Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about releasing his new research, and understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties.
Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”
This is one of those things so blindingly obvious that only an academic or a lefty could be surprised. Now, immigration may be necessary and in the long term it can be a plus if there is assimilation.
Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.Exactly. Immigrants need to assimilate and these days assimilation seems to be a bad word in some quarters. How to get to a broader sense of 'we' when students are taught that we are an evil nation, the civic virtues have been replaced by a I-don't-care-do-your-thing tolerance through withdrawal, and English is not required in the classroom? Even in the best of circumstances true assimilation can take many generations because folks naturally tend to marry within their own ethnic group, live in their own ethnic communities, and attend their traditional churches. This is the consequence of people feeling more comfortable among their own. I remember seeing somewhere that the Boston Irish didn't really assimilate until after WWII when people started moving out of their tight knit urban communities into suburbia. And I'll bet there was a lessening of community spirit in the process.
Let me posit a few other places where diversity might not always be the best thing. Should all colleges be coeducational? What about traditionally black colleges? What about busing? What about sports? What about ethic enclaves? I think there are pluses and minuses to all of these things. The trick is to balance a larger sense of belonging to the US with a local sense of belonging to a community, and it is not clear to me that the two are unrelated. Given time, communities will mix, but the time taken might be much longer than commonly thought. The danger is that the communities never assimilate together except during times of social upheaval and forced integration -- WWII and the armed forces being a classic example. That is probably one reason all those war movies had stereotypical representatives from the different communities: the social mixing no doubt left a permanent impression on the participants.