The first thing my wife and I comment on when we go to a restaurant or a park is the diversity. We generally want more. We're part of a generation of Americans raised on the "celebrate diversity" mantra. Our elementary school books were illustrated with pictures of kids of different colors. We read Toni Morrison and Richard Wright in college.
So reading Robert Putnam's study on the downsides of diversity is disconcerting. Putnam put the term "social capital" on the map in his book, Bowling Alone. Civic engagement, he believes, is crucial to America, and it is seriously in decline.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam blamed much of this decline on television (which I'm happy to have as the culprit, even as I confess that the idiot box is on in the background as I write this).
Several months back, he released a publication stating that something else essential to America is bad for civic engagement - diversity.
"Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us," he writes.
He explains further that people in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, 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."
Here's how Michael Jonas sums it up in an exceptional article on the study, "Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another."
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