Zocalo Unsquared

This is an essay that I was asked to prepare for the Zocalo Public Square website.  The editors decided not to publish it because they didn't like my writing style and they didn't accept my findings--even as they initially said that they were excited that my work was a counterargument to Putnam's.

On November 30, 2012 Sarah Rothbard of Zocalo wrote me:

I'm writing to see if you might be interested in writing a piece for Zócalo, in conjunction with your new book, about why Robert Putnam is wrong about diversity destroying trust and civic engagement. We're fans of Prof. Putnam here at Zócalo--but, as we're based in one of the world's most diverse cities, we also hope, fervently that he's wrong in at least some way. We'd like very much for a piece that explains what he's missed--and what evidence you have that the opposite is indeed true.

I accepted her invitation and put aside other work before a two week trip abroad and sent the piece below to her at the end of December.  She then indicated to me that she would be editing it to make it "less academic."  I responded that I care about my writing so I would ask for light editing.  This led to a break off of discussions and I contacted the senior editor, T.A. Frank.  He took a month to get back to me because he was "too busy" and then sent me a version with modest editing and a request for more evidence (even if that would make the piece more academic).  I returned the manuscript with my responses (mostly accepting) of his editing and then another month went by as he was always "too busy."  I finally got an edited manuscript from him that drastically altered my writing style, inserted some grammatical errors, and challenged my findings.  Twice in this shortened piece, he challenged me with the claim that "correlation is not causation."  I didn't know that?  He doesn't know how social science research proceeds (by the way, I don't use simple correlations).  He also challenged my claim that the segregation of African-Americans matters more for social cohesion than the segregation of whites.

So since he didn't believe my evidence and wanted me to accept his stylistic changes, including the grammatical errors, he decided not to publish this piece when I declined to accept his criticisms.  Here is the article I wrote for them.  Read it and judge for yourself:


The United States–and every Western country–is becoming increasingly diverse.  Non-Hispanic whites have been a minority in California since 2000 and the United States is projected to be a majority minority nation by 2043.  The issue of immigration has surged to the top of the political agenda–here and throughout the West (and elsewhere).

            Many Americans celebrate diversity.  But others worry that there may be too many people who “don’t look like us.”  Could diversity threaten social cohesion?

            Alberto Alesina and Elana LaFerrara argued in 2000 that “...individuals prefer to interact with others who are similar to themselves in terms of income, race, or ethnicity...”  More famously, Robert Putnam wrote in 2007:

...inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour 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....this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.

            These values and activities form what many call “social capital”–the trust and civic participation that makes for a vibrant society.  In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, Putnam sounded a clarion call that social capital in America had declined sharply from the highs of earlier years, most recently the 1960s.  Most of the blame, he argued, rested with the rising number of hours we spend watching television–which gives us a distorted view of the world and is largely done in the privacy of our homes.

            Now Putnam offered a new villain–people who are not like us.  Sociologists and social psychologists have long recognized that we hang out with people like ourselves (which they call “homophily”).  Gordon Allport argued in 1954: “We don’t play bridge with the janitor.”  It’s not simply a matter of whom we hang out with–it’s whom we see all around us.  Increasing diversity makes us uncomfortable and we turn inward.

            Or does it?  I argue in Segregation and Mistrust: Diversity, Isolation, and Social Cohesion that Putnam gets it wrong.  It is not diversity, but segregation that drives down trust.  It is not contact with people who are different from ourselves that makes us less trusting, but the lack of contact and isolation that threatens social cohesion.  When we live apart from people of different backgrounds, we won’t get to know them. 

            We should care about this because trust matters.  And the sort of trust that is important is faith in people who are different from ourselves.  Now you may feel good that I trust my wife, but that won’t solve social problems.  It is far more critical that I (and you) trust people who are different from ourselves–despite these differences, we still see them as part of what I call “our moral community.”  What happens to them affects me–and we must realize that we are all in this together.  So I may trust my wife, but if my trust stops with my family, friends, and people who are like me, we won’t get the benefits of this value. 

            And the benefits are many: Trusting people are more tolerant of people unlike themselves and are more likely to do good deeds (giving to charity and volunteering their time) for people of different backgrounds.   Trusting societies have lower levels of corruption, lower levels of crime, higher rates of economic growth, and better functioning governments.

            We don’t become trusting simply by hanging out with people who are different from ourselves, much less with people like ourselves–as in Putnam’s famous bowling leagues.  When we live apart from people who are different, we will be less likely to believe that we share a common fate–and we will develop negative stereotypes about them.

            Immigrants naturally choose segregated communities when they arrive in their new countries so that they can find social support, common languages, religious communities, and their native foods.  But they become isolated into little ghettos that reproduce the problems that they left behind in their home countries.  If they remain in these communities, they face life-long isolation and stigmatization that breeds despair.    New generations become more pessimistic-and more dependent upon the welfare state and less trusting.  The only interactions they are likely to have with people of the majority population are as bosses or as officers of the legal system.

            In the United States, the most isolated people are not new immigrants.  They are African-Americans, who live in what are called “hypersegregated” neighborhoods.  Not only do many African-Americans live in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods in small areas of central cities, they are also live closer to other segregated minorities and farther away from the majority white population. 

            Residential segregation has many negative consequences.  Segregated neighborhoods have higher rates of crime, much more unemployment, worse academic outcomes, and almost no social cohesion.

