Showing posts with label Multiculturalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Multiculturalism. Show all posts

11.11.2015

The Problems with Erika Christakis' Email : A Close Reading

I have been alternately excited and a little troubled about what's been happening this week on college campuses -- especially Yale and Missouri -- this past week.

From where I stand, what happened at the University of Missouri was pretty exhilarating. University presidents who come into the job straight from the corporate world (Tim Wolfe had a background in the software industry) may be good fundraisers, but they typically can't handle crises or criticisms the way long-term academic veterans typically can. Universities cannot be run like corporations; you can't just fire a troublesome department chair or disgruntled student group the way you can if you are the CEO of Novell. I'm pretty sure the students there will be better off in the long term with someone who really knows the university culture and is therefore better positioned to help build a better and more inclusive campus community down the road.

My own university had a crisis following an incident of racial hate speech in recent years (I wrote about it here), and responded carefully by engaging with student demands and making real changes to address ongoing problems of campus climate. Faced with a similar situation, I believe Lehigh did better -- and had a better outcome as a result.

What's been happening at Yale is a little more complex. I read Professor Erika Christakis' email when this story broke last week and immediately found it problematic, with serious issues of tone and rhetorical positioning. It's a hot mess that poses as thoughtful provocation. 

But I also don't quite understand why students can't express their legitimate anger through proportional response. Free speech advocates have been circulating a video of a student engaged in a kind of bullying and one-sided exchange with Nicholas Christakis that made me cringe, and think, "we can do better than this."

So here is my attempt to model what I wish that student would have done: a critique of Erika Christakis' email to students in Silliman college at Yale in her capacity as Associate Master. My source for the email is this website
Erika Christakis: Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.
Not starting off too promisingly. Professor Christakis wants to bring her own research and teaching interests into the conversation, but there's a disconnect between her example of the "specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics" and the question about what kinds of costumes might be appropriate for college students in a diverse academic community to wear. These are two different things. 

The flawed premise here is going to be the source of much of the more serious trouble to come in later paragraphs.
Erika Christakis: I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
What's weird about this is the presumption she makes -- as part of the university administration -- to criticize the "bureaucratic and administrative" exercise of authority over college students. If students she had been speaking with disagreed with the restrictions the upper administration was requesting, why not let them make that critique? Why is she presuming to do it for them?

There is a deep rhetorical awkwardness inherent in telling students that they should want to be more rebellious in the face of these rather sensible restrictions (don't dress in black face! don't wear a mohawk and dress up as a "sexy Pocahontas"!) than they in fact are.
Erika Christakis: It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
"Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18?" This is simple: the answer is, it's not okay if you are eighteen. Why isn't that obvious?  

College students are adults who have to take responsibility for their actions and statements. Yes, there is an old idea of college as a somewhat protected space, where students should be allowed to make mistakes and figure out the best ways to make their points felt. I probably benefited from that when I was in college and made some mistakes of my own. 

But that space doesn't exist any longer in the social media era, and it's high time we recognized that. The prospect of cameras everywhere recording everything does put more pressure on students to learn quickly how to negotiate the line between playful expression and hurtful speech or insulting appropriation. But by the time they reach college, most students have already had some experience dealing with that; people had cellphones in high school too. Growing up along these lines is now a central part of learning how to be a responsible adult in a diverse and complex society.

On with the email: 
Erika Christakis: Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.
Here I really threw up my hands. "But I really, really like them too." Really? This is just a very embarrassing thing for her to have put in this email. "Is the trade in blood diamonds wrong? Probably. But I really, really like having shiny things." 

Now let's wrap up:
Erika Christakis: Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity – in your capacity - to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?
It's not mine, I know that.

Amidst the ongoing awkwardness ("guys, why don't you want to be more offensive?") and tone-deafness there are actually a couple of good points here. I do think there is a role for students to engage in self-censure and social norming. If a student wears something that another student finds offensive, the first recourse should probably be person-to-person conversation. People who make mistakes and who attempt to redress complaints about their behavior in good faith ought, in general, to be given a little leeway. But there is also a role that can be played by administrators engaged in student life when that doesn't work the way it should. To me, it just seems really odd for an administrator to say, "why can't you guys just police yourselves?"

