Diversity is strength.
That sentiment has in recent years emerged as an article of faith in American public life.
Research suggests, however, that faith in diversity is being sorely tested. New studies confirm earlier evidence that, at least in the short- to mid-term, diversity weakens civic ties, fostering mutual mistrust and detachment. Beneath all the “happy talk” about diversity, many Americans harbor a deep ambivalence about where it will lead.
“Most everybody says, ‘Yes, I’m in favor of diversity and I really like multiculturalism,’ but if there’s nothing to pull people together they get kind of nervous. And they really can’t articulate where to draw the line,” said Joseph Gerteis, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota’s American Mosaic Project, which is probing how Americans think about questions of diversity and solidarity.
The Mosaic work is complemented by a massive national study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who reports that in the face of large-scale immigration, many Americans are overwhelmed by diversity. Putnam calls it “socio-psychological system overload.” With stunning regularity, he found Americans in more diverse locales tending to “hunker down and pull in like a turtle,” suspicious not just of the new or different, but of everybody.
These findings are especially striking because of how quickly and completely the value of diversity seemed to take hold in the past two decades.
As Gerteis and Mosaic colleagues Douglas Hartmann and Penny Edgell put it in work published this year: “We are at a crucial and unprecedented moment. Across otherwise deep political and social divisions, Americans have come to appreciate diversity and to explicitly promote it.”
In their study, based on a survey in 2003 of more than 2,000 respondents, they found that fewer than 5 percent considered diversity mostly a weakness in American life. Forty-three percent said it was mostly a source of strength, and 50 percent replied that it was equally a source of strength and weakness.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The authors noted that in school and at work, Americans are taught to value difference, and they know by now that a positive reaction to diversity is the culturally acceptable answer.
The authors found disagreement and concern about exactly what diversity means.
“Black or white, happy multiculturalist or ambivalent realist, Americans of all stripes see it as a problem if there are simply groups with no national culture to unify them,” they wrote.
Using the same survey to conduct in-depth interviews with respondents in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Hartmann and a colleague found that people were often tongue-tied when it came to explaining diversity’s value.
They also seemed unable to talk about issues of race and inequality. Here diversity-speak emerges as a kind of “happy talk” in which “racial differences can be simultaneously acknowledged and even celebrated at the very same time that race and its problems are downplayed and disavowed.”
America has a lot at stake in its capacity deal with diversity.
In 1970, the United States was 83 percent non-Hispanic white, 11 percent black, less than 5 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Asian. Today, largely as a result of immigration reform in 1965, America is 66 percent non-Hispanic white, 15 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and a little more than 4 percent Asian.
The younger the population, the less white it is. According to Mark Mather of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, in 1980, 26 percent of America’s under-20 population was minority. By 2006, 42 percent of the under-20 population—but only 20 percent of the 60-and-up population—was minority. The gap is only going to widen.
According to an analysis by Mather, those states with the biggest gap in the proportions of the older and younger populations spent the lowest share of their economies on public education. The three most racially homogenous states—Maine, Vermont and West Virginia—had the highest proportional spending on higher education.
Called “the Florida effect,” it is not a new finding. White taxpayers are generally reluctant to support a public sector they view as mostly benefiting people who aren’t white.
In 2002, economists Dora Costa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Matthew Kahn at Tufts University surveyed 15 recent economics papers on the impact of diversity on social capital and found that all had “the same punch line: heterogeneity reduces civic engagement. In more diverse communities, people participate less as measured by how they allocate their time, their money, their voting and their willingness to take risks to help others.”