Death of diversity?

Forget presidential politics. The real debate might be taking place outside that arena. And a good thing, too. The dumbed-down, lightning-fast, popular vanity answers by presidential aspirants might be irrelevant.

In August, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editorial page editor, Daniel Henninger, brought up an important concern about the times we live in. The header boldly read, “The Death of Diversity.”

He reported that Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of the best seller “Bowling Alone,” claims after 30,000 interviews in 41 U.S. communities, “People in ethnically diverse settings don’t want to have much of anything to do with each other.”

This doesn’t sound very promising for those who believe we can all not only get along but thrive when real and imagined barriers come down.

That typically happens when our social networks (called “social capital”) do their job and provide economic and cultural security. But that type of solidarity seems to go down when immigration is up.

Henninger, who otherwise appears to be sort of middle-of-the-roadish, has a definite spin on all this. He thinks advocates for campus, corporate and media diversity “gave short shrift to assimilation” and elevated “differences” to another category by challenging the old ways in court.

Because the diversity issue (ethnic, race, gender, sexual orientation) was unnerving, “little wonder the immigration debate is riven with distrust.”

I disagree with Henninger’s perspective.

Diversity issues, at least since the 1970s, have been about fairness standards. Why should all citizens pay for higher education when their own kids don’t stand a chance there, or how fair are glass ceilings for our educated, well-qualified daughters?

Pitting diversity concerns with immigration movements implicitly looks at social change from a xenophobic point of view. It makes the traditional populations seem as if they are under jeopardy of some kind because they might feel they are losing power.

In fact, Putnam says in the first line of his scholarly paper that new ethnic and social heterogeneities pose both challenges and opportunities not just in the United States but in most advanced countries. In this changing of the guard, especially in Western Europe, the traditional networks to find a job, get a mate, raise children, enjoy status and even have prominence within a circle of acquaintances is changing.

Simply put, Putnam says ethnic diversity will increase substantially. In the short to medium term, immigration and ethnic diversity will challenge the established social solidarity. In other words, “different” people will be trying to get into our networks or will be forming networks of their own.

So far, so good. But now comes Pat Buchanan and others with another interpretation. They wrongly claim Putnam says greater diversity causes greater distrust in our country. Imagine that! The increasing lack of trust researchers have reported since the 1960s happened because of immigrants of the 2000s.

Conveniently misunderstanding what Putnam says misleads the country about an important insight.

Yes, “bonding” within social groups becomes less solid in the face of diversity and immigration. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of “bridging” with non-traditional groups. That’s why Putnam says immigrant societies dampen the negative effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities.

Negative-oriented people, like Buchanan, will never get it. They can only look at a situation and think about what was “lost.” They can’t see all the new gains.

Or, as Putnam puts it, the main challenge is “to create a new, broader sense of we.”

Now of those running for president, which candidate is enough of an intellectual to understand the big picture and lead us there instead of scaring us?

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)