That forgiveness we might extend to students who make mistakes might have held true for Professor Erika Christakis, by the way. The best response to this type of awful email under ideal conditions would have been to publish a sharp refutation in the student newspaper. In this case, the letter is such a mess that a witty Yalie could probably generate an on-point parody in her sleep (i.e., "American universities were once a safe space for racist and homophobic secret societies where young men routinely got naked and whipped each other with wooden paddles as initiation rites. Have we lost faith in young people's capacity to decide whether they want to continue those hallowed traditions?").

(Update: A group of students did post a letter responding on the internet here. It makes many of the points I do above, but also has some rhetorical problems of its own.)

But of course the conditions are not ideal and we're now past the point where any of that could happen. Professor Christakis thought she was writing a note to young people to authorize them to resist what the authorities were telling them to do, but what she and her husband (Nicholas Christakis, who appears in the video linked to above) have found is a form of resistance against authority they could never have anticipated. The authority being resisted is their own.

12.03.2012

Das Racist Splits up

So: Das Racist has split up.

I have mixed feelings about it. As an Indian American kid raised on hip hop in the 1980s and 90s, I was for a while quite taken by the promise of a rap group with two Indian-American members suddenly becoming famous (cover of Spin! K Mart commercials!), even if they were a generation younger than me. But I was also often frustrated with their choices and actual performances (i.e., the terrible performance on Conan), and in some ways I'm not really that surprised they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and also some of what I found frustrating.

* * *

I've been aware of Das Racist since Abhi blogged about them on Sepia Mutiny in 2009, though truth be told I didn't actually bother to click on the link and listen until Phillygrrl did her two-part interview (Part 1; Part 2) with Himanshu Suri that September.

I also saw the band perform exactly once, at the Roots Picnic in June 2010 (an event that was photographed and described a little [not by me] here). I meant to write something about my thoughts after that event but didn't. Briefly now: I thought the rise of a rap group with a strong Indian-American presence was kind of amazing, and I wanted to love them -- but the actual live performance was a little disappointing. By that point I had been enthusiastically listening to band's mixtape, "Shut Up, Dude," for a few weeks, and even knew some of the verses to songs like "Ek Shaneesh" by heart.

But at the DR show I went to the sound levels were set so high that it was impossible to hear any actual lyrics. And Heems, Kool A.D., and Dapwell just seemed to be running around the stage like maniacs--not working at all to win over the crowd or draw in potential new fans. DR was followed that afternoon by a Black Thought side project (Money Making Jam Boys), and you could instantly see the difference between Das Racist's self-referential, semi-comic "rap in quotation marks" and the serious posture and delivery style of Black Thought and his peers. Black Thought seemed to care about what he was saying and wanted the audience to hear it and understand it; to my eye, that afternoon, Das Racist did not.

Of course, Das Racist has been, from the beginning, as much interested in commenting on rap music and hip hop culture as they have been in actively participating in it. Even the band's name refers to a famous  MTV meme from 2005 (the band was clearly ahead of the curve in naming themselves after a meme that involved a Gif!). Also, their debut track, "Pizza Hut/Taco Bell," was intended as a kind of clowning version of a rap song, and several of the band's songs on "Shut Up, Dude" seemed to "do" rap more referentially than literally. (The most compelling of these efforts is of course, "Fake Patois," which is beautifully explained and decoded via crowdsourced hypertext links at Rapgenius.)

Still, you can only get so far in rap -- a medium that prizes authenticity and the singularity of the voice (even if those values are present more in the breach than in the observance) -- while performing as a kind of postmodernist simulacrum of a rap group. Either you have to start being real and aim to have an actual career in the music industry, or the joke has to end.

I don't want to suggest that Das Racist didn't write some really amazing lyrics. On their recordings they seem to take their task quite seriously, writing witty and even, sometimes, brilliant verses.

Good vibes PMA
Yeah, believe that
Listening to Three Stacks, reading Gaya spivak
Listening to KMD and feeling weird about Naipaul
Fly or Style Warz, war-style Warsaw
Listening to jams with they pops about dem batty boys
Listening to  Cam while I'm reading Arundhati Roy
Yeah, yeah my pops drove a cab, homes,
Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home
[Again, see Rapgenius for help decoding some of the obscure references here]

Seeing the references to Gayatri Spivak, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy alongside Andre 3000, Cam'ron, and the notorious homophobia of dancehall reggae all in seven short, witty lines is pretty exhilarating. (Not to mention the element of personal biography: Himanshu's father did briefly drive a taxi when he first came to the U.S.)

