Voluntary Segregation

I saw this press release and thought the headline was both clumsy and provocative: Americans Claim to Love Diverse Communities but Do They Really?  It is a report on recent work done by the Pew Research Center, and the article and its accompanying tables are worth a look.

The study makes the point this way:

About six-in-ten Americans say they like the idea of living in politically, racially, religiously or economically mixed communities….Despite these pro-diversity attitudes, however, American communities appear to have grown more politically and economically homogenous in recent decades….Most notably, nearly half (48%) of all votes for president in 2008 were cast in counties that went either for Barack Obama or for John McCain by a margin of at least 20 percentage points. Back in 1976, only 27% of all voters lived in such “landslide counties”…

 There are all kinds of angles here. Most of them are too much for a blog post, and I don’t have the background or training to evaluate or comment anyway.  But at the very least, we probably need to rethink what we mean when we claim to prefer or promote diversity.  Based on the results of this study, I would be justified in claiming that a diverse community is one where most of the people hold the same opinions I do.  And you would be justified if you called that Diversity FAIL.

Even though living in an echo chamber can be comfortable, we need to realize that there are some costs.  Very few of us can claim to have outstanding communication and interpersonal skills with people who disagree with us.  Based on the available evidence, it is safe to say that we need all the practice we can get.  Perhaps our ability to understand or even speak to people whose views are different will deteriorate even further.  We pay a lot of lip service to the goal of diversity, and it is interesting to consider the possibility that Grandma and Grandpa understood it better than we do. 




  1. I guess we need to remember that there are different dimensions of diversity. American neighborhoods could be more racially and ethnically integrated while being less politically and economically integrated, and there’s some evidence that this has happened. But it also has strange ramifications. For example, if you and your neighbors use lawn chemicals, then you probably live in a very Republican neighborhood. If you don’t know anyone who owns a pickup truck, then you probably live in a very Democratic neighborhood. It’s odd.

  2. I reckon that in the case of “diverse communities,” it all comes down to the public schools. I know that in Baltimore, the more “white” the school, the better it generally was. So, you’re going to want to live in those areas, social conscience bedamned. Sad, but true.

  3. Anyway, I guess a positive side-effect of being a left-leaning Mormon is that virtually everyone I know disagrees profoundly with me on something important. So SOME of us lead very diverse lives in the opinion arena…

  4. Mark Brown says:

    J., think of it this way: you are the counter-weight which keeps everything in balance, and therefore invaluable.

    Ronan, that’s what I thought of when I was looking at the tables. People might be responding honestly when they express a preference for diversity, but there are other factors which override that preference.

  5. People might be responding honestly when they express a preference for diversity, but there are other factors which override that preference.

    Mark, I think you make an important point here. Many of us truly do have a preference for diversity; however, when it comes to where we live, diversity is often one of the last things we take into consideration. We look at schools, home values, public services, aesthetics, etc.

    I started writing a long response about institutional racism, hypersegregation, economics, social class, etc.; but decided better of it.

    It would be nice if we could just say here’s the problem and then fix it. The issues that lead to our lack of diversity, though, are so complex and so intertwined that is difficult to figure out how to respond. In a way, we can’t fault anyone for wanting to live around people who are like them. Yet, in doing so we end up limiting our own opportunities to broaden our understanding of others around us.

    I do have to disagree, Mark, with you comment that perhaps our grandparents got it right. I don’t know about yours, but my grandparents were early middle age during the Civil Rights Era. There may have been more residential diversity then, but there was also far more discrimination. I heard some of the most racist comments coming from my grandparents who otherwise were the most loving people I have known.

  6. Is diversity on the house resale value checklist?

  7. This issue was dealt with extensively in a recent book “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop. A great read and very interesting approach. The economist did a piece on it last summer, which is detailed here.

