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Diversity Is Hard

Its boosters must recognize that there are real losses.

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 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.” 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.”

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.



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