Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Downside of Diversity

A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth? 

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."

Putnam has long staked out ground as both a researcher and a civic player, someone willing to describe social problems and then have a hand in addressing them. He says social science should be “simultaneously rigorous and relevant,” meeting high research standards while also “speaking to concerns of our fellow citizens.” But on a topic as charged as ethnicity and race, Putnam worries that many people hear only what they want to.

"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity," he writes in the new report. "It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable."

Link: Why Americans See Racism Where The French See No Problem

In some ways the United States and France are unusually similar nations—still enchanted with their 18th century revolutions, eager to export their ideals (via pamphlets, speeches, language schools, paratroopers, whatever it takes) so that others may live as they do. Maybe this similarity is why Franco-American incomprehension can seem so profound. Each side seems to think: How could they not get it? It should be obvious! In the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the French were appalled by the “perp walk” (that man wasn’t convicted of anything, why shame him?) while Americans couldn’t believe that French media casually named DSK’s accuser (she didn’t do anything wrong, why shame her?). And now, as Thomas Sotinel explained recently in Le Monde, there’s a new example: Divergent reactions to the hit film Les Intouchables.

The movie is about a rich man who is paralyzed in an accident and hires an ex-con from the ‘hood as his all-purpose live-in assistant. The fish-out-water pair become friends and Mr. Rich Guy gets his mojo back thanks to the other man’s down-to-earth love of life. Poor guy learns to appreciate nice things and classical music. Rich guy learns to enjoy Earth Wind and Fire. The rich man is white, the poor guy is black.

French viewers loved it. American critics saw the servant part as a classic Magic Negro. David Denby, in The New Yorker, for example, complained that the movie is “disastrously condescending: the black man, who’s crude, sexy, and a great dancer, liberates the frozen white man. The film is an embarrassment.” Similarly Jay Weissberg in Varietywrote that Driss, the ex-con, “is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down’ by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor.”

The French reaction to this reaction, as described by Sotinel, must strike Americans as pretty funny. It amounts to this: Oh, yeah, that one guy is black. Leave it to you race-obsessed Americans to pick that up; we hadn’t noticed. We didn’t really notice that. (Negative French reviews of the film complained that it was hokey, Sotinel writes, but none mentioned skin color.)

To Americans, this is a willful refusal to admit the obvious, something we consider a Gallic specialty (France cannot say precisely how many Muslims live within its borders because the government is barred by law from breaking down the population by race or religion in its statistics.) To the French, the Stateside reaction is American sanctimoniousness at its worst. We’re the nation that produced, oh, Beverly Hills Cop, after all. And we invented the Magic Negro. Who are we to talk?

What explains this mutual duh (or beauf)? In a word, I think, it’s immigration, and the cultures that have evolved in response.

Both countries are nations of immigrants, but their approaches to newcomers could not be more different. Come to France, and you’re welcomed to the table—if you’re willing to speak French, eat French food, and see the world as French people do. (In the last French presidential debate, both candidates fell over each other to assure their people that there would be no halal meat offered in French school cafeterias—a bizarre note to my ear here in New York, where parking rules are suspended for Succoth, Idul-Adha, Good Friday and Diwali, and no one frets.) Assimilation in France is hierarchical, in the sense proposed by Harvard’s Jim Sidanius: Success is measured by how close people come to the summit, which is perfect Frenchness.

In the United States, though, assimilation is what Sidanius would call authoritarian. It’s not about a standard of culture or conduct or speech. It’s just a contract. There are rules, and you’re welcome if you adhere to them. What language you speak, what God you worship, aren’t relevant. That approach makes for less community but more openness of mind. Put it this way: If someone is acting in a way that is far from a French person’s idea of what is French, then said person is most definitely not French. If someone is acting in a way that is far from my idea of what is American, well, hey, you never know. The guy could still be as American as I am, in the eyes of the law and my fellow citizens.

In both nations, then, millions of people feel that it is wrong to be racist, and they make an effort not to appear so (an exquisite sensitivity to the dangers of appearing racist appears to kick in at about age 8 or 9, according to this research). However, the American version of anti-racism includes an obligation to consider how things look to the Other. After all, his view could be just as American as yours. Beverly Hills Cop, after all, made fun of all its characters, not just Eddie Murphy’s.

So, you know a joke that makes fun of people of a certain race that isn’t yours? In the U.S. you show you are enlightened by not telling it, because you know what seems funny to you could offend someone of a different background. The French version of anti-racism goes the other way: You show you are enlightened by telling the joke, because we’re all equally French. We have the same background, so if I’m not offended, how could you be?

In our cautious urge to let all differences have room to breathe, American art and culture can strike the French as flighty and childlike (the way Californians look to the rest of us Americans). In their urge to erase difference, though, the French can look, to us, condescending and close-minded. Sometimes I think the French want to say to Americans, “just because it’s strange and new doesn’t mean it’s great.” And Americans want to say to the French, “Could you just appreciate that for what it is, instead of having to make it French?”

Hence our mutual incomprehension about this movie. The French think we’re obsessed with race; we Americans think we’re just being polite. The French think the film is a buddy comedy; we think it displays a condescension that they don’t see. So near, and yet so far.

Link: Three Myths of Immigration

I am giving the Milton K Wong Lecture in Vancouver in June. Entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective’, it will try to explain to a Canadian audience, for whom multiculturalism has a very different meaning than it does to a European one, the contours of the European debate, as well as my disagreements with both sides. In particular I want to show why both multiculturalists and many of their critics (particularly their rightwing critics) buy into the same set of myths about the history of immigration into Europe, these three in particular:  “European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural  because of mass immigration,” “contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it,” and “European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities have demanded them.”

Link: Europe at Bay

Jeremy Harding on migrants and the battle for borders.

European attitudes to immigration have hardened. An early warning sign was the growing impatience, in the 1990s, with the notion of multiculturalism. It was a puzzling argument to follow, because the offending element seemed to take many forms. On the face of it, multiculturalism celebrated the ethnic diversity of a changing world: people had different values and cultural markers, even though they lived together in the same societies. Whether or not these differences were welcome was a test of liberal tolerance and the answer, it turned out, was a qualified yes. Europeans took part in the experiment with enthusiasm, even if minorities were alert to any whiff of condescension and said as much. You had to commit to the new environment and learn to inhabit it. Swaying like a blanched orchid at a Peter Tosh concert was not good enough. Painful reprimands from minorities, in the workplace, the faculty, the televised debate were the stuff of our re-education as Europeans. By the 1980s, in theory at least, minorities and majorities were on an equal footing. It was the new conversation. It opened a pathway to equal opportunities in the job market and local government. And it felt right, for blacks, Asians, women, gays and any number of straight white men.

But not for everybody. There were those who saw the point of diversity, and even equal rights, but who objected to equality-in-diversity, a fatal combination in their view, with its suggestion that the case for homegrown, European values must now be heard on its relative merits, as one idiom among others. This in turn cast doubt on the long story that held us together, with its passage through the Enlightenment to liberal democracy, Europe’s unique discovery, which it meant to hand down across the generations. Identity too was an issue, if people could move fluently between one and another – ‘British’ and ‘Asian’, say – or simply hyphenate: it called belonging into question. Who were you really? Along with these misgivings came a feeling that minorities could customise the social contract, opting in and out according to which bits made sense in their microcultures and which bits didn’t. Ethnicity and religion, opponents of multiculturalism began to argue, were blurring an older, consensual version of citizenship, based on rights and duties.