Why Diversity

“Diversity” became the announced goal of schools and employers and liberal activists once American voters and courts turned against “affirmative action” for black Americans (never mind the idea of reparations). Earlier, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Johnson and Nixon administrations had pushed racial “goals” (not quotas, they stressed) in a not-so-transparent effort to redress some of the economic disadvantages accrued from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. However, with votes such as the 1996 passage in California of a constitutional amendment outlawing state institutions from considering race in employment, contracts, or education, and with Supreme Court cases reaching almost as far, liberals retreated from affirmative action to promoting “diversity.” Ethnic diversity, they argue, is good for everyone, not just minorities; it makes learning, working, neighboring, and deliberating better (e.g., here). Thus was born a defense for legally considering race just a bit, as well as a set of careers in diversity promotion, management, training, and law.

Opinion leaders from school teachers to corporate CEOs now promote, with some support from research, the virtues of diversity. Yet, out of view from most public discussion of the topic, a line of scholarly research emerged that implies the opposite. It suggests that the more diverse neighborhoods, cities, or countries are, the less people cooperate to common ends and the more they socially disengage; they “hunker down,” in one colorful rendition. A new paper by Maria Abascal and Delia Baldassarri in the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology revisits this academic line of research and forces us to think back to why diversity was important in the first place.

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Family Wages

In 1800, most American families were strictly patriarchal. Men deployed the women, youth, children, and, in some instances, the apprentices, servants, and slaves of the household on behalf of the family business. They virtually owned those lives. “Over the past two centuries,” however, “this patriarchal family system collapsed, as household heads lost control over their sons, wives, and servants.”

So writes the eminent historical demographer Steven Ruggles in his 2015 presidential address to the Population Association of America. (Presidential addresses provide opportunities for academics to think big.) He describes this change and then explains it as largely the result of fluctuations in young men’s wages over the past two centuries. Ruggles goes on to claim that in the twenty-first century the American family is not just changing but is unraveling, again as a result of what has happened to young men’s wages.

Ruggles’ is not the only explanation for the collapse of the patriarchal system (see below), but it is well-documented from the massive volumes of census data that he has archived as head of the Minnesota Population Center.

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Immig Cartoon

Cartoon re Irish and Chinese Immigrants, S.F., 1860s

The 1965 Immigration Act literally changed the face of America, creating a much more diverse society and bringing the proportion of foreign-born in the country back to levels not seen since about 1910. Today, roughly 13 percent of the population was born elsewhere; add in their children and close to one in four residents are immigrants or second-generation. In this 50th-anniversary year for the Hart-Cellar Act, the National Academy of Sciences–our nation’s official authority on matters scientific–is issuing two reports summarizing years of research on what followed from that act. The first report, focusing on the social implications of recent immigration, is out; another, focusing on the economic implications, will be issued soon.

The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (pdf) presents no dramatic revelations for those who have followed the accumulating research. (That Mexican immigration has so sharply tailed off recently that Asian newcomers now outnumber Latin ones may be a revelation to some.) The short story is that immigrants and their children seem to be assimilating, becoming American, at about the same rate and in about the same ways as earlier generations of immigrants. Becoming more American, however, is not always a good thing.

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Lily Tomlin’s star turn, the recent movie, “Grandma,” presents–alongside a lot of over-the-top histrionics and screaming–a key truth about the role of grandparents today. More so than in previous generations, grandparents today provide a safety net for and probably bond with grandchildren. And the grandparents who do so are disproportionately grandmas.

In an era when Americans worry about the durability of the family–well, Americans have worried about the family in almost every era–grandparents have become, perhaps with little notice, more important in various ways. The reason starts with simple demography: There are more grandparents in more young people’s lives.

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The picture below (Hopper, 1932) suggests that the absence of conversation is not new.

You wouldn’t know that if you swallowed The New York Times publicity for Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, which apparently argues that smart phones are alienating everyone from everyone else. A front cover essay in the September 26 NYT Sunday Review by Professor Turkle combined with a forthcoming rave review of the new book by novelist Jonathan Franzen–huh, a novelist? when there are many expert researchers who could have reviewed?–and a 2012 preview by Turkle as well as a 2013 one–leave quite an impression that smart phones have silenced Americans.

Deja vu all over again (requiescat in pace, Yogi Berra).

In 2011, Times reviewer Michiko Kakatuni gave Turkle’s previous book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, a strong thumbs-up and science journalist Jonah Lerner  (later discredited) wrote the Sunday book review, albeit with some criticisms. One should also note that Professor Turkle has long been the go-to source on the social consequences of digital communications for the Times.

All this coverage despite researchers’ skepticism, based on systematic evidence, about the claim that digital technology is alienating Americans. (My earlier comments are here and here.) Indeed, the Times itself published a piece last year in the Magazine entitled, “Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All,”reviewing some of the science. I guess someone at the paper did not get the memo.

So, what am I complaining about now?

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Just Deserts

Now that growing economic inequality is widely accepted as fact—it took a couple of decades for the stubborn to acknowledge this—some wonder why Americans are not more upset about it. Americans do not like inequality, but their dislike has not increased. This spring, 63 percent of Gallup Poll respondents agreed that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed,” but that percentage has hardly changed in thirty years. Neither widening inequality nor the Great Recession has turned Americans to the left, much less radicalized them.

This puzzle recalls the hoary question of why there is no socialism in America. Why is the United States distinctive among Western nations in the weakness of its labor movement, absence of universal health care and other public goods, and reluctance to redistribute income where the elderly are not concerned? Generations of answers have ranged from the American mindset (say, individualism) to exercises of brute political power (e.g., strike-breakers, campaign money) to the formal structure of government (such as single-member districts). Some recent research presents a cultural explanation—specifically, Americans’ tendency to see issues of inequality in terms of deservingness . . . . See the rest of this post–and its discussion of Americans’ belief in the “just society”– at the Boston Review here.


Re-posted on 3QuarksDaily (September 29, 2015)

Cell Phone Etiquette

People have been complaining about bad cell phone behavior for years. What are the twenty-first century’s Emily Post rules for cell phones and texting? (For the millennials: Emily Post was the great doyenne of etiquette and manners advice in the twentieth century. Her descendants still produce advice books under her name. And there actually are new-era Emily Post rules; see below.)

In 2012, John Dvorak, a tech journalist, complained that “somewhere along the line, it became okay to yak on the phone in the restaurant . . . . Nobody cares unless you are talking too loud or making a scene. . . . [T]he mobile phone has plagued etiquette on the planet . . . . [and] all the old manners have been tossed out.” That same year, a chip-making company sponsored a survey which revealed that “most adults believe that mobile manners are getting worse (81%) and wish people practiced better mobile etiquette in public (92%).” Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a large survey on “Mobile Etiquette.” Its findings suggest that people have some real peeves, but also that some consensus on proper cell phone behavior is emerging.

This fraught discussion recalls one about a century ago about the proper manners around non-mobile, landline telephones. Indeed, people generally meet new technologies with a period of bungling exploration toward a manners of proper use. (How much do people follow the etiquette? Well, that’s another issue.)

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