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The diversity paradox
Aug 4th, 2007 by Sam

To the consternation of Robert Putnam, the liberal scholar who did the research, and many liberals in general, a new study suggests that ethnic and racial diversity are linked to declining civic engagement, reports the Boston Globe.  The greater the diversity in a community:

  • fewer people vote
  • people are less likely to volunteer
  • they give less to charity
  • they work less on community projects

In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings.

Conservatives are jumping right on this issue  – from places like the Manhattan Institute and “The American Conservative” – highlighting the harm the study suggests will come from large-scale immigration.  Putnam says he’s received hundreds of complimentary emails laced with bigoted language.  “It certainly is not pleasant when David Duke’s website hails me as the guy who found out racism is good,” he says.

Love those conservatives, they are so pleasant…

So, ethnic diversity leads to civic malaise.  Not greater harmony and understanding (sorry liberals).  Not conflict (sorry conservatives).  Malaise.

Additionally, there are negative economic consequences.  Greater ethnic diversity was linked to lower school funding, for example.

Okay, okay.  Can we just call this what it is?  Tribalism?

I have long said (ask my husband) that Europe spends more on social programs than the US because the countries are more ethnically homogeneous – and have predicted that the ethnic and economic diversity in Europe resulting from the European Union will result in the dismantling of those social support systems.  Europeans, I predict, will be unwilling to provide support to the new immigrants in those countries, and will move toward a US model, which has much less support.

However, there is also a huge benefit from diversity…

Urban centers, such as New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, are where the action is….  It turns out that the flip side to civic malaise is productivity and innovation.

“…by hanging out with people different than you, you’re likely to get more insights.  Diverse teams tend to be more productive,”  says Scott Page, a political scientist at the Univeristy of Michigan.

In other words,

“…those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.”  Boston Globe, August 5, 2007

This is also consistent with the place the United States has had in the world since the 1950′s - leading the world in productivity and innovation and being a ‘melting pot’ or, as some say, a ‘tossed salad’ – since those darn immigrants don’t all actually become just like each other.

This is the diversity paradox, that there are both positive and negative effects from diversity.  And, something that the United States has benefited from significantly.

So, which is more important?  The ‘cost’ of lower civic engagement or the ‘benefit’ of higher productivity and innovation?  If it were possible to go back to living within our national and state borders, and all retreat within our ethnic communities – German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, English, Lithuanian, French Canadian, Haitian, African, Norwegian, Russian, Chinese, Mexican, Puerto Rican…  we would have more civic engagement.  But, I believe that the rest of the world would pass us by in innovation, and we can’t afford that.

So, diversity it is, with the full awareness that civic engagement cannot be taken for granted.

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