By Frank Fredericks
New York – In the 19 November 2011 issue of The Economist, the cover story, called “The magic of diasporas” outlines the benefits of mass immigration, particularly to the West. However the changing demographics in major metropolises can also be a highly destabilising force.
This is especially true in the United States in cities where immigration is high and demographics can change significantly in less than a generation. In some places this has resulted in an increase in hate crimes and communal tensions. Yet some cities handle racial and ethnic diversity better than others and provide valuable lessons for other communities.
One example of this is Queens, one of the lesser known boroughs of New York City. Queens is the most diverse county in America; US Census Bureau statistics suggest that 138 languages are spoken there. Is it a hotbed of racial and ethnic tension? Crime reports suggest surprisingly that it’s not. So how does Queens handle all of this diversity?
In 2010, the state reported only 51 hate crimes in Queens, or .02 incidents per 1,000 people, which is slightly less than the national average. While Queens may be extreme with regards to its diversity and its success at managing diversity, it is not the only such example. London, Kampala, Sydney and Singapore all have strikingly similar stories.
So what keeps these cities from meeting the same fate as our world’s racially or ethnically divided communities? I propose that a lack of an obvious racial or ethnic majority and a loss of communal insularity contribute to functional multiethnic communities.
The neighbourhood of Astoria in Queens, for example, is often associated with its Greek roots; however, the encroachment of other nationalities – Egyptians, Brazilians, Italians, Dominicans, Moroccans, Indians, Colombians, Turks and Chinese – has dissolved any clear majority. What is striking about this diversity is that while Greeks still have a home in Astoria, even in “their” neighbourhood, they cannot avoid interacting with others – bosses, co-workers and friends – from different ethnic communities.
In a place where you cannot eat or work without reaching outside your racial or ethnic community – where community insularity is impossible – the opportunity to isolate yourself and dehumanise another ethnic or racial community becomes difficult. Residents instead have to find constructive ways to interact with one another.
If one way to prevent racial and ethnic tension is increased interaction among groups and the lack of a clear majority, how can cities actively create those types of communities?
While immigration trends and real estate prices play a role in determining where diverse groups choose to live, local government can still play a role in improving racial and ethnic integration.
Schools offer a key opportunity. Schools with multiple ethnic and linguistic groups generate more tolerant youth. A US Commission on Civil Rights report entitled “The Benefits of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Elementary and Secondary Education” observed that black and white students who attended desegregated schools were “more likely to function in diverse settings later in life.” This can be put into practice simply. Rather than bussing students, simply redistricting school zones can lead to more integrated communities.
However, the responsibility for racial and ethnic integration does not rest solely with the government. Another way to create more interaction among racially and ethnically diverse groups is for businesses to offer products and services that cater to those beyond their own community. In another example from Astoria, one bank employs tellers from different ethnic groups, so that at any moment, they have at least one Spanish, Chinese, Greek and Arabic speaker working. Similarly, the Mexican taco truck on my block that carries a traditional Greek dish is not only widening its clientele but building a more cohesive community. Simply put, people are not only exchanging goods, services and money, but the constant engagement among co-workers, patrons and small business owners across racial and ethnic lines produces relationships, partnerships and humanisation.
Too often, when faced with challenges regarding racial cohesion in metropolises, we focus on communities that illustrate what is going wrong. When we focus on communities that are more cohesive, there are a lot of positive lessons we can learn.
Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, Çöñár Records and Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA. He is a current YouthActionNet Fellow, Soliya Network Fellow, and a Fellow alumnus of the Interfaith Youth Core.