Diversity Is an American Strength, Not Weakness

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, some people on the political right are questioning whether the change will fray the fabric of American society. In a recent segment, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked a pointed question:

“How precisely is diversity our strength?...[In] institutions [like] marriage or military units, [is it true that] the less people have in common the more cohesive they are? Do you get along better with your neighbors or your co-workers if you can’t understand each other or share no common values?”

Many were quick to decry Carlson’s question as racist. But whatever his motive, his question deserves an answer.

One common justification for diversity — which has a very long history in the U.S. — revolves around the cultural contributions that people from a variety of backgrounds bring. These can be simple things like food, clothing styles, music or holidays — taco trucks on every corner, Korean barbecue on every block. St. Patrick’s Day, Hanukkah, Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year.

A second and more subtle rationale is the idea that diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds generates diversity of ideas. There is a whole strain of research on the question of whether diverse teams, companies and other organizations produce better results. Although many studies find that this is the case, the question isn’t settled.

But these defenses of diversity, true though they might be, don’t get at the real reason that taking in immigrants from such a huge variety of backgrounds has been a winning strategy for the U.S. As I see it, the best answer to Carlson’s question is — to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy’s justification for going to the moon — that diversity is our strength not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

When everyone shares a common ethnic and religious background, it can be easy to forget how different we all are from one another. Each individual has a unique combination of ideas, personal history and worldview, but within the confines of a company, school, neighborhood or team, there is a natural social pressure to submerge these differences beneath the impulse to conform.

Diversity fights against this crushing weight. Ethnicity, religion and national origin are far from the only things that make individuals different, but because they are visible and unavoidable, they force people to deal with difference. Whether at the office, in school or within marriages and families, diversity pushes people to do the hard work of respecting each other’s unique individuality.

Individualism, that core American value, can also make institutions stronger in the long run. Instead of expecting everyone to simply know their place and follow the rules, organizations have to explicitly take their members’ unique backgrounds into account. American institutions such as public schools, universities, corporations, cities and the military have developed both official mechanisms and deep institutional cultures designed to recognize and make use of their members’ unique strengths.

And they seem to be stronger for making the effort. The U.S. has the world’s best universities, in large part because of an inflow of talented faculty and students from around the globe. Its companies are the highly profitable in the globalized age, in part because of their ability to leverage diverse workers and sell to diverse customers. Throughout its history, the U.S. military has drawn its strength from its ability to integrate diverse populations of soldiers — it remains the world’s strongest, even as more homogeneous rivals like Russia have suffered from manpower shortages. And most of the country’s big cities are thriving, especially those like New York, Houston and San Diego that have been invigorated by immigration.

Those of the same mind as Tucker Carlson will claim that all this success comes in spite of diversity, rather than because of it. But there’s strong evidence that through repeated contact, diversity leads to greater social trust and lower discrimination between people of different backgrounds. And the correlation between organizational diversity and performance might also come from this difficult but rewarding strengthening process.

In other words, diversity isn’t a magic pill that makes American society instantly stronger — it’s more like exercise. Just as lifting weights strengthens muscles, learning to deal with people who are obviously different strengthens the core American value of individualism.

Americans seem to agree. In survey after survey, they support the very ideal that Carlson sniffs at:

Diversity Is an American Strength, Not Weakness

Those survey responses are backed up by actions. As the U.S. population has become more diverse, interracial marriage has climbed steadily, and now represents more than a sixth of new marriages. Since the 1990s, Americans have, on average, been moving to more racially diverse neighborhoods, and staying there once they move. Though some Americans — no doubt including much of Carlson’s fan base — remain dubious of the country’s growing diversity, the country as a whole has embraced it.

Turn over any American coin, and you will see the words “e pluribus unum” — meaning “from many, one” — stamped in metal. That motto represents the centrality of diversity to the American experiment — the thesis that a society forged from disparate parts will ultimately be the strongest. That’s not an easy road for a nation to take, but so far the U.S. has managed to navigate it successfully, and the payoff has been substantial.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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