Saturday, September 08, 2007

The So-Called "Downside" of "Diversity"

Once folks know you pay a rather inordinate amount of attention to the socially-constructed political notion of race, you can run, but you can't hide. You can get rid of your television. You can refuse to read a newspaper. You can ignore the headlines on your rss feed page. And you can steer clear of blogs. But somebody at some point will find you and drop something on you they know you won't be able to ignore.

For those of you who are new to these parts, I made a major move six weeks ago to a different state, a different school, and a different culture. The move, as moves always are, was beyond exhausting, but the transition, while requiring tons of work, has been much, much easier than I could possibly have hoped. One can only assume that this was a move that was supposed to happen. But there was anxiety, I guess, on levels I wasn't prepared to entertain. And the upshot of it all is that I haven't really been in a blogging mode for two months or so. The blog stats bear this out in a pretty forlorn fashion.

In any case, right after I moved, one of my colleagues at my old school, a man with whom I'd had enough conversations that he had learned exactly how to rattle my cage or, if not that, at least what bait I'm most likely to rise to, emailed me a copy of an article from The Boston Globe. He wrote only: "You've probably seen this. It's all over the internet. But I wondered what you think about it."

I dodged the bullet for the moment, but printed out the article and started shuffling it around on my desk. This corner. That corner. Underneath a stack of other stuff. And into the "to do" basket (which was mostly just filled with things I didn't know what to do with yet).

Then, a few days ago, I was having trouble with my internet connection on my office computer and I was stuck in what academics call Office Hours, during which you are supposed to be readily available to see students without an appointment, and I became so bored, I finally read the piece. I knew the die was cast when I broke out a hot pink highlighter and as I loaded up my briefcase yesterday afternoon, the article jumped in and rode home with me.

It wasn't the kind of issue I wanted my first real post in two months to be about. There's much more flashy, emotional, and dramatic stuff to about currently. But that's exactly why the study described in the Globe article is so important. It's flying under the radar. Nobody screamed or even said the N-word on coast-to-coast television. Nobody shot an elderly or mentally-challenged person of color, accusing them of going for a gun. In fact, the study sounds so low-key as to be downright boring unless you happen to be in academe or it's your job to set public policy. But this study could fuel endless processes further entrenching what some of us call "neo-racism" for decades to come. No billy clubs. No nooses. Just Power smiling congenially in blue suits and relegating people of color to the back of the societal bus -- again -- by declaring the "downside of diversity."

The study was done by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, made famous by his book, "Bowling Alone," in 2000, about how people in the United States are becoming more and more isolated from each other. This later study, which examines this idea further, is large by social scientific standards. Detailed interviews of 30,000 Black, White, Hispanic and Asian people in 41 communities from coast-to-coast is an impressive sample of the population and certainly offers the ability to generalize from the data and draw conclusions with major implications.

What Putnam was trying to determine was does diversity make a community stronger? In other words, when a neighborhood is multi-cultural, that is, made up of individuals and groups representing a diverse range of cultures, are the results as positive as many liberals have suggested? I use the word "liberals" here the way many "liberals" use it, to mean "not conservatives." In point of fact, many, if not most, liberals are not at heart vastly different from many conservatives. That is to say, conservatives want to maintain the status quo. They want to keep the power in the hands of those who have so far always had it in this country. You don't need to have a Ph.D. in history to know that White men of means wrote the constitution, putting only themselves in it, and if raw statistics are any indicator, they still hold by far and away the predominance of the power. Conservatives have no problem with this. And when push comes to shove, many so-called liberals are pretty comfortable with this, as well. Using slightly different words or selecting women and people of color who can be included without really upsetting the apple cart doesn't necessarily represent a desire for change.

Nevertheless, while many conservatives are quick to cut minorities no slack (except during election years), liberals in general have tended to purport for some time to believe that "diversity" (also called "integration" or "multiculturalism") was a good thing. A warm fuzzy, if you will. One result has been what is sometimes perceived by people of color as appropriation of their traditions by White folks with no actual appreciation for the meaning of what they feel so entitled to adopt. Another result was the implementation of programs supposedly intended to expose diverse populations to each other, especially in work settings.

The principle, apparently, was that questions such as "Why can't we all just get along?" or "Why can't we be friends?" were only problematic because different cultures hadn't gotten to know each other, had never been able to "walk a mile in the other person's shoes," so they didn't understand each other. Exposure, it was thought, would bring about understanding and then, everything would be all right.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that people of color in the Western Hemisphere have long since had a bellyful of understanding European-American cultural traditions, a number of which are predicated on the idea of their own supremacy and the reasonable nature of their dominance over everyone else. This idea, needless to say, is patently unappealing and even ridiculous to people of color, but when you don't have the power to change the norms (norms being the accepted beliefs and practices of a given society), you're stuck until you either get the power or those with the power decide voluntarily to give it up. Riiiiiight. It's White folks who lack the "understanding" about what they continue to put those they consider "others" through.

