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Diversity Is Hard

One need only look at Chinatown, Little Italy, Jewish delis, and Greek diners—and this is just in the area of food—to realize how deeply American culture has been influenced by immigrants from all over the globe. Diversity contributes to our country’s richness, and an experience of people and cultures from many backgrounds can make us more humane.

But the cheerleaders for diversity on the left, and even sometimes the right, too often refuse to acknowledge the tradeoffs. Diversity does alter the way we live. This may on measure be good, but without doubt it happens. If the left wants to preserve support for an open, welcoming nation—which is now under threat from the long-simmering forces unleashed by the Trump campaign—they must be willing to recognize that there is some legitimacy [1] to nostalgia and particularistic attachments.  

As a student living a stone’s throw away from Langley Park, Md., a white, postwar suburb turned immigrant magnet community, I see both sides of this debate on a daily basis. When I venture outside of the University of Maryland campus and its immediate surrounds, I quickly become almost the only (sometimes the only) white person in sight. In a large thrift shop I sometimes visit, I can observe African women in technicolor garb bantering with the clerks in languages I do not understand; I sometimes wait in line longer than I want to while the mother of a large family pours pennies out of her purse and counts them at the register. I regret the difficulty of finding something like a good Italian salami in a community that is overwhelmingly Asian, African, and Latin American, and relatively poor; I smile at the kindness (and occasionally the quirkiness) of working-class immigrants who remind me of what my Italian-American ancestors must have been like.

There is something deeply beautiful and valuable about people from dozens of different countries coming together and living peaceably cheek by jowl. Having experienced this firsthand, I would not reject it—nor should the country reject it—in order to preserve an amber-encased notion of what “American life” is supposed to be.

But diversity takes work, and it can be exhausting. Life is a little more exciting and a little more uncomfortable. Routine tasks, especially those involving communication, take a kind of conscious effort that they do not in a homogeneous community. And I am just a young student; what must it be like to see your neighborhood transformed at the age of 70? It must be profoundly disquieting, and that is a sentiment whose existence must not be ignored.

As it happens, the left-leaning news site Vox recognized it—though perhaps inadvertently—in an article about “safe spaces.” [2] The author, a black University of Chicago graduate, writes that if you want diversity, you also need safe spaces: “Being diverse isn’t easy and our diversity ain’t free. Don’t let us in if you can’t make room for us.” He recounts how various safe spaces on campus, like the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, provided a place for him to escape the “relentless hate and ignorance” that he faced in the broader campus community—a place to be with people just like himself. It was his very ability to withdraw from diversity that made diversity tolerable and useful.

Of course white people in majority-minority neighborhoods are not subject to “relentless hate and ignorance” by people who don’t look like them. But I do think this black student’s feeling of displacement is, psychologically, quite similar to what an aging white couple in a place like Langley Park experience when their community diversifies. And if that feeling of exclusion is a legitimate basis for public policy when it is felt by a black college student, then in fairness it must be treated as significant when it is felt by others too.

This election’s other great issue, free trade, plays out in much the same way, as it pits very specific economic and cultural losses against broad societal benefits. As with boosters of mass immigration and diversity, free trade’s advocates have long resisted coming clean about the costs. National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson has dismissed the fading culture of Middle America as nothing more than “sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns” and “cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap.” [3]

Williamson is not wrong, in a sense; the midcentury industrial economy was destined to be supplanted, and with it the way of life that rested upon it. The loss is inevitable, but nonetheless real. Some recognition that it is taking place would go a long way toward ameliorating the pain. It is one thing to be frank that society is not cast in stone, that things change, and that we are often the better for it in the long run. It is quite another thing to claim that nothing is being lost at all, and that if you believe otherwise, you are a racist, a bigot, or “deplorable.”

Langley Park will never again be a Southern Levittown, nor will most of the towns in America like it. Those economic and social arrangements have, largely by structural forces beyond the control of politics, been made obsolete. And they may well, in the grand economic and social picture, be destined to fade away. But they also deserve an elegy.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [4].

