Don’t Blame Diversity for Distrust – NYTimes.com

Good piece by Maria Abascal and Delia Baldassarri on disadvantage and unequal opportunities being more important to trust than diversity:

For his own part, Professor Putnam filed an amicus brief in the Fisher case objecting to the use of his findings in arguments against affirmative action. In the brief, he states his belief that diversity can be beneficial in the long term, despite its short-term drawbacks.

Our research reveals that even in the short term, diversity is not to blame. We independently analyzed the same data set Professor Putnam used, and we demonstrate that disadvantage, not diversity, is responsible for distrust.

At first glance, our results resemble those of previous studies: People in more diverse communities report lower levels of trust. Scholars and columnists alike have taken this to mean that diversity reduces trust, but we argue that this interpretation is flawed.

A thought experiment sheds light on what is going on. Imagine two schools: a homogeneous school with all Dutch students and a diverse school with half Dutch students and half Bolivian students. If we are studying student height, we would most likely find that students in the diverse school are shorter, on average, than students in the homogeneous school. Hardly anyone would then argue that attending a diverse school makes students shorter. Dutch people are taller than Bolivians, on average, and this explains the difference between the schools. Substitute trust for height and communities for schools, and, based on a similar association between diversity and trust, scholars have concluded that living in a diverse community makes people less trusting.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it draws attention to an important possibility: Trust, like height, might be determined by pre-existing differences between groups, rather than exposure to diversity. In the United States, blacks and Latinos report lower levels of trust than whites, regardless of the communities where they live. The average homogeneous community (defined as a census tract) in the United States is 84 percent white, whereas the average diverse community is 54 percent white. Together, these patterns indicate that diverse communities do not make people less trusting. Rather, distrust is higher in diverse communities because blacks and Latinos, who are more likely than whites to live in one, are less trusting to begin with.

If diversity doesn’t reduce trust, what does? According to our analysis, disadvantage accounts for lower levels of trust. If you have a low income, or less schooling, or are unemployed or experiencing housing instability, you are likely to report lower trust. To make matters worse, if your neighbors experience similar disadvantages, this compounds your distrust. Taken together, this suggests that it is not the diversity of a community that undermines trust, but rather the disadvantages that people in diverse communities face.

This is why blacks and Latinos report lower trust than whites: Socioeconomic and neighborhood disadvantages are more common among these groups. We suspect that blacks and Latinos also report lower trust for other reasons, including continuing discrimination, victimization by the police and hostile political rhetoric.

Finally, our only finding related to diversity confirms a familiar story about white intolerance toward minorities. Whites who live among more blacks and Latinos report slightly lower trust than those who live in predominately white communities. This is a far cry from the claim that the minorities who are diversifying the nation are responsible for declining levels of trust.

This distinction has important implications for the affirmative action debate and social policy in general: If diversity is the problem, then policies should aim to protect or even promote homogeneity. If, instead, whites’ bias against blacks and Latinos is partly to blame, then policies should aim to allay these biases and their consequences for targeted groups. This was part of President John F. Kennedy’s original rationale for affirmative action: to address unequal opportunities across “race, creed, color.” Many of the conditions that motivated Kennedy’s directive persist today. Blacks, Latinos and members of other disadvantaged groups still face unequal treatment across a range of arenas, from the labor market to housing to education.

The current debate on affirmative action is playing out in the context of widespread anxieties about the changing face of the nation. Research that links diversity to negative outcomes legitimizes these anxieties. And it doesn’t help that this research has found its way into arguments against affirmative action. But disadvantage and unequal opportunities, rather than diversity, present the biggest obstacles to our getting along. By doing away with affirmative action and limiting access to higher education for blacks and Latinos, we will aggravate the disadvantages these groups face, while accommodating the intolerance of whites toward minorities.

Source: Don’t Blame Diversity for Distrust – NYTimes.com

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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