Friday, May 29, 2009

Unity in Diversity: Ideas on Steps to Building a Vibrant and Multi-Cultural Society

For those who are familiar with some of my ideas on planning and community development, you know that my ultimate social goal is unity in diversity. This requires us to prepare and consciously seeks to create diverse and varied communities, a goal that runs counter not only to previous decades and centuries of urban planning, but also to the natural tendency of humanity to either segregate others or auto-segregate. While it is fair to argue that we live in a more integrated society than ever before, I see the gap of understanding growing more intense in many ways than before, as increasingly cries of "reverse discrimination" and "racism" come from the right-wing talk show circuit filled with hooligans like Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, or Lou Dobbs. I have already discussed our social tendency to try and create a world where we are capable of personalizing and customizing our surroundings and those with whom we have contact, which is expressed in a trend for not only people of differing ethnicities to live separately, but people of differing political viewpoints or sexual orientation. Simultaneously as the trend toward self-segregation grows stronger, helped along by new technologies and the traditional urban and community planning methods, we see a breakdown in many of our often abortive attempts to encourage diversity and create a more integrated society.

Affirmative action, busing, and other programs have come under scrutiny lately, and some have been eliminated by idealogical conservative judges like Chief Justice John Roberts, who views any criteria meant to recognize or expand the diversity of a body to be illicit (as opposed to someone like me who views diversity as inherently valuable and important to maintain social cohesion and provide life experiences to young people who need to operate in an increasingly globalized world).

In my view, the entire debate on diversity has been hijacked by individuals refusing to recognize that different perspectives arise from different experiences and that these perspectives lead people to make decisions differently. This group has become more mainstream over time to the point where it is often believed that racism and discrimination no longer exist and that a person starting off, regardless of circumstances but endowed with talent, can have an equal shot at success no matter that person's ethnicity or race. New flash here: discrimination is not only prevalent, it is dominant in markets for services such as loans (unfair lending practices targeting African-Americans and Latinos are being investigated by the FDIC) and evident through the way we test and give promotions. Lately there has been a debate relating to not only the appointment of a new Justice to the Supreme Court, but also related to decisions she made regarding a test that was deemed discriminatory because of the pass-fail rates among different groups. When Roberts and Co. overturn the decision in a couple of weeks (anyone interested in the Supreme Court Stakes?), they will be saying once more that people experience the same things, think the same, act the same, have the same opportunities, and are completely unaffected by the fact that they have a different appearance and history. The world does not work this way, and it will get worse if we fail to implement policies and planning practices meant to encourage diversity and interconnectedness because the more different the life experiences and opportunities between groups, the harder it will be to compare them fairly. Basically, I view de facto segregation of today as just as impossible to achieve separate but equal as the de jure segregation of the past.

My main goal of unity in diversity is centered around another principle, that of equality of opportunity. There is evidence that many of the policies of the past that enforced integration by itself without encouraging it through the development of mixed-use neighborhoods that attracted a more diverse population have caused a number of serious problems, not least among them a sense of being thought "only good enough because of the government" on one side and "disadvantaged unfairly by the promotion of others using a false credential" on the other. The reality runs counter to claims of "equality" however, and therefore we still require a significant effort to right the wrongs of the past and work toward true equality. In this past election, and now for the Supreme Court, a chief concern among voters hesitant about Obama (I gleaned this from hearing countless interviews from varied sources) was that Obama would bring the spoils of politics to the black population since he was black. There are arguments now about picking someone based on ethnicity for the Supreme Court, even though this woman has an excellent record and, in my view, sees the court as it ACTUALLY is, a body whose views on the constitution change with those on it, and that those people are products of their environments and experiences. Why so much panic seems to arise whenever we discuss creating diverse environments, I fail to truly understand since many of the arguments against affirmative action, etc, are absurd. The reality of today is that the playing field is far from level STARTING OFF and that whites stand a better chance of success simply because of their race: tests favor us, mortgage loan terms favor us, society's views on ethnicity favor us. These are huge benefits from which we daily reap rewards and we must recognize them if we are to work toward the final goal of Unity In Diversity and Equality of Opportunity combined.


  1. Mind, I like living in culturally and ethnically diverse company. That's why, since I must live in the US at all, why I stay in the Monterey Peninsula. My landlord's Ukrainian, my favourite little restaurant is run by a wonderful Syrian guy and there are churches as varied as Korean Methodist and Egyptian Coptic Christian within ten blocks of my little flat.

    My preferences on record, I've seen little historical evidence to support the notion that such ethnic and cultural buffet communities are notably successful in the long run when compared with more homogeneous ones.

    Cultures like Japan and Korea come to mind.

    Given that, I wonder at the implicit assumption in much modern American thinking that diversity, per se, is a good idea.

  2. First, I think that diversity is, in and of itself, valuable and important. There is a huge difference also between a diverse society like ours that is relatively well integrated compared with European countries. I say relatively well because we still have massive problems, but at least people born here and given some access to opportunity can succeed and be accepted as Americans (generally, lately this has been not the case for Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans).

    There are many examples of homogeneity and diversity gone wrong. For one, there is a difference based on the causes of diversity (lumped into one country by colonial powers or naturally occurring from migration). For two, while Japan and Korea are counted as being homogenous and rightly so, it was only recently that Korea at least became successful. Also, though not diverse, they did at one point have many divisions in their societies. Countries like Somalia are also relatively homogenous and look at them. Third, using diversity as a variable to predict destabilization may seem to work, but it may well actually not be the predicting variable, but rather an associate variable. Diversity appears in places without cohesion, places that are geographically divided or remote, have oppressive governments of one group over others, etc. I have researched this very extensively and found that, while diversity is an exacerbating factor to conflict it is not a cause in and of itself to conflict. What is important is to work toward a society where people are not discriminated against based upon their identity. Also, one must ensure that there is as much interaction between groups as possible so as to avoid fragmentation.

    The US today depends on diversity, be it in the form of engineers from India or agricultural workers from Mexico. Much of what we have become and the way we view the world is a product of this experience. If we were not viewed as such a diverse and open place, I believe that it would be harder to attract real talent to the US from abroad and instead we would be like Europe with ghettos of North Africans who have no access to opportunity and face extreme discrimination (I am mainly referring to France in this..for Germany it is the Turks, for Portugal the Angolans and Mozambiqueans, etc).

  3. In the case of importing agricultural workers from Mexico one can easily make the case that the US has made it uneconomic to automate crop handling and harvesting of vegetables by suppressing the cost of farm labour via our implicit open borders policy.