  8. Also see the neat blog by the Big Sort author on Slate.

  9. We just moved from a very diverse community where our daughter spent her first 12 years. It was an invaluable experience for her to be surrounded by such a mix of colors, customs, faiths, tax brackets and lifestyles. As a result, she doesn’t consider those things when picking her friends, but seems to mostly measure her peers by behavior.

    That said, we moved to a largely racially and economically homogeneous community and breathed a collective sigh of relief. As a family, we’ve never been happier with our environment. For the first time my daughter can walk home from school and going to the grocery store doesn’t feel like entering a third world country.

    I think when people polled said they loved the diverse communities many were probably being sincere, thinking about the interesting food and culture and music and all the wonderful things that accompany diversity. But along with it also comes shades of polarity, contempt, class distinction and (in the case of economic diversity) more crime.

    I guess our solution for diversity was, it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

  10. What the heck – I freely and openly admit that I looked first at school districts (and of course, prices I coudl afford) when I bought my home. I’ve employed that strategy as I’ve considered job offers that might require relocation — what are the school districts around me that best fit my children’s needs.

    When my children are out of school, my wife and I plan to downsize into a nice condo somewhere, that might be in a more diverse neighborhood.

    But my children’s education comes first. Now that said … they seem pretty diverse to me (at least when I go to school plays and PTA meetings). Lots of different colors and accents, but probably not so many different income levels.

  11. I think the divisions that are en vogue now are along class line. Sure, classism and racism overlap, but it is possible to live in a racially, ethnically diverse and wealthy area and have great schools. It is not so possible in poor neighborhoods.

  12. I agree that education should be a important factor in considering where to live. For me, that means physical safety and classes and teachers from which children can learn.

    Our four children all graduated from high schools in which minority populations overwhelmingly predominated and in which such a high percentage of students qualified for free breakfasts that the schools decided it was more cost effective to simply offer free breakfasts to everyone.

    One nice thing about inner city schools is that security is a high priority and effective. Another nice thing is that the schools offered the International Baccalaureate as a magnet, and another offered a wide variety of AP courses as a magnet. The education each of our children received was better than the one I received in a virtually all white and wealthy suburb in the midwest many years ago.

    I would not be quick to write off all schools in diverse areas. There may or may not be options that allow one to obtain an excellent and safe education in a heterogeneous area, with its advantages.

  13. But isn’t the Pew’s criterion just a bad measure of what people actually mean by “diversity”? I voted for Obama; why would I want my neighbors to vote otherwise? I mean, I want my guy to win.

  14. I think I might be in the minority here, but my church experience has been a very diverse one. The most racially- and socio-economically-diverse ward I ever lived in was also the most unified, in terms of different “types” interacting and getting along and working together even with different backgrounds and opinions. I loved that ward. Because wards are determined geographically, you can end up with wards that are very homogeneous in terms of race and SES, but in my own experience, I’ve found that since we can’t self-select our wards, we end up with more diversity, and we’re all forced to make it work, and more often than not, it does.

    The most glaring exception was a ward I attended in Eugene, OR, which was deeply segregated between university students and families who had roots in the community. The “established” half of the ward was more than happy to let the “transient” half of the ward be a ward unto themselves. It was an incredibly lonely place to go to church.

    What was funny about Eugene in general, and not just that one ward I attended, was that it was a liberal community that theoretically favored diversity but attracted very few non-white people (not its fault, but the place was lily-, lily-white) and had very, very little tolerance for political diversity. If I hadn’t been a Republican before moving there, I probably would have become one out of spite.

    The college I went to had a relatively high percentage of black students–about 20%. There were interracial friendships and interracial dating, but the black students always ate in the dining hall together, as a group. Always. I suppose white students could have gone and sat with them if they wanted to–it’s not like they put up signs telling us to stay away–but I never saw that happen, and of course I never did so myself. Why we should have been so much more intimidated by each other in a cafeteria setting, I could never figure out. But that was how it was.

