Oct 12, 2006

Diversity, bad? [LINK]

A study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam concludes that the more diverse a community is, the more likely its residents are to fear contact with each other and thus be alienated from local civic institutions.

While I understand the study is meant to quantify drawbacks to immigration, and while I broadly appreciate efforts to question sanctified liberal axioms, that conclusion strikes me as short-sighted if it doesn't account for the effect of assimilation.

Think of how all sorts of different immigrant groups were jammed together in urban slums in places like NYC around the beginning of the 20th century. In the short term there was gang violence and large-scale corruption resulting from competition over which group would rig the political process to its advantage. But in the long run, being forced to confront other ethnic groups forced them to adapt to each other.

For example, if you drive through Cambridge you're likely to see signs for the "Irish Painting" company on one block, and "Scotland Painting" on another. In the not-too-distant past, that might have occasioned a massive brawl. Why is that virtually unheard of today? My reflexive answer would be that the diversity brought on by immigration resulted in long-term social cohesion and relative tranquility. Nowadays there's much less of a tendency to consider people in terms of their ethnicity, perhaps because America is uniquely a nation of immigrants.

I understand this pro-diversity argument resembles the logic universities use to uphold affirmative action: that being forced to confront people you're unfamiliar with results in a superior education. Still, I think that's different issue for a couple of reasons. First, there's a difference between the largely spontaneous way ethnic neighborhoods form and the calculated mix universities use to achieve diversity, which requires a conscious, state-sanctioned party actively discriminating against applicants with higher academic qualifications. Second, the focus on affirmative action's overall educational benefits comes at the expense of attention to its negative effects on previously excluded groups: e.g., the high college dropout rate of Blacks and Latinos that contradicts their far higher acceptance rate.

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