In the comment thread to our recent post about John Derbyshire’s book We Are Doomed, commenter JW asked one very good question: why, if increasing ethnic and cultural diversity lead to corresponding increases in tension and strife, does New York City (where I live) manage to function as well as it does?
Why indeed? To the visitor or casual observer it does seem that New York is the perfect poster-child for the ideology of Diversity: an extraordinary amalgam of people from every corner of the world, a confluence of colors and cultures on a scale unmatched anywhere on Earth. If critics of Diversity are right, it shouldn’t last another day. How can it possibly work?
Diversity does have its blessings: to the tourist, the city’s variegated cultural landscape is a major attraction, and as such is an important economic engine. The most obvious benefit of diversity in New York City, and the one most appealing to the millions of visitors who flush their wallets here every year, is the astonishing range of gustatory pleasures on offer — New York simply has to be one of the best places in the world to eat. The city also provides unique opportunities for all sorts of cultural cross-pollination: in music, literature, the visual arts, dance, theater, and countless other areas as well. (I’ve been involved for decades, for example, with Chinese martial arts here in New York, and have performed in Chinatown’s lion-dance parade every Chinese New Year since the mid-70’s.) But the image of the city as a magical place where racial and ethnic divisions simply melt away is very much mistaken, particularly when one looks beneath the rarefied socio-economic stratum inhabited by the city’s elites — the public face of New York’s exceptionalism — which consists of a self-selecting group of uber-achievers skimmed from amongst the brightest and most creative people from all over the world.
The history of New York bears ample witness to diversity as an engine of conflict. The city has always been an unusually diverse one, and it has grappled with religious, ethnic, and racial divisions since its founding. And as in other large, multi-ethnic cities, tension between New York’s subpopulations has always simmered, and has often boiled. Mass violence, such as the Crown Heights riots back in 1991, is rare, but that is only a small part of the story. In particular, it appears that diversity, rather than bringing people together, produces greater isolation — an effect examined by political scientist Robert Putnam in his 2006 paper E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century (which we will look at shortly).
Outside New York’s elite academic, cultural, and athletic circles, people tend to “hunker down” with their own kind. Even in my own neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn — surely one of the “bluest”, most progressive communities in America, people tend to socialize almost exclusively within their own groups — and at lower socioeconomic levels the isolation only deepens.
The effect in the public square is chilling. Because in New York one is constantly brought into contact with others whose moral norms and social protocols are unknown, and may be markedly different from one’s own, New Yorkers, to preserve the peace, must learn to withhold a great many social behaviors that are the hallmark, and social glue, of more homogeneous societies. Claude Fischer discusses this in his 1996 essay Uncommon Values, Diversity, and Conflict in City Life:
How is order sustained in the morally disunited city? I can speculate about how an amoral order is sustained.
At the personal level of public encounters, one solution to the threat of moral anarchy is avoidance. Americans (more so than Europeans) have dealt with urban anxiety by residential segregation. John Schneider, for example, has shown how in mid-19th-century Detroit spatial segregation helped reduce middle-class encounters with public disorder; similarly, racial segregation today reduces whites’ crossing paths with blacks whom they find threatening (Schneider 1980; Liska, Lawrence, and Sanchiriko 1982).
Wariness is a related strategy. An on-guard attitude can help forestall upsetting encounters; that stance often distinguishes the urban veteran from the rural “hayseed.” Stereotyping is also useful, providing guides, whether illfounded or not, to interaction among people of different backgrounds.
Coercion is a historically common solution — blatantly present in police states that enforce the cultural understandings of the ruling group, more subtly so in democratic societies (e.g., Dray-Novey 1993).
Several scholars have explored another kind of solution: a public etiquette — proper manners such as “selective inattention,” nonverbal cues of recognition, careful physical spacing, and what might be called “elevator behavior”— which lubricates what might otherwise be frictional situations. Such etiquette seems most developed in cities.
This is indeed how it goes here in Gotham. We interact civilly with any and all, but on the streets and in the subways New Yorkers have learned to avoid eye contact, to speak, generally, only when spoken to (and to be spoken to by a stranger in New York, particularly a stranger not of one’s own in-group, whatever that may be, is immediate cause for defensive wariness), and to meticulously avoid physical contact. Any one of us who rides the subways daily, as I have done for more than 30 years, has seen minor incidents between dissimilar people — an accidental jostle on the platform, say, or at the subway door — flare suddenly into vicious profanity (often racially inflected), and even actual violence.
From Putnam’s essay:
Disorder also threatens at the level of groups. Here, too, cities seem to maintain order with amoral solutions.