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Diversity Is Hard"

#1 Comment By John M On January 23, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

I think that high levels of diversity reduce the sense of community that bind a neighborhood or town. I live in a highly educated neighborhood with a wide range of national origins. The experience for my kids is/was worthwhile, but they certainly did not grow up in very cohesive social environment. It is pretty good for introverts, who are happy having a few friends / associates, but it is less ideal for the real social kids. Certainly my kids, who are Caucasian, are/were in a relatively small minority in the predominantly South and East Asian community of the Honors program in the High School.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 23, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

“…An open, welcoming nation…is now under threat from the long-simmering forces unleashed by the Trump campaign.”

Not true.

Under President Trump’s immigration policies the US will continue to be “an open, welcoming nation.” But it will be an “open and welcoming nation” only (1) to those immigrants who come to the US legally and who are not in violation of US immigration laws; and (2) to those immigrants who do not take away jobs from Americans, do not lower the wages of Americans, and do not make Americans less secure.

#3 Comment By Melampus On January 23, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

What, precisely, is “deeply beautiful and valuable” about racial and ethnic diversity?

Writers, and not just this one, tell us diversity is good. They never tell us why.

And is racial homogeneity all that bad? I mean what’s wrong with it?

#4 Comment By Cameron Okeke On January 23, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

Hello!

My article is cited in this article, so I though I should offer up a short response.

I think this article makes two fatal mistakes. First, it radically oversimplifies my argument, collapsing it into a trite claim that I wanted to have a place to withdraw from diversity. I cannot begin to tell you angry such a twisting of my argument makes me. The author completely inverts my argument, viewing safe spaces as places of homogeneity. The dichotomy between safe and diversity is incorrect, bordering on malicious. My sense of displacement in at a predominately white institution is not in any way similar to discomfort privileged white people feel in diverse spaces because diversity does not exclude white people, but on contrary, whiteness was created to exclude diversity. This false equivalency is at the heart of their argument.

This leads me to the second fatal flaw. The author’s use of the phrase, diversity without any clear meaning (or apparent understanding), and misunderstanding of the subtle roots of racism. Making odd references to their Italian ethnic identity, the author assumes that diversity is inherently exclusionary, an assumption that is not only false but clearly a product of their whiteness. White people who feel alienated in majority-minority neighborhoods for the reasons the author states/alludes are uncomfortable with the removal of a type of toxic prominence of which they are accustom. No doubt that is scary to them, but how many people have died to create the world the author tries to elegize? If diversity excludes white people, then they have no one to blame but themselves. Furthermore, the exclusion I felt is not a legitimate basis for public policy (UChicago is a private institution) nor has the discomfort of old white people not been a guiding force in US public policy. Some of the most racist and destructive policies have been put in place to prevent white people from being disquieted by changing neighborhood demographics. I cannot imagine having the audacity to be upset that people have the nerve to be different and alive near me. No doubt my forced indoctrination into white culture has made me rather unempathetic to the plight of old uncomfortable white people whose power and prominence have allowed them and (under Trump, an old white man,) will continue to allow them to change public policy to avoid discomfort.

I concede the point that we have a realize that diversity is not easy and resist the urge to demonize those who want to comfort privilege and homogeneity bring, but I can understand and acknowledge that point while still saying “Nah” to people who want make public policies that are needlessly exclusionary. Just because these old white folks aren’t demons for wanting to keep their neighborhoods homogenous does not mean that we have to give them what they want, especially considering historically whiteness has been a culturally void, purely exclusionary phenomenon. More importantly, the practical difficulties of managing and supporting diversity do not in any way undermine or reject the moral necessity of it, and I think the author knows that.

As a fellow Maryland resident, I would be more than willing to discuss this issue at length with you in person or via email, Addison. I can be reached at [5].

#5 Comment By slippery slope-ster On January 23, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

Well, Melampus, do you like music? There are few types of music, including popular, art and folk musics, that are not hybrid in some way. Learning about other cultures might be mere diversity for the sake of diversity, but learning from other cultures is very useful.

#6 Comment By john macdonald On January 23, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

Not a bad article, but clearly written by a youngster. The most jarring error was the last paragraph; “…by structural forces beyond the control of politics, been made obsolete.” Hardly anything is beyond the force of politics in a democracy and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, coupled to the refugees from foreign wars (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Afghan, Iraqi,etc.) definitely were and remain political choices.

#7 Comment By Mia On January 23, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

“But diversity takes work, and it can be exhausting.”

