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In Millbridge, Maine, a local non-profit won federal funding to build housing for immigrant laborers. But local residents circled a petition and approved a moratorium on multifamily housing in order to keep immigrants out.
In Brooklyn, New York this fall, a local Hasidic community objected to safety issues and immodest clothing among cyclists on its neighborhood bike lanes. The Department of Transportation sandblasted the lanes—which guerrilla bicycle activists promptly painted back on.
And in Katy, Texas, when a local Muslim community purchased a piece of land and planned to build a mosque and school, one citizen responded by running pig races next door on Friday evenings, the holiest day of the week for Muslims (see Jon Stewart’s coverage on The Daily Show, below).
It’s easy to brand these all as examples of intolerance, NIMBYism or downright racism. In our politically correct and increasingly diverse culture, the socially acceptable stance is that diversity is an unqualified good. But in the reams of sociological research on diversity and its impacts on communities, the findings are much fuzzier. In a controversial 2007 study, Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, found overwhelming evidence that diversity corrodes social capital, community cohesiveness and trust—not only between ethnic groups, but within them.
“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. While people
in homogeneous areas report high social involvement and trust for their neighbors, people in diverse communities tend “to withdraw even from close friends, 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.”
Like it or not, diversity is happening everywhere. From Maine to the Midwest,
from the biggest cities to the tiniest crossroads, nearly all American communities are starting a new decade with projections for increased diversity and shifting demographics, if they aren’t yet seeing the reality on the ground. According to the US Census Bureau, the nation’s Hispanic and Asian populations will triple in the next 50 years, and whites will be in the minority by 2050.
The only uncertainty is how citizens and communities will respond—whether we will let diversity force us away from neighbors and toward our TV sets, or whether we can take charge of our futures. History, psychology and the hard wiring in our brains are working against us; they all suggest that we’ll act like like the citizens of Millbridge, Brooklyn and Katy when we start seeing more and more faces that look less and less like our own.
But Putnam offers up some hope: there are clear benefits to diversity (like increased creativity and economic growth) and there are concrete examples of new, inclusive, overarching identities emerging from communities once divided by culture or race. Soldiers serving in today’s integrated military develop more interracial friendships than civilians; evangelical churches in the South seem to unite in spirituality despite racial differences; young people today are significantly less likely than their parents to consider race or religion when choosing their friends and spouses.
If there’s a common thread in communities tackling diversity and differences head on, it’s a commitment to sitting people down face to face, talking about what divides us, then talking about what unites us:
Syracuse, NY’s Community Wide Dialogue program convenes ethnically diverse groups of people for study circles, which allow people of different backgrounds and viewpoints to sit down and hear what their neighbors have to say.
Residents of Victor, ID from the Church of Latter Day Saints sat down with neighbors from outside the Church to swap stories, share values and form neighborhood groups to support one another as part of the City’s Heart & Soul Community Planning initiative.
And in Anchorage, AK’s Understanding Neighbors project, 100 citizens came together for a month of dialogues on same-sex relationships, catalyzed by performance-based videos and artworks.
As communities continue to diversify in the coming years, we’ll undoubtedly hear more stories like those from Katy and Millbridge and Brooklyn, where people launch into power struggles rather than launching into conversations. But I’m optimistic that we’ll also hear more stories like those from Syracuse, Victor and Anchorage, where citizens have found that it’s so much harder to run your neighbor out of town once you’ve met and shaken hands, once you’ve watched your kids play together, or discovered that you both love the local sports team and coffee at the corner deli.
None of these communities would say that dialogue and conversation are silver-bullet solutions. But it’s a start. And I bet they would say, at the very least, that their efforts at conversation and community beat pulling the shades and watching Seinfeld reruns.