  15. Rebecca, one of the implications of the research Mark’s cited is that we in fact really do select our own wards. Geographically determined ward boundaries plus the extensive self-sorting in where Americans choose to live probably means that our wards are on average made up of people far more similar to us than the average U.S. church member. For example, I always seem to end up in wards with lots of graduate students, and I was also a graduate student. So, either about 1/3 of Mormons went to graduate school or my residential patterns really condition the character of my wards.

  16. I recently got to be involved in public housing renovation in my city, and the goal was to create mixed-income communities. But one of the challenges is that, by most acounts, there is a certain point when wealthy residents leave if there are too many low-income residents or, conversely, low-income residents can’t afford the neighborhood if it becomes too gentrified. I tend to agree that it has a lot to do with (often correct) perceptions of how public schools will be influenced when there is an influx of students from less educated backgrounds.

    As much as I loathe to admit it, I love living in a relatively homogenous and well-off suburb. When I lived in a city, every day I had to worry about violent crime, poverty, and pollution. I don’t miss that kind of diversity, even if I learned from it.

  17. Rebecca, your comment about students self-segregating in the dining hall makes me think. I went to a high school were that was definitely true. However, my college had very little racial self-segregation. I think the reason was that students were divided into “houses” and you ate with your house in the dining hall. This way of structuring the student experience made it very difficult for racial groups to form. So, just a thought about how we could engineering more diversity…

  18. I think what people don’t get is that familiarity breeds contempt almost as often as it breeds understanding.

    The most hostile and (arguably) bigoted statements I’ve ever heard about groups of people came from people who had direct contact and more than the normal share of understanding of the group in question.

    Case in point: some of the most outrageous, hostile, hateful, and bigoted remarks about Mormons come from ex-members of the religion. Religiously indifferent outsiders who come to Utah have reported being completely shocked at the hateful stuff people say about Mormons without any sort of protest whatever.

    Fact is, it’s easier to hate Mormons, or Hispanics, or homosexuals when you actually know them. Especially if what you know about them you dislike.

  19. “As much as I loathe to admit it, I love living in a relatively homogenous and well-off suburb.”

    Along those lines, I think, by and large, Latter-day Saints like living where there is a higher density of Latter-day Saints. Friends I have who have moved from “the mission field” back to a Utah Zion have almost always commented how nice it is to be in a place where there are substantial numbers of Mormons, the leadership is stronger, it is less likely for a person to have to hold two or three or four callings at a time, where the children can attend released time seminary, where they can daily rub shoulders with lots of other practicing Latter-day Saints at school, where home and visiting teaching can be done by walking around a neighborhood, and where the church building is a few minutes away.

    I have heard similar types of comments, even in the “mission field”, when people move from the central city to far off exurbs where the “Church operates on all four cylinders.”

    I think we all can and should find our own comfort level in the types of areas in which we live.

    While I would rather not have two significant callings at the same time, and I would have preferred the extra sleep for me and our children had we lived in an area with released time seminary, I personally prefer living in an area with a lower density of Latter-day Saints, and wards where essentially everyone (including free thinkers like me) feels welcome, needed and wanted (tattoos, sandals, nonwhite shirts, noncorrelated ideas, and all).

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    “Fact is, it’s easier to hate Mormons, or Hispanics, or homosexuals when you actually know them. Especially if what you know about them you dislike.”

    I strongly disagree with that.

    While ex-Mormons might be among the most vocal anti-Mormons, that’s different. People tend to be bitter post-divorce, too.

    Most of the time, when we get to know the feared ‘other,’ our fear diminishes. There’s ample evidence of this. For example, do you really think that getting to “actually know” the Black neighbors would make someone more racist??

  21. What Mike said.

  22. Mike, there’s some old research on racism that shows prejudice as decreasing with exposure — up to a tipping point. Past that tipping point, prejudice was said to increase with exposure. Other research suggests that, when individuals are competing for resources with members of a stigmatized group, then more direct exposure to individuals from that group can exacerbate negative sentiment and prejudice. Which is not to say that you’re wrong, but rather that this may all be complicated and go many ways.

