A quick addendum to my normal Monday blog musings must be made today. Several articles have appeared in recent weeks over social scientist Robert Putnam’s (author of the bestseller Bowling Alone, which looked at the decline in civic and community participation in the US) bleak look at the short-term effects of diversity on civic participation. It’s been reported that in his survey of dozens of communities over the past five years, Putnam has found that members of diverse communities in the short-term tend to lead lives isolated from the rest of their community, not in open hostility or disenchantment, mind you. Just a lack of interest in crossing racial and ethnic lines to meet neighbors from different background, or in the case of African Americans and Latinos, folks from different socioeconomic backgrounds or who may be recent American arrivals.
This is the first release of the results of his data, in a speech given for an award he received in Sweden, titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” and published in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies (June 2007). Despite some conservatives loving the results of Putnam’s work, some are dissatisfied with the fact that this data troubles him. Conservatives like Pat Buchanan are especially unhappy with Putnam’s wait to release more data until he can come up with ways to deal with this short-term diversity malaise, because scholars should just “report data, not write about what to do about it.” That’s just a load of crap because conservatives think anything about diversity–especially anything in favor of it–is evil.
But Putnam’s study and the conservative response is a bit beside the point. Boy At The Window is hardly scientific. But in discussing my life and the lives of my former classmates, my neighbors, my teachers and others in my hometown, Mount Vernon, New York, it’s clear that recent upsurges in diversity in a relatively un-diverse community can cause folks to hunker down in their homes and to become more protective of their mini-neighbors and neighborhoods. My bedroom suburbs wasn’t just half-White and half-Black. It was working-class Italian, middle class Jewish, affluent and WASP, middle class Black, recent-migrants-from-the-South-Black (and working poor or welfare poor), Afro-Caribbean, and increasingly Latino when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. In a school district that had mostly Black and Afro-Caribbean students and a mostly Italian school board, the diversity malaise frequently became much more hostile. Putnam’s point is well taken. To publish a book on short-term challenges to civic participation due to increasing diverse is irresponsible when most of the research in this field show long-term benefits to diversity in the workplace, in education and in other settings.
But my story notes a cautionary tale when a community or any group of folks–conservatives included–decide that diversity is a bad, unwanted thing that we shouldn’t do anything about. My first hometown doesn’t have the vitality that the best of all of the groups mentioned earlier brought to it during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. So many folks necessarily leave Mount Vernon for a better, easier life elsewhere, because the city offers so little for so many. I’m sure that some of my former classmates will disagree with this, but let’s be real. Mount Vernon has rarely confronted its diversity challenges with inclusion as an answer to White flight and middle class Black flight, increases in crime and poverty, and declining public services. And when inclusion has been invoked, it’s been there as a political plum for someone in city council or on the school board to take advantage of.
So I applaud Putnam for sticking to his guns regarding his research. His research confirms my own work as a researcher (see my other book, Fear of a “Black” America) and my own lived experience. I just hope that he convenes a diverse group of folk to help him write up his remedies for the diversity malaise he’s uncovered all over our country.