What If Diversity Is Our Weakness?
A reader left this comment on the “What’s The Matter With Utah?” thread. I think it’s really thought-provoking and challenging, but he posted it under his real name, and I’m worried that if I approve it, it will set him up to be attacked. Reader, if you are sure that you want me to approve it, let me know and I will. But I want to throw the comment out there for discussion, because the issues the reader brings up are real, and difficult:
The patterns displayed by Trump’s performance are ‘confusing’ only because they challenge core beliefs on both sides of the political spectrum about race and diversity. Conservatives are straining to deny the obvious because Trumps’s success confirms a long-denied narrative about the racial roots of the Southern realignment, as has been reiterated in at least a half-dozen op-eds a week. Occam’s Razor would suggest that the story, if a bit simplified, is the cleanest way to explain why an identity-politics candidate is performing well in the Old Confederacy states. Trump is winning in part because these are the same people who are losers in the global wage-arbitration realignment, to places like China, but that’s just one more factor that reinforces their central racialist schema for understanding the world.
But the Left is also reluctant to acknowledge one important element of that narrative: The Putnam hypothesis that racial polarization increases with social contact. This denial is a deeply pernicious epistemological flaw, grounded in an incorrect understanding of human nature. A central dogma of post-religious society is that provincialism and xenophobia are a product of ignorance, and that when people come into contact with one another, they inevitably become more tolerant. But this conviction is a consequence of statistical anomalies, and is not at all representative of broader human nature.
Left-leaning members of the media believe that precisely because it works so well for them. When they encounter minorities in the fields of law, journalism, or politics, those minorities are almost always the handful of successful exceptions to the broader trend of poverty, lack of education, and social malaise. If the only blacks (Hispanics, etc) you encounter are the ones who are disproportionately successful, then it reinforces your conviction in the irrationality of racism, and the necessary existence of deeply perverse moral defects in anyone who doesn’t assent to the “obvious truth” of diversity as a source of social cohesion and institutional success.
Outside those enclaves, it’s easier to see the consequences of building policy around those outliers. Skimming off the handful of successful minorities and concentrating them (whether through affirmative action or by legitimate personal success) into a handful of wealthy multi-ethnic enclaves is itself a reason why many black communities are deprived of the social capital and networking needed to escape poverty. But worse, it tends to create a world where the points of contact between poor whites and poor blacks are entirely negative, and reinforce negative stereotypes in a way that falls far closer to the concept of “rational racism” (in the classic “taxi driver who avoids certain neighborhoods” sense) than the Leftist-orthodox rainbows-and-unicorns celebration of personal experiences as a remedy for bigotry. (This doctrine has only been reinforced by the outcome of the SSM debate, where the communities where homosexuals can comfortably be “out” are the ones where you’d expect to find lots of economically successful and charismatic public figures, in fields like sports and entertainment.)
I live in a poor part of town, about 50% black, 30% Hispanic, and 20% white. All my neighbors are black, and relatively poor. The house next to mine has three junker cars in the back yard, slowly rusting. At night (including last night!), I often hear gunshots and screaming fights between belligerent family members who use all manner of violent-sounding profanity to describe what they’d like to do to one another. God save the fatherless kids in the middle of those fights. Last month a repo-man came to our door asking about the working hours of our neighbor, in an attempt to intercept her; we told him that, so far as we can tell, she is unemployed and lives off benefits. Her children occasionally drop by with grandkids to avail themselves of free babysitting while they smoke pot. The kids seem nice enough, sometimes, but I won’t let my girls go over to play for fear of their parents’ drugs, booze, and guns. It’s hard to sleep, between the gunshots and the foundation-shaking ‘music’ that cars charitably broadcast to the neighborhood. Last fall one of the peach trees I’d been carefully tending was ripped up when a criminal fleeing the police was chased through my yard, eventually being tackled and cuffed on the back of my car after everyone in my house woke up to bullhorn-loud demands to “drop your weapon.”
To me, the existence of a Trump who loses Utah makes perfect sense. It’s hard to sustain anti-racism in the face of a world of social pathology that makes so many parts of the racist narrative feel so deeply rational and appealing. As a lower-elementary kid, I don’t remember ever comprehending the idea of racial prejudice when I attended a private school where there were three black kids, all of them from the families of wealthy politicians. They were so talented, and friendly, and, aside from skin color, so much like us! But when I transferred into the public school system in middle school, and I had to listen to sexually violent “suck my dick, bitch!” rap lyrics on the school bus every day, suddenly I didn’t like black kids nearly as much as I did before. I still said all the right things in public about racial tolerance, but they felt more than a little fake. The black kids were mean. They swore. They fought. They made fun of me. They talked about hurting other people with guns and knives, and it was scary. Despite what my parents said, I felt that the value of being in a “more integrated” public school was all a sham — and having a Trump-esque figure in my circle of friends willing to admit that sham in public would have felt liberating. It was making me vastly less tolerant and open-minded than the unnaturally white private school I had attended before.
Two years later, I started listening to a lot of Rush Limbaugh, and the guy really made sense to me.
I’m aware that tendency cuts both ways. I’m sure there are things that my black neighbors dislike about my house and family — My dog barks too much! I have messy-looking vegetable gardens in the front yard! I’m a dorky-looking nebbish on a bicycle! — and I’m sure they have to work to avoid letting that personal frustration evolve into some broader critique of “white people” in general. All the same socio-economic self-sortings that make working-class white racism feel justified against blacks (or Hispanics) are increasingly likely to cut the other way, as white working-class communities dissolve into meth addiction and out-of-wedlock births and are perceived as dysfunctional by “minorities” that are (in the case of Hispanics particularly) passing them by. Most of the best maintained houses in my neighborhood are owned by Mexicans with a talent for working in construction, and I’m sure they hate living next to poor white trash families in homes with rotting frames without the resources to escape to the exurbs, and who are trapped here pulling down their property values.
But what liberal wants to go up on live TV and admit the obvious truth, that segregation and demographic homogeneity are a powerful force for racial harmony, the best antidote for Trumpian racial resentment, and the easiest way to create the kind of social cohesion that allows us to have a generous Scandinavian welfare state? What conservative wants to tell successful blacks in the position of a Ben Carson or a Clarence Thomas that they should have maintained their identity in poor black neighborhoods, full of selfish (or even well-meaning) friends and relatives who will try to drag them back down into poverty? Which StopTrump secularist organization wants to publicly advocate the sort of strong religiously-motivated homogeneity of Mormon choirs, as an alternative to the “celebrating our diversity” whitewashing of cultural suicide by an African-American artistic community that went from Jazz at Carnegie Hall to the bitches-and-hos hip-hop that blares from every window-rattling car that drives past my front yard?
If Trump is defeated by normal mechanisms, then states like Utah will deserve much of the credit — and that means that the voluntary racial segregation that arose through Mormon migration and discrimination (until recently, by explicit doctrine!) will deserve part of that credit. But no one will dare to say that out loud.
The “Putnam hypothesis” the reader refers to is the research that Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam undertook that … well, read the 2007 Boston Globe piece about it. Excerpt:
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.
“We can’t ignore the findings,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The big question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we do about it; what are the next steps?”
The study is part of a fascinating new portrait of diversity emerging from recent scholarship. Diversity, it shows, makes us uncomfortable — but discomfort, it turns out, isn’t always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches. At the same time, though, Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.
His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.
When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis in June in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, he faced criticism for straying from data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.
“Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk,” wrote conservative commentator Ilana Mercer, in a recent Orange County Register op-ed titled “Greater diversity equals more misery.”