In a way I am the perfect listener for this sort of song -- as a postcolonial theory scholar and old school hip hop fan, I'm exactly the kind of person who, in college and then graduate school, might have been culturally multitasking on precisely these terms. At some point, I'm pretty sure I've listened to Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang while also trying to figure out Homi Bhabha's frequently baffling Location of Culture or Spivak's even more baffling Critique of Postcolonial Reason (interestingly, both hip hop and postcolonial theory can involve readers & listeners hustling to get to the bottom of deeply obscure references).

Despite the exhilarating moments, in the end I often felt a little let down by Das Racist tracks, mainly because the political self-consciousness and desire for critique seemed to lose out to a broader enthusiasm for easier reference points: the banalities of middle-class American consumer culture, and of course the endless references to weed and booze. The booze in particular often troubles me (I'm agnostic on the weed), especially since so many accounts of Das Racist performances in recent years have described the trio as drunk on stage (Google "Das Racist drunk" to see what I mean). From Das Racist I wanted to hear more songs like "Ek Shaneesh" and "Fake Patois" and fewer that contained verses like this one:

Finna spark an L and have myself a Big Mac Attack
Known to rock the flyest shit and and eat the best pizza
Charge that shit to Mastercard, already owe Visa
Catch me drinking lean in Italy like I was Pisa
We could eat the flyest cage-aged cheese for sheez, ma
[Rapgenius]
Pizza, big macs, mastercard, visa, the leaning tower of Pisa... Oy, vey. Can we go back to talking about Arundhati Roy, Gary Soto, and Junot Diaz again? I was feeling that more.

To his credit, Himanshu has taken an approach on his solo mixtapes that seems a little more serious. There were the amazing Punjabi tracks on Nehru Jackets, for one thing (see especially "Chakklo," track 15).  But even more than that I was impressed by the searing condemnation of police brutality and corruption in "NYC Cops" (see Rap Genius again).

Himanshu's second mixtape, Wild Water Kingdom, wasn't quite as strong as Nehru Jackets overall, though I did think the track "Soup Boys," which samples the viral Indian pop hit, "Why this Kolaveri Di?" and nicely mixes the postmodernist randomness of Das Racist with elements of protest and critique (drone warfare, Islamaphobia, Hinduphobia... lyrics at Rapgenius).  


9.14.2010

Scattered Thoughts and Readings: Moorish Spain

We recently did a quick jaunt through southern Spain, piggybacked on a business trip my wife had to do in Madrid. The places we visited, Granada, Sevilla (Seville), Gibraltar, and Toledo, were sites had long wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed. (I also wanted to get to Cordoba -- a city whose name has much been in the news of late, because of the Park51 Mosque/Community center controversy -- though on this trip we ended up not having time.)

At the Al-Hambra, I was surprised to find that the English-language self-guided audio tour consists almost entirely of quotes from a book the American writer Washington Irving published in 1832: Tales of the AlHambra (Wikipedia; Full text). The historian Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, laments how Irving and a British contemporary, Richard Ford (author of Handbook for Travellers in Spain, 1845), helped through his account to shape a 'romanticized' vision of Moorish Spain in the English-speaking world -- an account that uses a kind of positive or approving Orientalism to invoke a palace life full of intrigues, impossible grandiosity, and mystery. Here's an excerpt from Irving's book, which is also included in the section of the self-guided Audio Tour of the Al-Hambra I listened to:

Muley Abul Hassan, in his youthful days, had married his cousin, the princess Ayxa la Horra, daughter of his uncle, the ill-starred sultan, Muhamed the Left-handed; by her he had two sons, the eldest of whom was Boabdil, heir presumptive to the throne. Unfortunately at an advanced age he took another wife, Isabella de Solis, a young and beautiful Christian captive; better known by her Moorish appellation of Zoraya; by her he had also two sons. Two factions were produced in the palace by the rivalry of the sultanas, who were each anxious to secure for their children the succession to the throne. Zoraya was supported by the vizier Abul Cacim Venegas, his brother Reduan Venegas, and their numerous connections, partly through sympathy with her as being, like themselves, of Christian lineage, and partly because they saw she was the favorite of the doting monarch.

The Abencerrages, on the contrary, rallied round the sultana Ayxa; partly through hereditary opposition to the family of Venegas, but chiefly, no doubt, through a strong feeling of loyalty to her as daughter of Muhamed Alhayzari, the ancient benefactor of their line.