I dunno, I always heard that every successful relationship takes work. I have found very little of that has to do with race or “social cohesion,” whatever that is. All I can tell you is that growing up, hanging around my poor white family from borderland Appalachia who didn’t value education was a disaster, and I felt right at home with the Asian immigrants in my high school whose families valued high academic achievement. It wasn’t a loss at all to identify with the “other” community as far as I was concerned. So it really depends on what you assume about same-race or same ethnicity communities. The truth is they vary quite widely in shared values apart from any superficial commonalities.

#8 Comment By Sceptic On January 23, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

I didn’t understand the second paragraph of Cameron’s reply. If still around, please clarify. Did you mean: a) the safe space on campus was not in fact a place where mainly people of your own ethnicity and background, but was just as mixed in ethnicities and backgrounds as the campus as a whole? or b) that even though the safe space was far less diverse (in terms of ethnicity and background) than the campus as a whole, that it is wrong of the author to equate that kind of homogeneity with the homogeneity of white people, wherever such homogeneity happens?

This is not meant as a cryptic criticism of your point. I am simply trying to make sure that I understood what you meant to say.

#9 Comment By Sceptic On January 23, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

Sorry: I mean, in a), above, to say: “the safe space on campus was not in fact a place where mainly people of your own ethnicity and background CONGREGATE.” (typo)

#10 Comment By georgina davenport On January 23, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

I empathize with the discomfort white people feel faced when their community diversified. I imagine it would the same if a homogeneous Chinese, or Japanese, or French, or Indian or Swedish etc. community would feel the same.

I think this discomfort, could be, but is not necessarily born out of racism; but could instead be from our human nature of feeling comfortable with what is familiar. This is especially if the changes occur quickly within a generation.

But despite our innate nature to abhor change, changes are unfortunately upon us, ready or not. The same technologies that give us the conveniences of communication, transportation and more are fundamentally driving these changes. Immigration policies might speed up or slow down these changes, but cannot stop them.

I think non-whites who feel excluded can benefit from remembering that white Caucasians from Europe took over (stole?) this land from Native Americans. Although they did not make this a Christian state, they were primarily Christians and dominant in all ways. Why do the non-whites expect that they would concede power so easily?

There is the thing called racism. There is also a natural tendency to be in the position of power, to be self-determinant. White nationalism rises now to say, “Hey, I want my power back.”

The insistence on diversity can have the same discriminatory effect of homogeneity for the same reason that we are making claim to the same space. This is not unlike the fight over who own “marriage” — between a man and woman or differently? Especially when white people have the burden of a legacy of having been racists.

#11 Comment By muad’dib On January 23, 2017 @ 9:55 pm

And is racial homogeneity all that bad? I mean what’s wrong with it?

If tomorrow morning all Americans of non European descent were removed from this Country, White people would start to break up into ethnic groups, the English vs the Irish, the Italians vs the Germans, The Greeks vs the Albanians, etc…

The only reason there is a White identity is that there are non-whites in this country, remove the non-whites and White identity will breakup into other identity groups. It’s just the nature of the beast.

#12 Comment By Working class dad On January 23, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

I’ve got to tell you that it can be very uncomfortable, to the point of needing medical treatment, being a white kid in a majority black neighborhood. Unfortunately, providing poor white people safe spaces amidst the diversity is not a popular cause among our betters I would do anything to help my kids and grandkids avoid that same situation

#13 Comment By Selvar On January 24, 2017 @ 2:52 am

@Okeke

Why would whites in a predominantly nonwhite institution be less likely to feel alianated than nonwhites in a predominantly white institution. Furthermore, what is wrong with a neighborhood, institution, or country that is pridominantly white? After all, no one views it as a great injustice that Japan has immigration policies geared to maintaining itself as a predominantly Japanese nation. The tendency of white/western nations to embrace diversity as a moral good is the exception not the rule in a global sense.

Perhaps you simply don’t like white people very much, and therefore feel little sympathy for their increasing demographic margenelization in the institutions and states which their ancestors were largely responsible for building. And perhaps that is the ultimate irony of the diversity advocates: even as they envy and seek to benefit from what whites have built, they eliminate the majority white demographic basis on which such accomplishments are founded in the first place.

