Putnam Misses the Point. There’s No Trust Without Justice.

By Seth Freed Wessler Sep 06, 2007

Robert Putnam is a quintessential white liberal academic, the type known for being well meaning. In college, I became pretty good at running a pink highlighter over this type of scholarship. The main problem I saw with their work is that they tend to want everyone to come to the table (or some other metaphor for getting involved) without recognizing that some people are locked out of the room or have no way to get to the front door. Putnam, acclaimed Harvard professor and author of Bowling Alone, has recently arrived with a new piece of liberal scholarship on diversity and community. He finds that communities are less tight when they’re made up of different kinds of people. The more diverse the community, he tells us, the less its members trust each other, whether or not they look or speak alike, and the less they participate in collective life or believe in their own power to change their communities and politics. Conservatives like the rabidly anti-immigrant pundit Pat Buchanan and a Wall Street Journal editorialist (who Putnam wants nothing to do with) have used the findings to assail immigration and diversity in general, even though Putnam makes clear that "ethnic diversity is, on balance, an important social asset". Indeed, Putnam remains liberally optimistic for what Barack Obama described as "an America where race is … not something that determines people’s life chances." But building a society where race does not determine people’s life chances demands policies that address the fact that it does. Putnam’s well-meaning liberalism does not help him here, and while he does all he can to extol the virtues of diversity, he misses the point, still blindly focused on the open table rather than the, padlocked, mine-filled road to get there. Getting people more involved in community and politics should start by ending policies of abandonment and punishment that define the experiences of many people of color in the United States; policies that deem Latino and other immigrants of color social leeches, label Black youth dangerous and anti-social, and categorize Arabs, South Asians and Muslims terrorists. Putnam mentions that public protests are one form of community participation on the rise in diverse communities. This point deserves more than a passing mention. Before communities can be thriving, interactive and, most of all, trusting places, public policy will have to stop being racist and color-blind and start addressing racism and racial inequity. It looks like the people in the streets, often people of color, immigrants and their allies, have been demanding just this. For a more detailed look at the report.