What is probably most common in American cities, after residential segregation, is order through negotiation among diverse groups. Sometimes it is tacit negotiation, as when police ignore illegal activities favored by particular groups, and sometimes it is explicit negotiation that may involve shifting coalitions of interests. Such negotiations are usually unequal ones. Behind the negotiation lies the latent threat of disorder — of disruptive strikes, ethnic violence, withdrawal, and the like. Moreover, negotiated solutions chronically need patching and are usually on the verge of collapse. Therefore, negotiation compounds the general sense that urban life is morally chaotic and tenuous. It is.
The problems caused by diversity affect every aspect of public life, and greatly complicate the operation of government. In Jared Taylor’s 1997 essay The Myth of Diversity, we read:
[I]t is now taken for granted that public services like fire and police departments should employ people of different races. The theory is that it is better to have black or Hispanic officers patrolling black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Here do we not have an example of one of diversity’s benefits?
On the contrary, this is merely the first proof that diversity is a horrible burden. If all across America it has been demonstrated that whites cannot police non-whites or put out their fires it only shows how divisive diversity really is. The racial mix of a police force — touted as one of the wonders of diversity — becomes necessary only because officers of one race and citizens of another are unable to work together. The diversity that is claimed as a triumph is necessary only because diversity does not work.
The same is true of every other effort to diversify public services. If Hispanic judges and prosecutors must be recruited for the justice system it means whites are incapable of dispassionate justice. If non-white teachers are necessary “role models” for non-white children it means that inspiration cannot cross racial lines. If newspapers must hire non-white reporters in order to satisfy non-white readers it means people cannot write acceptable news for people of other races. If blacks demand black television newscasters and weathermen, it means they want to get information from their own people. If majority-minority voting districts must be set up so that non-whites can elect representatives of their own race, it means that elections are nothing more than a racial headcount. All such efforts at diversity are not expressions of the inherent strength of multi-racialism; they are admissions that it is a debilitating source of tension, hostility, and weakness.
Just as the advantages of diversity disappear upon examination, its disadvantages are many and obvious. Once a fire department or police force has been diversified to match the surrounding community, does it work better? Not if we are to judge from the never-ending racial wrangles over promotions, class-action bias law suits, reverse discrimination cases, acrimony over quotas and affirmative action, and the proliferation of racially exclusive professional organizations. Every good-sized police department in the country has a black officers’ association devoted to explicit, racially competitive objectives. In large cities, there are associations for Asian, Hispanic, and even white officers.
Now add to all of this the constant and divisive racial/ethnic wrangling in New York politics — which has always been deeply polarized along such lines — over political appointments, school-board control, preferences in the awarding of government contracts, tax abatements for minority businesses, hiring practices, and so forth. What you get is an enormous, depressing burden on the efficiency and productivity of government and business, a burden that necessitates the creation of a huge, ponderous and costly apparatus for its management. If you Google the phrase “office of diversity”, you will get almost 7 million hits (and that’s just for the exact phrase — see for yourself here). Imagine what the cost to the nation of operating all this colossal bureaucracy must be, even if we leave aside the additional costs of compliance imposed on schools, governments, and businesses. I think it is safe to say that none of this even existed 40 years ago.
This is a huge topic, and I have barely skimmed the surface here. But we have already run rather long for a blog-post, and I think that we should answer JW’s question. He wrote:
You live in NYC if I remember, perhaps the most diversely populated place on earth. I don’t suppose that the level of diversity has gone down in the past decade, but crime certainly has, and standard of living certainly hasn’t deteriorated in general.
Are you still afraid that continued “balkanization” of NYC will send it down the toilet any time soon?
The answer is: probably not. History does show us that New York City, like the other great cities of the world, is a very resilient place; its position as a global capital of finance and the arts gives it a uniquely sturdy keel. But even if accelerating diversity doesn’t sink us anytime soon, the city already pays an enormous social and financial cost for it. This is not to say that the city’s matchless diversity provides no benefits: surely it does indeed, as enumerated above, and it arguably generates some revenue, too, primarily in the form of tourism (after all, New York’s vaunted diversity obviously marks it as one of the most vibrantly cosmopolitan places on Earth, and a fascinating place to visit). But the many burdens created by all this diversity are hard to carry even in the best of economic times, and when things go sour — as they are doing at the moment — they add a terrible strain, and they are getting heavier with every passing year. I appreciate that moderate diversity makes for a much more interesting society, and I am not arguing for monoculture of indistinguishable clones. But we have achieved moderate diversity — and then some — already. What I am opposed to here is the ideological fixation — now, it seems, an unexamined postulate in almost all public discourse — that insists that more diversity is always better. If rising diversity brings rising costs and challenges, why go out of our way to create more?
And here’s something else to think about: great cities are far more enduring than nations and empires. Stresses and strains that a city like New York can bear only with difficulty may prove utterly insurmountable at the enormously wider scale of the United States as a whole, where local repulsions and attractions can easily overwhelm the far more diffuse forces of state-level cohesion.