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Sneetches on Beaches

by Aaron Houck

September 6,2007

As the Charlotte region grows, it is also experiencing an increase in diversity. The Charlotte of today (and the future) is not the black-and-white, Protestant Charlotte of the past. The percentage of immigrants as a proportion of total population is rising; the percentages of residents from Latin America and Asia are rising; the percentages of Catholics, Muslims, and even atheists are rising. Every day our region becomes more diverse.

What does this rising diversity mean for Charlotte? Let’s consult an expert on all important issues – Dr. Seuss. In the story of the Sneetches, Sylvester McMonkey McBean and his Star-On Machine wreak havoc on the Sneetches’ once-tranquil beaches. The machine increased diversity by dividing the community into Star-Bellied Sneetches and Plain-Bellied Sneetches. As a consequence, there was significant animosity between Sneetches who “had bellies with stars” and those poor Sneetches who “had none upon thars.” This series of events approximates the “conflict theory” of diversity. According to conflict theory, greater diversity results in increased in-group solidarity and increased out-group hostility.

Of course, it being a Dr. Seuss tale, the story of the Sneetches ends happily. The Sneetches come to realize that, Star-Bellied or no, Sneetches are Sneetches and they all must live together on the beaches. That is, as they had more interactions with different-bellied Sneetches, their levels of out-group trust increased. This understanding of diversity’s consequences is known as “contact theory” – increased contact among diverse groups breaks down barriers dividing them.

So which is it? Conflict theory or contact theory? According to Dr. Robert Putnam, Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, the answer is neither. In a new study, Putnam found that people living in diverse communities tend to “hunker down” or “pull in like a turtle.” That is, those living in diverse communities have higher levels of distrust of neighbors (out-group neighbors and in-group neighbors), lower levels of participation in community activities, and lower levels of confidence in the community’s organizations and leaders. Putnam calls this “constrict theory.” On the diverse beach, then, Star-Bellied and Plain-Bellied Sneetches do not fight, nor do they embrace. Instead, they practice avoidance and withdraw from Sneetch social life. As Putnam states, “Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

How can we prevent Charlotte from becoming a region of turtles? Putnam does not recommend that communities discourage diversity. To the contrary, he takes care to catalogue the substantial economic and creative benefits of greater diversity. Charlotte’s diversity will be important for the region’s continued economic growth. But a withdrawn citizenry does not result in a very livable community. So what are we to do?

At some level, being aware of Putnam’s research at a personal level could help. When you feel yourself withdrawing into protective shells, fight the urge. Continue to attend community meetings, participate in the political process, and seek common ground with neighbors. At the very least, talk about the weather. This engagement may reveal shared hopes and fears among people who are outwardly very dissimilar. Such connections will make our differences less paralyzing and help us focus on community building.

But there’s only so much we can do as individuals – we’re too busy to be ever mindful of our reactions to diversity. Creating community-wide identities and institutions that cut across traditional dividing lines will prove more effective in preventing an affliction of constrict theory. Putnam cites the example of religious gatherings, where participants identify themselves first and foremost in religious terms rather than in ethnic or socioeconomic terms. Another example is sports teams. Rallying around the Carolina Panthers, for instance, may help diverse members of our community bridge otherwise uncomfortable social gaps. In the end, these identities and institutions will more successfully preserve (and promote) a sense of community than reliance on individuals to guard against signs of diversity-induced withdrawal.

Diversity is on the rise in Charlotte and that’s a good thing, as it will pay huge dividends for us in the long run. We must, however, be aware of (and work against) the effects of constrict theory on our community. Otherwise we risk becoming a place where all of us Sneetches, whether Star-Bellied or Plain-Bellied, sit alone on our beaches.

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