            Most critically, segregation is linked to high levels of inequality.  In my 2002 book, The Moral Foundations of Trust and in a new paper for the Center for American Progress (“Income Inequality in the United States Fuels Pessimism and Threatens Social Cohesion”), I show that rising  economic inequality is the most important source of our declining trust in others.  In 1960 58 percent of Americans believed that “most people can be trusted,” compared to 35 percent in 2010.  Economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) increased by 20 percent from 1966 to 2006.   It is now well established that segregation is a principal factor leading to more inequality, as I have demonstrated in my new book.  Noted sociologist Elijah Anderson and economists Samuel Bowles, Glenn Loury, and Rajiv Sethi have made similar arguments.

            You can’t have segregation without diversity, so is there really much to argue about?  Are they not two sides of the same coin and is the difference, as the English say, “not much of a muchness?”  Diversity and segregation are not the same thing.  Consider two neighborhoods in the figure below.  Each neighborhood has equal shares of blue and red residents.  In the community on the left, the two ethnic groups live apart from each other, divided by a highway or railroad tracks, so there is less of an opportunity to interact.   In the community on the right, the neighborhood is mixed.   Each blue (red) resident has at least one red (blue) neighbor.   Yet the  indices of diversity are identical.

            I show that segregation matters–but it is not simply a matter of where you live.  You may live in an integrated and diverse neighborhood, but you also cannot walk around with blinders on.  Following Allport’s famous arguments of the 1950s, the optimal conditions for tolerance (and trust) is to live in an integrated neighborhood and have friends of different backgrounds.  I show that these optimal conditions do indeed boost trust in analyses of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Sweden.  In some analyses, diversity also reduces trust, but these results are not consistent.  Living in an integrated and diverse neighborhood with friends of different backgrounds helps develop trust in people who are different from yourself.  So it is not diversity that drives down trust, but isolation. 

            We shouldn’t get too giddy that we have “solved” the problems of diversity by recognizing that segregation is the real source of the problem.  We can’t integrate neighborhoods by fiat.  Many government programs and fair housing laws in the United States have had limited success in reducing segregation.  Other countries such as the United Kingdom and Sweden had greater success, but ultimately these government programs were abandoned as the state privatized much public housing.  And the ultimate source of segregation is not laws dictating where people could live–or realtors’ discriminatory practices, although both have been important.  The major cause of segregation is whites’ reluctance to live among minorities.  Integrated and diverse neighborhoods arise when the majority (white) population is already trusting.  So it is not so easy to build trust by integrating neighborhoods if you need a trusting population to begin with.

            The good news is that residential segregation has been declining in the United States over time.  The bad news is that economic inequality has been increasing.  And the really bad news is that the connection between racial segregation and income segregation across American communities is becoming stronger.  As wealthier blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans are more likely to live in white neighborhoods, poor minorities are increasingly isolated in poor communities with poor education, high crime rates, and few jobs–and little chance of moving up and out.  While residential segregation has been falling, our schools are becoming increasingly segregated.

            It may be reassuring to know that diversity–which is really a short-hand for the share of minorities in a community–is not the problem.  But we should not rest easy that the problem has a simple solution.  We are still divided by race–and we see this in the politicization of the immigration debate. The problem is not immigrants or other minorities.  The problem is whether the majority–in the United States and the other countries I examined–sees minorities as part of their moral community.   As the Reverend Jesse Jackson said during the school busing controversies in the 1970s, “It’s not the bus.  It’s us.” 

            Putnam has several suggestions as to how to overcome the problems he sees stemming from diversity, including providing public spaces such as community centers and athletic fields for people of different backgrounds to interact with each other and especially to “foster... a sense of shared citizenship.”  He is on the right track, but veers off it.  Minorities (and immigrants) already share these public spaces (what Anderson calls “community canopies”) with whites.  Majority whites, here and in Europe, don’t interact much with minorities and we simply can’t exhort them to do better.  But we can design programs that allow their children to play with kids of other ethnicities and races–and I show in The Moral Foundations of Trust that having a friend of a different race as a child makes you more likely to trust others as an adult.

            How do we develop this sense of shared citizenship?  Putnam suggests that we provide support for local programs that reinforce ties among immigrant groups.  “Bonding social capital can thus be a prelude to bridging social capital....” he argues.  Well, no.  Multiculturalism leads to less trust, not more trust.  The more we reinforce a sense of ethnic identity, I show in Segregation and Mistrust, the less minorities will believe that “most people can be trusted.”  We need to foster what social psychologists call a “superordinate identity,” or more simply an identity that makes people of all backgrounds see themselves as Americans first.  They can be Cambodian-Americans, but not American Cambodians.  The United States has done a far better job than most European countries–and our neighbor to the north, Canada, where multiculturalism began.  We have emphasized assimilation rather than multiculturalism.  We share customs and it is heartwarming to read about how people of different background offer recipes based upon their cultures for the “trimmings” at Thanksgiving. 

            Identifying as an American is not sufficient.  As long as inequality persists–and it is growing–and divides the majority from the minorities, we will still be a society segregated by neighborhood, class, ethnicity, and race.  The American motto (and the title of Putnam’s essay) is “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “one out of many.”  Too much inequality precludes this sense of unity that lies at the heart of our “problem” with diversity.


Figure: Diversity and Segregation


High Diversity, High Segregation                                                                              High Diversity, Low Segregation