  23. For what it’s worth, I lived in the whitest city in America. It was kind of funny. The population had gone down some, and there were worries that the city would drop below the magic 100,000 level, but when the 2000 Census figures were added up, we just squeezed by with something like 100,024. There was public rejoicing. Then a couple weeks later, the Census Bureau released the news that ours was the city with a population above 100,000 with the largest percentage of white people. At that point there was mumbling that neighboring towns were even whiter, but below the 100,000 size level.

    I’ve also lived in (not near) Los Angeles and in (not near) Baltimore. In 1967, I was even a toddler in Bell Gardens, next to Watts, and currently 93% Hispanic. Diversity is only possible if heterogeneity exists on some level—if cities, neighborhoods, and families are different from one another. If every family consisted of an African married to a European with adopted Asian children, there would be no diversity. Likewise if the mix on every street was just like every other’s.

  24. Yeah, I’d have to agree with MikeInWeHo in 20.

    I’ve seen a lot more cases where people say, “Because I know you, I feel a little more comfortable with (this group).” I mean, you see people whose prejudices against a group collide with their actual experiences with that group — all of a sudden, a parent might wonder if homosexuals are really “that bad” now that they have a child or friend who is one (that is, if the parent hasn’t done the unfortunate and cut off all ties. -_-)

    As for ex-Mormons being among the most vocal anti-Mormons, I agree it’s different and it’s for different reasons. But I think there are sometimes positives; I think you could also say that an ex-Mormon would actually be the first to adamantly defend against the *lies* of certain anti-Mormon material. I know I don’t claim to be a faithful member of any sort, but I don’t think I need any lies and misinterpretations to run into disagreements. (OK, I guess my post wasn’t as faith promoting as it should have been haha) I’ll be the first to dispel absolute lies and point out that there *are* some positives, even if I don’t fully agree.

  25. This issue reminds me of some economists who did research on how people end up living in homogeneous clusters. With pretty simple computer models, they found that even with a very slight preference for living next to someone like you, and enough chances for people to move, homogeneity quickly becomes dominant. I don’t remember who did the research, but I think it was discussed in Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail.

    I also like the point several people have made about competing interests. Asking people if they want to live in a diverse neighborhood is kind of like asking a politician if she supports education. Well sure, she’ll tell you. The question is, at the expense of what? And I suspect that many of us (I’m certainly included) have diversity of neighborhood down on the list after other concerns. Sure, it would be nice to have, but not at the expense of my higher priorities.

    Finally, I think there’s also psychology research that shows that we often don’t even know what it is we want. Or at least we’re not able to articulate it well. So asking people what they want and then expecting us to all go with our stated preferences might be a little optimistic in the first place.

    Thanks for pointing out this research, Mark. And thanks for the recommendation of The Big Sort, Jay S. It sounds like an interesting book.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 22
    That’s interesting, J. I hadn’t heard of that research. Do you think it’s valid?

    “…we often don’t even know what it is we want.” Amen, Ziff.

  27. John Hamer says:

    I love diverse communities to the extent that I’m doing something about it. Diversity is one of the top reasons we chose to move to Toronto (we could have moved anywhere, and this is where we’ve decided to set down roots). The city is arguably the most diverse, cosmopolitan center in North America — with a majority of its residents being immigrants. My weekend was a brief example. We spent Saturday morning talking Canadian politics and world political history with my partner Mike’s older cousins (who were born and raised in communist Poland; Mike is second generation American). We then had lunch with one of our Shi’ite friends and had a long discussion about Shi’a history, cosmology, and practice. Finally, we spent the evening with another friend who is Canadian of Jamaican origin (2nd and 3rd generation). Sunday we went to the Toronto downtown congregation of the Community of Christ. Members there had seven or eight different native languages from British English to Angolan Portuguese to Hungarian. I’m committed to voluntary integration as a fascinating, fulfilling, experience-rich way to live.