WASHINGTON – If you are anything like me, you love the city. Or at least you think you do. I mean, you love the street. You siphon energy from a crowd. You love passing by businessmen, women strolling with children, gangsters, white people, black people — people of all ethnicities — on the same city block. You fancy yourself a modern Walt Whitman.
Perhaps this is why you came to D.C. in the first place. The Midwest could not contain you. You value diversity. It lifts your spirits and renews your faith that regardless of differences, we share a common humanity.
If this fits your description, you too will find disconcerting a recent study claiming that ethnic diversity actually harms community.
For years, Harvard professor of sociology Robert Putnam has created intellectual waves. His groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone” argued that American civil society is devolving as people grow increasingly isolated.
Community bonds, families and social life generally are all deteriorating, he argued with ample supporting data. And thus “bowling alone” was more than a metaphor. Today, bowlers are increasingly more likely to bowl alone than in a league. Now, after completing a colossal study on ethnic diversity’s impact on society, Putnam concluded that by numerous measures, ethnic diversity damages social life. In his own words, “New evidence from the U.S. suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”
Putnam, recently awarded the Skytte Prize (the rough equivalent of a Nobel Prize for political scientists), is more optimistic about the long term. Still, it is a serious problem that individuals of diverse communities are more likely to “expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” To top it all off, poorer health and wealth are associated with lack of social ties.
Pat Buchanan, representative of the hard right, calls this study “supporting fire from Harvard Yard for those who say America needs a time-out from mass immigration. …” A more thoughtful conservative approach emerged from The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Messmore, who argues that the “crisis of community” in America may lead to more concentrated state power as Americans begin to think of themselves as “a national family” because fewer and fewer have meaningful relationships with actual families.
Needless to say, these findings bewilder diversity advocates on the left. As Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal noted, Putnam’s colleagues were disturbed by the findings, and thus Putnam’s team recomputed the data several ways.
But the same picture emerged. And doubly disturbing for many secular liberals, it turns out that one of the only places in America defying these results — where true diversity and community thrive — is evangelical megachurches.
But instead of seeing either supporting evidence for immigration restriction or a setback for diversity education programs, conservatives and liberals should shed the political lens, if only for a moment, and look deeper. This study should first and foremost prompt the question, “Do I really care about my neighbors?”
As cosmopolitan urbanites, even the conservative among us like to think we are more tolerant, more liberal-minded than backwoods red-state America. And maybe we are. But perhaps this is only because it is easy for us to tolerate neighbors we do not know.
Ironically, perhaps in the heartland where there is less ethnic diversity but more communal interaction, we would be forced to actually converse, at the local fair or PTA, with those different from ourselves.
British historian Paul Johnson once wrote of “The Heartless Lovers of Humankind,” by which he referred to intellectuals like Karl Marx, who waxed eloquently of the plight of the common man and claimed to love “humanity,” yet was nearly a monster to his servants. Perhaps we who claim to love “the city” or “diversity” but do not know our neighbors’ names are a little like that.
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute.