Robert Putnam's fears have come true. The Harvard political scientist worried that some people would use his latest research to argue against immigration, affirmative action and multiculturalism. Sure enough, at least one favorable commentary has popped up on the Web site of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. But, not to worry. Putnam's findings are valuable for sane people, too.
Putnam is best known for the eye-opening "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," a 2000 best-seller about Americans withdrawing from civic engagement in recent decades. Now he has a massive new study, based on interviews with nearly 30,000 people across America, which comes up with what he called in a recent Boston Globe interview "an uncomfortable truth."
Contrary to the cherished American notion that our racial and ethnic diversity makes us stronger, Putnam has found quite the opposite, at least in the short term. The greater the diversity in a community, the less civic engagement it shows, he says. Fewer people vote. Fewer volunteer. They give less to charity. They work together less on community projects.
And they trust each other less, says Putnam, not only across racial and ethnic lines but also within the lines. In other words, residents of the most racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods show the least trust not only of other races but also people of their own races.
Does that mean people are better off living with, as the old racist mantra goes, "their own kind"? Or that we should impose a moratorium on immigration, as my column-writing colleague Pat Buchanan suggests in the piece that Duke touts?
Not quite. In fact, in his first paper about his new research, "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century," Putnam says he wants to make three points perfectly clear:
1. "Increased immigration and diversity are not only inevitable" in modern societies, he writes, "but over the long run they are also desirable. Ethnic diversity is, on balance, an important social asset," as America's history demonstrates.
2. "In the short to medium run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital," he writes. "Social Capital" is the strength of relationships that bond you to people who are like you or "bridge" you to people who are different from you.
3. "In the medium to long run, on the other hand, successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampen the negative effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities," says Putnam. "Thus, the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of 'we'."
In other words, birds of different feathers do not flock together in the short run, but it's worth a try. They can benefit in the long run, especially if they develop a larger, more inclusive sense of identity to, say, their community, their country or some other larger sense of purpose.
In that sense, Putnam's "bunker buster," as one headline writer called it, confirms what many of us already know. Living with diversity is a lot like my first days in the army. It may not be comfortable at first, but you learn to get along.
Our platoon at Fort Dix, N.J., offered a classic Hollywood portrait of young guys plucked by our draft boards from every race, region and religion. Many of us came from backgrounds that conditioned us to distrust people who didn't look or talk like us. But, united by a common sense of mission and no-nonsense orders from the top to observe no color but Army green, we learned.
The military, religious institutions and earlier waves of American immigration provide Putnam with good examples of how Americans learn to live comfortably with diversity. The military offers a particularly quick turnaround after the mid-1960s, when racial tensions on America's streets spilled into military outposts.
In a 1996 book that he footnotes, "All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way," authors Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler explain how. After years of trying to ignore racial differences, the Pentagon did an about-face. Everyone was ordered to be on the lookout for discrimination and other sources of racial tension or inequality. The military, once a bastion of segregation, became a model of interracial and interethnic cooperation.
Sure, diversity makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Differences cause tensions, at least in the short run. But history shows we can come out OK, once we learn how much we have in common.