Americans must expand their sense of identity to stave off the divisive effects of immigration, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam said in the lecture, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in a Changing America.” A new national identity one that welcomes the diverse backgrounds of immigrants should be promoted by policymakers and embraced by citizens, Putnam told the audience in Filene Auditorium on Friday afternoon.
How to integrate immigrants into society should be included in the dialogue as policymakers discuss how to combat illegal immigration, Putnam said.
In the current immigration debate, too much focus has been placed on how to keep immigrants out “how high the wall should be,” Putnam said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Illegal immigrants can be detrimental to integration because they are more isolated from society, according to Putnam.
Policymakers must expand national identity to embrace immigrants through increased funding for English-language training, civic education of new immigrants and increased federal support for local services in areas that have not experienced heavy immigration in the past, Putnam said.
Rather than suggesting that community diversity should be discouraged or that immigration should be slowed to avoid this conflict, Putnam said that Americans should work to deconstruct existing notions of what factors constitute significant cultural differences. Most social divisions are artificial and can be avoided by developing a broader sense of inclusion or identity, he said in the lecture.
“The question is not how to make them like us the question is how to make a new us,'” he said.
Putnam pointed to two modern institutions the U.S. military and large evangelical Christian churches as examples of organizations in which people from diverse backgrounds look beyond cultural affiliations in search of a broader, more significant identity. He noted that in each of these cases, individuals’ backgrounds are not erased, but simply cease to be significant social barriers.
“Think over the next several months about how we as a country can make a more encompassing sense of we,'” Putnam said.
Putnam discussed diversity and immigration as they relate to his overall research on social capital, in which he considers social networks and connections as assets with tangible value. His books, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” published in 2000, and “Better Together: Restoring the American Community,” both discussed shifts in social capital among Americans in recent decades.
Putnam emphasized the distinction between “binding” social capital social networks that link similar people and “bridging” social capital, or networks that link diverse people. He said that while bridging social capital is more beneficial to society in the long run, it is also more difficult to generate.
Increasing societal diversity, which is occurring in all industrial nations as an outgrowth of immigration, is generally a beneficial asset, resulting in expanded cultural richness, creativity, productivity and global development, according to Putnam.
Recent evidence suggests that increases in diversity might inhibit the development of social capital in the short term, Putnam said.
Putnam cited evidence from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conducted by researchers from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000, suggesting that people in more diverse communities tend to have more negative views of people from different racial backgrounds. Even though people in less diverse communities have fewer opportunities to have friends of different backgrounds, they still have more friends from different racial groups, Putnam said.
People in diverse communities are less likely to trust people of their own race, including their own neighbors, according to Putnam.
He added that people in more diverse environments tend to be less engaged in their community, are not as prepared for collective action problems such as disasters and have fewer close friends than people in less diverse locations.
People living in more diverse areas such as Los Angeles tend to “hunker down” and possess less social capital than those from more homogenous settings such as New Hampshire, Putnam said.
The Rockefeller Center and the Vermont Humanities Council co-sponsored the event.