• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

Diversity in America Today

Our physical spaces have grown more diverse, but our social circles are more homogeneous.

January 28, 2020
 
 

In 1980, one-third of white people lived in neighborhoods that were almost exclusively white (census definition: over 97 percent).

That number has dropped to 5 percent.

Another data point that illustrates the coming majority-minority nation, you might say.

And yet, as Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, quoting from a PRRI report, “A significant minority of Americans … seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness not difference.”

Note, this is not just about racial diversity, but ideological diversity as well. Significant numbers of both Republicans and Democrats say they would be very disappointed if their children married someone from the other party.

Here’s the way I’ve come to understand diversity in America today: as our geographic communities grow more diverse, our social circles grow more homogeneous.

This is something that the great social scientist Robert Putnam observed long ago in his study “E Pluribus Unum.” He opened the paper by pointing out that the one thing we can safely say about virtually every society is that it will be more diverse tomorrow than it is today. And then he showed that increasing diversity has some sobering effects, at least in the short term. As diversity grows, trust erodes, civic associations decline and people draw into themselves. They are more apt to spend more time with those who they feel share their identity (racial, ideological, religious), and also more time alone.

It should come as no surprise that social media exacerbates these problems by making it easy to connect only with identities you already like and people you have previously decided to agree with.

But this is bad for a diverse democracy. In his important book #Republic, Cass Sunstein writes about the dangers that an “architecture of control” poses to the ideals of our nation. The ability to create a #DailyMe that filters out ideas and inputs that you don’t like (or having Google/Amazon/Facebook algorithms do it for you, without your fully understanding just how much power that collective machine wields) violates what Sunstein refers to as the affirmative side of free speech, the side that “requires a certain kind of culture … one of curiosity, openness, and humility.”

To get the most out of our increasingly diverse geographies means we have to avoid the pitfall of homogeneous social circles and internet echo chambers. To this end, Sunstein and Putnam both call for an architecture of proactive and positive engagement with diversity.

Sunstein quotes Jane Jacobs at length on this idea of an architecture of engagement:

It is possible to be on excellent sidewalk terms with people who are very different from oneself and even, as time passes, on familiar public terms with them. Such relationships can, and do endure for many years, for decades … The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors -- differences that often go far deeper than differences in color -- which are possible and normal in intensely urban life … are possible and normal only when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together … Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.

It’s a beautiful passage, taken from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, a time when neighborhoods were far more homogeneous, but in-person interactions far more frequent and intense.

We live in an era when many people are online more often than they are on sidewalks.

What does an architecture of engagement that encompasses all dimensions of our contemporary lives look like?

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