The dissensions of the palace went on increasing. Intrigues of all kinds took place, as is usual in royal palaces. Suspicions were artfully instilled in the mind of Muley Abul Hassan that Ayxa was engaged in a plot to depose him and put her son Boabdil on the throne. In his first transports of rage he confined them both in the Tower of Comares, threatening the life of Boabdil. At dead of night the anxious mother lowered her son from a window of the tower by the scarfs of herself and her female attendants; and some of her adherents, who were in waiting with swift horses, bore him away to the Alpuxarras. It is this imprisonment of the sultana Ayxa which possibly gave rise to the fable of the queen of Boabdil being confined by him in a tower to be tried for her life. No other shadow of a ground exists for it, and here we find the tyrant jailer was his father, and the captive sultana, his mother.

The massacre of the Abencerrages in the halls of the Alhambra, is placed by some about this time, and attributed also to Muley Abul Hassan, on suspicion of their being concerned in the conspiracy.


For better or for worse, the government of Spain continues to encourage Irving's image of Granada and the Al-Hambra for Anglophone tourists to this day. (I am curious to know whether the Spanish-language personal audio tours also use Washington Irving's book as a primary source. While I was there it didn't occur to me to ask.)

11.26.2007

Review: "Queens Boulevard (the Musical)"

Over the weekend we caught a matinee of Queens Boulevard (the musical) at an off-broadway theater in New York. The play has already been covered at both SAJAForum and Ultrabrown; here are my own impressions.

The cast of Queens Boulevard has three people of South Asian descent in it, and Charles Mee, the playwright, mentions in the script that "Queens Boulevard (the musical) was inspired by the Katha-Kali play The Flower of Good Fortune by Kottayan Tampuran." The central plot of the story is partly a reworking of the Shakuntala myth, and partly a version of Homer's The Odyssey -- and sometimes both at once.

I had a number of problems with the play, but I want to start with the positives.

First, the musical numbers are terrific. At times they create a really interesting sense of cross-cultural collage, and the choreography and dancing is well-done. The show makes good use of a Punjabi wedding song (twice), an Asian Karaoke rendition of Abba's "Dancing Queen," M.I.A.'s "10 Dollar," French hip hop, a Gaelic ballad, and a half-dozen other songs. (Far and away, the high point of the show for me was the glam/nightclub dance sequence set to the M.I.A. song.)

Second, the set design by Mimi Lien is pretty brilliant -- it's a lively snapshot of a street in Jackson Heights, with Indo-Pak-Bangla shops, travel agencies, Chinese and Korean signs, and Bollywood film ads plastering every surface. It captures the energy and bustle of Queens without seeming busy.

Third, I liked the play's appropriation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala story (or see Wikipedia for a summary). Though it was introduced near the end of a play as a long monologue, it was done quite well.

Finally, the overall effect the play is going for is a multi-culti pastiche, with East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Eastern European, cultures all moving together and interacting in the same space. Getting this to work on stage reflects a sincere and admirable kind of ambition on the part of the playwright and cast, and I wish people would try doing it more.

Unfortunately, in my opinion the actual plot and the dialogue in the play as written is often quite bad. There are numerous long, ponderous monologues about love and fidelity that drag the energy of the play down, again and again.

You don't have to just take my word for it -- Charles Mee has posted the entire text of his play online at his website. Here is one of the monologues I personally found to be cliché-ridden deadweight:

I mean, you know,
it's wonderful that you've just been married
that you have found the love
we all hope for
even if we're born
with parents we love
still we look for the one who is meant only for us
and then, it seems,
when the time comes that we lose our parents
we see that any love we find in life
lives amidst these other loves we've lost and found and lost,
the love of parents
family
if we're lucky
if we grow as we're meant to grow
nourished and protected by the love of our families and our friends
so that your love for your wife
belongs to this sea of love
of social love
and is nourished and sustained by that
because, as we all come to know,
it's not enough just to experience carnal love
or erotic love
or personal love
because, none of us is safe in our own lives and loves
without the social love that makes a safe place
for our personal love to flourish
the regard, the respect,
and, then, too, as we have come to see,
the recognition of all kinds of love deepens each one
so that your love for your wife is deepened
and honored and sustained
when you act on your love for your friends and their families. (link)


If you go for that sort of thing, you might enjoy Queens Boulevard more than I did. My feeling is that Charles Mee's mistake here is to try and impose long segments of "serious" and conventional "drama" between the surrealist, cross-cultural musical numbers. A better approach might have been to keep the "straight" plot and dialogue light -- aim more for the tone of an intelligent romantic comedy perhaps -- or lose it entirely, and go entirely surrealist (in the Richard Foreman vein).

