Howard County and ethnic diversity in the 21st century, part 2

8 minute read

In my previous post I looked at the reality of ethnic diversity in Howard County today, and concluded that Howard County is in fact significantly more diverse than its position as a semi-rural Washington/Baltimore suburb might otherwise predict, and that immigration is likely to be the primary driver of increased diversity in Howard in the 21st century. This would seem to be wholly in the spirit of Columbia’s founding vision, and thus an unadulterated good thing for all concerned.

However I don’t think things are quite that simple. In particular, part of the Columbia (and, by extension, Howard County) vision is the idea that we live in a place where neighborhoods are real neighborhoods, where people know, like, trust, and work with each other, and where they feel a sense of commitment and belonging to the community they live in. This sense of social cohesion and personal investment in the community is part of what’s referred to as (positive) social capital. In a Howard County context social capital is what makes choose civility a realistic aspiration and not an empty slogan.

Unfortunately, as shown by recent research by Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame), increased ethnic diversity is associated with lower trust (both between ethnic groups and within them), lower civic participation (as measured by rates of voting, volunteering, etc.), and a general hunker[ing] down in which people to some extent withdraw from civic life. In other words, instead of having a positive impact on social capital (as the standard diversity is good for us storyline would suggest), ethnic diversity appears to instead have a negative impact.

One can imagine what people like Pat Buchanan would make of this finding. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine it.) However Putnam’s thesis is more nuanced and hopeful than that. His central argument is that ethnic diversity doesn’t come for free, it is nonetheless worth pursuing (for a variety of reasons), and we need to actively work to realize its benefits. (For details see Putnam’s paper, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century; as Albert Ruesgas notes, it’s quite readable and well worth reading in its entirety.)

That increased ethnic diversity might negatively affect social capital is plausible from an evolutionary point of view, if people’s willingness to engage in various types of reciprocity first arose within families (per kin selection theory) and then was later extended to more extended families, tribes, and larger but still ethnically homogeneous units. Living in an ethnically diverse environment is a relatively recent phenomenon in evolutionary terms and it would be no surprise if we hadn’t yet fully adapted to it. In more recent times it’s almost conventional wisdom that ethnically homogeneous countries are able to sustain larger and more comprehensive welfare states (see for example, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, and others). Presumably this is a function of the populace in these countries having a stronger feeling that we’re all in this together.

So why bother trying to make our county (and our country) more diverse? That something is not natural, in the sense that evolution didn’t fully prepare us for it, is no argument against it. There are a host of things we do that aren’t natural from this point of view, including engaging in agriculture (or manufacturing, or knowledge work), reading and writing, and living in cities or suburbs. We’re not compelled to follow the dictates of biology if there are good reasons for us to live in more diverse societies.

In his paper Putnam advances a number of arguments on this front, most being variants on the claim that immigration and diversity in general increase regional and national creativity and economic growth. I’m sympathetic to these arguments, especially those related to immigration as a way to maintain a relatively young labor force that can offset the effects of an aging population. However one can quibble about various aspects of these arguments, and I haven’t yet reached a point where I can sort out the various factors and come to a personal judgment on the matter. (I may revisit this topic in future.)

Even if the jury is still out on the economic benefits of diversity, economics is not destiny any more than biology is. A large part of the acceptance and promotion of diversity I think simply comes down to a question of national and personal identity: At the national level the United States has traditionally been a country populated via immigration, with people actively choosing to identify as Americans as opposed to being born into a long-standing ethnic nation united by common ancestry, language, and culture. At a personal level that means that other Americans aren’t necessarily going to look like you (or vice versa), and neither they nor you are any less real Americans because of that fact.

At a personal level living in a diverse society can also enter into your own sense of who you are and what your place in society is. This struck me when I first visited Japan, and more recently when I’ve revisited my home town in Kentucky: After living in the Washington/Baltimore area for many years, and also after spending a lot of time in places like Silicon Valley, being in a more homogeneous social milieu now seems somewhat off-putting to me. Speaking personally I would now choose to live in a more diverse community, even if there were potential downsides to doing so (just as, for example, many people choose to live in cities even though they’re more crowded and noisy).

