social involvement in diverse populations that Dr. Putnam documented does not simply stem from the phenomena of having different ethnic groups co-exist within a community. If that was the case, we would expect equally high civic involvement in ethnically homogeneous communities of (let's say) Indians and Chinese as we would in predominantly European-American communities. But, that's clearly not the case. As Tocqueville repeatedly pointed out, Americans were unparalleled in their propensity and ability for voluntary civic involvement, as demonstrated by the countless churches, charities and reform movements that the American people freely formed.We take it for granted that so many people are willing to volunteer their time, energy and money for causes that go beyond their immediate self interests.

The author Lawrence Harrison, who spent over 16 years directing the USAID missions in the Dominican Republic, Cost Rica, Guatemala, Haiti and Nicaragua, presented a concept that is extremely relevant to this debate: the Circle of Trust, whose circumference greatly varies from culture to culture. Harrison noted that compared to most other cultures, in the United States this circle is large and flexible, which explains the ease to which Americans are able to form voluntary social organizations. Conversely, he noted that in Latin American cultures the circle of trust rarely extends far beyond family and close friends, which explains the difficulties that most Latin American nations have had in the development of democratic, civil society. And historically, most Latin Americans have lived under kleptocratic and authoritarian governments that discouraged healthy civic participation.

So, predictably civic involvement will be less pronounced in areas that become demographically dominated by groups with limited traditions of civic involvement. And as the demographic and culture predominance of Americans declines in the said areas, so will the area' power of those areas to assimilate native-born and immigrants alike into American traditions of volunteering and community involvement.

6. What are the implications & conclusions? There are no simple, black-and-white answers (no pun intended), because diversity adds energy and flavor to communities, while simultaneously providing clear challenges to the civic and social life of those very same communities. The starting point of any thoughtful, constructive debate is to avoid mindlessly celebrating or reviling diversity, because both extremes precludes intelligent debate and exploration. From there we must acknowledge that diversity, like most other social and economic phenomena involves costs and benefits and at certain points begins to offer diminishing returns.

A healthy balance would entail the pursuit of immigration levels that allow us to enjoy the benefits of diversity, while not overriding our capacity to assimilate diverse groups into our unique culture of civic participation. And as stated in many of my posts the issue is far less from where someone is from, it's who they are. In other words, an educated individual will be far more likely to socially and economically integrate themselves into the fabric of a community, regardless if they are from Paris or Paraguay.

Equally, avoiding redistributive policies would help ease underlying communal tensions. Americans are remarkably tolerant of the right of individuals and communities to pursue their unique paths to life, liberty and happiness, except when they are forced to subsidize those paths.

And last, but certainly not least we much reinforce the great American tradition of open, honest dialogue and debate that has been stifled to a large extent by well meaning multi-culturalists. The fact that the "progressive" Dr. Putnam waited almost 5 years to release his findings and then practically had to apologize for them, shows that sensitivity has taken precedence over intellectual honesty. When well meaning people feel that they are not allowed to express their legitimate concerns, they either flee diverse communities or "hunker in" and "pull in like turtles."

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