I had some other problems with the play, but I don't want to nitpick.

I should also point out that other people seem to have enjoyed Queens Boulevard more than I did. A commenter at Ultrabrown, for instance, wrote the following:

I just saw QUEENS BOULEVARD this past Friday night, and loved it! It was such a unique theatrical experience–there was music, singing, dancing, a fun script, smart direction, and strong actors. Most of the actors played multiple roles, including Debargo Sanyal, who was downright hilarious as the Paan Beedi Guy (that you mention above), as well as in his several other roles. Geeta Citygirl and Satya Bhabha were great also. And there’s a hysterical little dance set in a Russian bathhouse featuring three of the men (wearing nothing but towels and smiles!) that must be seen to be believed. I highly recommend this production for folks looking to spend a fun evening at the theater this holiday season.(link)


I agree with Ameera on Debargo Sanyal at least, who was indeed one of the standout members of the cast (I hope we'll be seeing more of him down the road, either in the theater, or in TV/movies).

Queens Boulevard (the musical) is playing at the Signature Theatre until December 30. All seats are $20; it's a small theater, so there's no bad seats.

8.09.2007

Does Diversity Cause Us To Mistrust One Another?

Via Ruchira Paul and 3QD, an article in the Boston Globe about the work of Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist. The Globe summarizes the gist of the article as follows:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts. (link)


What makes this all more interesting is the fact that Robert Putnam is not himself a conservative, but a progressive-minded scholar who supports diversity. He didn't expect these findings when he started this project, and has worked hard to make sure they are understood correctly -- though anti-immigrant conservatives have definitely been eating this up.

I want to speculate a little on how South Asian immigrants might fit into the 'diversity problem' Putnam's study raises, but before that it seems important to get into a little more detail about just what Putnam is saying. Please forgive the long quote:

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam.

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

"People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television." (link)


Wow -- that's a long list of problems associated with living in diverse communities! Personally, I've never felt the difference Putnam's study finds, but for the most part I've mainly lived in relatively diverse places. I've lived in glum diverse places (Malden, MA; Bethlehem, PA) -- where no one would give me the time of day or even stop and say 'hi' -- and somewhat happier diverse places (Potomac, MD; Parsippany, NJ; New Haven, CT; Durham, NC; and my current town of Conshohocken, PA). Most places I've lived, though, I've felt that most people do "hunker down" and spend their evenings in front of the TV. I've never lived in the vibrant downtown of a big city (sigh), nor have I ever lived in a place that was really ethnically homogeneous -- so perhaps I've only seen one side of this.

People interested in seeing more detail -- and hearing it directly from Putnam, might want to check out the article in question here. For the most part it should be readable for non-academics (it helps if you know what he means by "social capital"), though Putnam does get into some statistical analysis that goes over my head.

The other big questions are 1) why could this be happening, 2) what can be done about it, and 3) is it a permanent problem, or merely a temporary phenomenon associated with recent immigration, which will dissipate over time?

One can easily speculate that the answer to (1) has to do with the natural mistrust produced when people have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different cultural values, speak different languages, and so on. The answers to (2) and (3) are harder.

Again, thinking speculatively here, I'm not sure that anything can be actively done about (2), but I do feel quite confident on (3) that the mistrust and the lower "social capital" Putnam sees in more diverse communities is likely to dissipate over time -- as immigrants acculturate and/or assimilate. Here, one's experience as a second-gen desi comes into play. And the high levels of interracial dating and marrying out of one's ethnic group seen among second and third generation Asian immigrants suggests that blending is already well under way.

Putnam himself agrees with that prognosis, and in his article, quotes Barack Obama to that effect. Obama has called for:

. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it's not something that determines people's life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (link)


Obama is in effect calling for "race" to start acting more like immigrant "ethnicity" -- for it to be malleable, and open to the possibility of its own diminishing value as an element of division. Are South Asians a "race" or an "ethnicity"? Though I'm proud of my Indian heritage and proud of being both an Indian American and a practicing Sikh, I tend to agree with Obama on the value of thinking of oneself as part of "something larger," and of not allowing one's ethnic background to determine one's "life chances."