Workplace training went from being about "diversity" to being about "multiculturalism" to being about "cultural competency," but there was no change in the norms with which U.S. citizens are socialized. And understand this: not only are European-Americans taught that they are better, smarter, more beautiful, and more deserving of not only the power positions, but all the good things offered by the society. People of color are taught this, as well. From babyhood. So that even when Momma, Grandma, Uncle Junior or some teacher says, "You're as good as anybody. You can be whatever you want to be," they know when they say it that while the first statement is true, the second one may not be. And more importantly, the child will not be treated as if he or she is as good as anybody. At least, not by people in general in the United States, including other people of color. And anyway, people of color, with the most of the worst and the least of the best, inundated daily with reminders that they will be seen as less than their lighter-skinned counterparts, and feeling after five hundred years that it's always going to be this way, may understandably and often do give up trying to fight the power and either get sick, give up, or get mean.

So when the famous Robert Putnam marched his social scientific troops into 41 "diverse," "multicultural" communities, which he admits tend to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents, everything I've written here was already glued in place. Putnam admits that the factors I just named -- that he admits are typical characteristics of the communities involved in the study -- could, according to the Globe article, "depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have." That is, a large, disproportionately poor and therefore crime-ridden neighborhood where the residents move often would tend to make people isolate, distrust each other more, and lack a sense that community involvement (such as voting) would make any difference. Still, they brushed all that aside, saying that the so-called "diversity" is The Problem in these communities.

Neo-conservatives are having a field day. What we need, they exult, is more gated communities where people of like-minds and similar interests can live in orderly fashion, without any of the difficulties attached to communities with those "other" people (not like them).

But liberals are off the hook, as well. They can stop feeling embarrassed that they secretly wonder why all that training never takes, why more than forty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (which was supposed to fix everything, for goodness' sake), Black people are still poor, still going to jail, still depressed and angry and in our space with their problems.

I'm reminded of the results of a study I saw on a bulletin board years ago finding that young people are happier than old people, healthy people happier than sick people, and rich people happier than poor people. My thought as I walked away from the bulletin board was: "And they paid money to learn this?" To my mind, Putnam et al has "found" the same type of information. As long as people of color are kept disproportionately poor just because they are people of color (and this has been documented so resoundingly as to be hardly worthy of studying any further), then neighborhoods where they constitute a significant portion of the population will be marked by social problems and social unrest. I tell my students, "Wherever you find oppression, you will find social conflict." Putnam could have asked me and I'd have saved him all that work.


Anonymous said...

wow CS... HOT!!!

you're on fire... great to have you back!

Changeseeker said...

It's great to BE back, Anonymous. I'm glad you liked the post. And thanks for stopping by.

MODI said...

yes, change, welcome back!!!! Very interesting article. And very dangerious too. Once conservative academics get their hands on a new study of a month policy changes are not far off...

Blackamazon said...


Changeseeker said...

Hey, Modi. You're not wrong about that. And thanks for dropping by. I have SO missed the old crowd. :^)

Welcome, BA. I was over by you the other day, too. You were ranting about the Jena Six and I was afraid to get started for fear I'd write about that rather than this. Guess which state I'm living in now. :^o

cjwilliams said...

Great post CS!
You put into words, very eloquently, what I have stumbled to articulate.
I am a fervent believer that diversity itself does nothing to promote change or understanding. Diversity is a noun, therefore there is no action attached to it. Any change must be associated with action. We must work towards understanding and embracing our differences and then accepting and celebrating our diversity.
Diversity without understanding or tolerance, as you so eloquently stated, is a recipe for social unrest.
Thanks for the knowledge!

Changeseeker said...

Excellent point, CJ. Diversity in and of itself is only descriptive of a given state of being. Nothing more. And of course, it's not "difference" that has ever been the problem. It's the application of a hierarchy of value (as in, "this" is better than "that" which is less good than "this other"). And when those with the Power-to-Define are committed to White Supremacy (whether consciously or not), then that mindset will manifest itself, do studies, publish its work, and use that work to create public policy, further entrenching and embedding inself as institutionalized oppression. Tidy.

bubamarenya said...

First I have to say that I am posting that wonderful image on my blog. I love this post because it is so continuously obvious and yet it isn't. I have so much respect for the work that you do because I have the tendancy to want to just say, "forget it" when I hear people make such absurd conclusions.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks for the kind words, bubamarenya. Sometimes I want to just say "forget it," too. And then I remember all the people that can't ever do that and I keep on keepin' on. I love your butterflies, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Actually most sociological studies reveal that societies that are mostly ethnically, 'racially', and linguistically homogenous have a better sense of community and well being. For example, Japan is one of the most homogenous countries in the world today and has the lowest crime and social dysfunction in the industrial world. Why? Because of an emphasis on conformity, family, and nationalism. Yet here in America we sit around all day crying about the never ending cycle of hatred and bigotry that will only grow with greater ethnic balkanization. Diversity destroys diversity. It forces people to sacrifice their own unique culture and way of life for mindless globalism and consumerism. Pluralism is a failure. You can dodge the issue by claiming this study was effected by income levels, etc, but your glossing over the cold facts.

Changeseeker said...

Gee, Anonymous, is that all you could get out of that whole post? You can do better than that...