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Diversity is Competition

By Ruben Navarrette

A few years ago, I spoke to a roomful of human resource managers who undoubtedly expected me -- a Mexican-American -- to extol the virtues of diversity and make the case for hiring more minorities.

I did no such thing. Instead, I told them that I found this whole inclusion ritual -- where activists self-righteously bang on the doors of universities, boards, media and corporations to demand a seat at the table -- to be boring and passe.

Not that this sort of direct action wasn't necessary at one point, I told them. It was. In the 1960s and '70s, pressure tactics and affirmative action were necessary to break through barriers that some thought would never crumble. It's just that my generation has to approach this challenge differently. We need to make the case that we shouldn't have to make the case -- not in an era of globalization and expanding international markets and rapidly changing demographics.

Recent census data tell us that whites are now the statistical minority in nearly one out of 10 counties in the United States. And that number is up from what it was in 2000.

In this environment, diversifying a school's student body or a company's work force is something you do not for the good of society -- but for your own good. If you don't embrace the presence of minorities around you, chances are your competitor will and he'll eat your lunch. If you don't believe in the benefits that come from different perspectives and experiences, I told the group, then move along and don't block the merchandise.

That exchange comes to mind as I listen to the public debate over a provocative new study suggesting that diversity might actually be harmful to society. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam earned national attention in 2000 with his insightful book "Bowling Alone" about how -- at a time when we all retreat to our suburban homes after work and close the garage door behind us -- civic engagement isn't what it used to be.

Now Putnam has surveyed about 30,000 residents of 41 different communities in the United States -- which he divides up into whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. The objective was to gauge how much faith these people have in their institutions, how much they trust their neighbors, how often they vote, and how much community involvement they have. The more diverse a community, Putnam reports, the fewer people vote or volunteer and the less they give to charity, contribute to civic projects, trust local government or believe the media. In fact, the more diverse their surroundings, the more likely people are -- in Putnam's words -- to "hunker down" and "pull in like a turtle."

Time out. Go to any predominantly white college or university in the country, and you're likely to find African-American or Hispanic kids sitting in their own clusters in the cafeteria. Conservatives have been known to call this sort of thing separatism. But when whites in the suburbs do much the same thing, researchers say they're just getting in touch with their inner turtle.

You can guess what comes next. In Putnam's research, more-homogenous neighborhoods -- those that are largely white or black or Hispanic or Asian -- fared much better in terms of civic involvement. But even there, Putnam reports, all is not well. Many people are actually just as distrustful of, and disconnected from, members of their own racial or ethnic group.

The racists must have missed that part. They're too busy cheering over the headline that diversity may be dooming society, and misapplying the results of his research to reignite old battles over affirmative action. That reception gives Putnam pause. He has said that he doesn't find it pleasant to be praised on David Duke's Web site. His work has also been applauded by one of our most notorious xenophobes. Pat Buchanan called the study a "blockbuster" and insisted that it makes the case for ending all immigration to the United States, even the legal kind.

I'm not sure that Putnam's study means everything that some people attribute to it. Even Putnam suggests that social identity is something that is constantly evolving and that we're always redefining what community we're a part of. We're not just colors on a rainbow. We're suburbanites and downtown dwellers, soccer moms and little league dads, white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.

But again, I don't need to make a case for diversity. If you prefer a more homogenous environment, go for it. Be my guest. Yet be kind to your competition -- and pack a nice lunch.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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