So let’s assume that (for whatever reasons) it’s a good thing that Howard County is somewhat ethnically diverse, and let’s also assume that the county’s diversity will continue to grow over time. If Putnam’s findings are applicable to Howard County (and I have no reason to believe that they’re not) what are their implications for the county?

The first is simply that we need to be realistic about the difficulties inherent in building social capital in a more diverse community, and patient about the time it will take to fully assimilate those who immigrate to the county. As noted in a recent op-ed by Putnam and Jeb Bush (yes, that Jeb Bush), assimilation has always been slow and contentious, with progress measured not in years but in decades.

Bush and Putnam give the example of German-Americans, many of whom remained in German-speaking enclaves throughout the 19th century and didn’t significantly assimilate until the early 20th century. This hits pretty close to home for me, since my ancestors on both sides migrated from Germany to the Cincinnati area in the middle of the 19th century; over the years Cincinnati supported 176 different German-language newspapers, the most prominent of which didn’t cease publication until the 1960s.

Thus if you’re freaked out by seeing all the signs in Korean along Route 40, or by being in stores and restaurants and listening to conversations you can’t understand, you’d do well to take a deep breath and try to calm yourself down a bit; those signs and those conversations are probably going to be there for quite a while.

The second implication is that decreased social capital combined with the ongoing slowdown in the national and regional economy will make it increasingly difficult to muster support for government spending intended to improve overall social welfare. This is not just a question of people asking Why are you taxing us to do things for them? Recall that Putnam found that increased diversity was correlated with decreased trust even among members of the same ethnic group. Thus it’s also a matter of people being more likely to ask, Why are you taxing us, period?

This is why although I’d be considered reasonably liberal when it comes to questions of social justice, I also believe strongly that government should exercise fiscal prudence wherever possible; otherwise it risks losing its legitimacy and endangering its ability to provide for the common good at exactly those times when providing for the common good is most necessary. We’ve seen this scenario play out in places like California, and we may end up with another example in our own backyard. If indiscriminate anti-tax and anti-government sentiment then combines with extreme nativism (a phenomenon not exactly unknown in American history) the result could prove especially noxious.

Another implication is that we should consider having an open civic conversation about an immigration strategy for the county. As with economic growth, some immigration happens for reasons that are beyond our local power to affect. However there are other cases where we may be able to help shape future immigration, through activities analogous to those employed by economic development agencies. For example, do we want to encourage immigrants with particular skill sets to move to the county? Do we want to encourage immigrants from certain countries? These are questions worth discussing, and questions I may return to in a future post.

The final implication is that those of us who feel positively about ethnic diversity and growing Howard County via immigration need to do what we can to help fully integrate newcomers into the community and rebuild depleted social capital. Bush and Putnam provide an overview of some ways to do this, tilted toward things that can be done by government (e.g., through social services, the school system, etc.) or third sector organizations like FIRN, the various ethnic community associations, and others.

However at its heart social capital is created by person-to-person interactions, and so individual initiatives are key. Some people will play an outsized role in that, like the bridge figures and xenophiles that blogger Ethan Zuckerman has written about. (As Zuckerman puts it, Bridge figures build bridges between cultures, and xenophiles walk across them.) As for the rest of us, even the most mundane actions can have meaning; for example, translating a restaurant’s Chinese menu may seem trivial, but if it helps more people experience the authentic food that’s part of a group’s culture then that’s a step forward worth taking.

In the end the old adage holds true: There is no free lunch, and if you want something you’re going to have to work for it. Building a new community that could at least partially transcend historical divisions of race in America was worthy work for the pioneers of Columbia. Extending that community to include people who arrive here from the four corners of the earth will be worthy work for those of us who live in Howard County at the dawn of the 21st century.