#14 Comment By Quizman On January 24, 2017 @ 11:24 am

//But diversity takes work, and it can be exhausting. Life is a little more exciting and a little more uncomfortable. Routine tasks, especially those involving communication, take a kind of conscious effort that they do not in a homogeneous community. And I am just a young student; what must it be like to see your neighborhood transformed at the age of 70? It must be profoundly disquieting, and that is a sentiment whose existence must not be ignored.//

The author makes a very valid point here – and I say this as a non-white immigrant. She might find resonance in the series of [6] written by Mr. James Fallows & Ms. Deborah Fallows in the Atlantic, especially the essay published on [7] and [8].

#15 Comment By RudyM On January 24, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

Of course white people in majority-minority neighborhoods are not subject to “relentless hate and ignorance” by people who don’t look like them.

Do you really think that black students on college campus are more subject to “relentless hate and ignorance” than white students in majority black neighborhoods, like the areas around Temple University?

#16 Comment By PAXNOW On January 25, 2017 @ 7:45 am

The faster one does anything the more costly. This is known as the rate volume model. Diversification has happened and is happening too fast and at an increasing rate. It caught many well meaning people off guard. English went from being the language to one among a litany of languages. Behavioral norms were warped and changed, nearly overnight. People were seeing one thing on the ground and mainstream media are telling them something different is happening as to their observed reality. Maybe slow down and let absorption happen at a canter not a gallop?

#17 Comment By c matt On January 25, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap.

I find it both hilarious and ironic that overrated Bruce probably can’t stand Trump, yet Trump champions exactly the crap Bruce sings about.

Aside from interesting restaurant choices, still waiting for someone to point out real fact-based benefits of diversity for diversity’s sake.

#18 Comment By Erin Machell On January 25, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

I think there is a lot of merit to this article. But I can’t square it with this basic fact: one of the best predictors of Trump support was living in a racially homogeneous white community. Literally, the more geographically removed a voter was from areas of higher diversity, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. I can have sympathy for people whose world is changing around them and it kind of freaks them out. But most Trump supporters aren’t in this situation. This suggests to me that people who are actually exposed to diversity do better with it than people who are exposed to some kind of threatening imagined diversity through the news they watch. I’ve got much less sympathy for that.

#19 Comment By Winston On January 26, 2017 @ 2:37 am

Diversity is hard but US will increasingly rely on capable foreigners because k-12 system not rigorous enough so foreigners have outsize contribution in innovation already and will have more when the poor majority in schools gets out!

Take a pag erpf Singapore and make diversity your strength;but ghettozation the British way is wrong-and that Lee Kuan Yew realizedabout 50 years or more ago. Surely America cannot be obtuse when he wasn’t?!

#20 Comment By Adam On January 27, 2017 @ 9:14 am

@ Erin Manchell – I do recall an article about Utah being a very white state that hated Trump. The article relayed some research showing that white voters who lived in communities with close proximity to poorer minority communities voted for Trump, but white voters far away from any heavily minority communities tended not to like Trump. The idea being that the former group had some negative experiences and generalized those into an ideology of racial grievance (wrongly, in my opinion).

#21 Comment By pd On January 30, 2017 @ 10:45 am

@Cameron Okeke what do you mean by saying “historically whiteness has been a culturally void…phenomenon”?

#22 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 5, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

The article, like so many articles about the current social arrangements in America, begs the question: What is the precise definition of “diversity” and “inclusiveness?” At first blush, they appear to be internally contradictory (which could explain the upheavals we are seeing).

Like “equality” these words give rise to vague aspirations the consequences of which have never been fully explored.

#23 Comment By Patrick Harris On August 27, 2017 @ 1:09 am

“Historically speaking whiteness has been a culturally void, purely exclusionary phenomenon.”

It’s hard to overstate how pernicious this sentiment is. Mr. Okele is effectively saying that since white identity has been historically defined in contradistinction to those deemed not white (true enough), nothing of consequence could ever be lost from demographic change in a white neighborhood, because white culture has no distinctive content and means nothing besides unjust privilege.

Doubtless Mr. Okele would feel very different about gentrification of a nonwhite neighborhood. But there is no contradiction there, since his entire worldview is based on inverted hierarchies of oppression; once that is granted, the only relevant question is “Who/Whom?” This sort of fanatical ressentiment is exactly what is feeding white nationalism.

#24 Comment By Meredith On August 27, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

Frustrated because you cannot find an Italian sandwich in an American town? Lacking self-awareness much?