From HUD’s Fair Housing Door Exhibit in Honor of 50 years of Fair Housing. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Diversity isn’t what divides us. Division is what divides us.

Pursuing integration will help build trust.

There is a growing sense that the American project, and the Western liberal project more generally, is faltering. Our politics have become increasingly caustic, and norms of civility have eroded. There is less bipartisan compromise, and more attempts at winner-take-all brinksmanship. Partisanship is penetrating deeper into more spheres of life, to the point where even marriages are increasingly well-sorted by political affiliation.

One commonly held theory is that it’s the increase in diversity that’s ailing Western countries. This makes some intuitive sense. After all, diversity implies difference — different wants, different needs, and different interests. The more diverse a society is, the more likely these differences will manifest themselves in ways that put people at odds with each other. There will be different diagnoses of society’s problems, different goals, and different methods for solving problems and achieving social goals. Since many of these goals will be in conflict with each other, we can’t simply try to achieve them all. In that process, some people’s interests will come out on top, and some people will be upset that the country’s priorities were not their priorities.

[S]egregation, not diversity, is our problem.

But there’s another train of thought with a respected pedigree in political philosophy — it includes James Madison, John Stuart Mill and more — the idea that difference makes a liberal society stronger. When people are different, they argue their point of view. A liberal state provides a structured way to do this, as well as ways to experiment with new ideas and then debate them. However, the liberal ideal of a contest of ideas and values requires actual engagement between their proponents. That is, the ideal of productive contestation relies on the notion of a public square in which all comers can and do engage with others, challenging their ideas and being challenged in turn. It can’t work if representatives of competing ideas don’t show up.

And that’s exactly what has happened in this nation. We may be growing more diverse, but that’s not our problem. Our problem is that we don’t regularly interact with the people who are different than us. In other words, segregation, not diversity, is our problem.

Geography is one of the ways we segregate ourselves–racially, ethnically, urban, suburban and rural. Recent scholarship shows that when we do that, social trust suffers. For example, a study by Amanda Lea Robinson of racial and ethnic data from Africa shows that as ethnic diversity increases at the national level, there is less trust of others who are different. However, diversity at the local level helps push the trend the other way. The more segregated ethnic groups are, the more trust suffers. Alesina and Zhuravskaya find that, across hundreds of countries, it is segregation that lowers social trust and quality of government, not mere diversity. Eric Uslaner finds that residential segregation drives down social trust in both the United Kingdom and the United States, but that cross-ethnic friendships in integrated environments boost social trust by around 27 percent in the United States.

We need spaces where different factions can engage with each other seriously–where the marketplace of ideas is allowed to operate.

Another way we segregate ourselves is by the media we consume. Gone are the days when norms of even-handedness and neutrality of presentation governed our media exposure. Those norms were broadly predicated on a shared media environment with a few dominant players. We don’t live in that world anymore. A 2014 Pew research study on political polarization and media habits found that consistent liberals and consistent conservatives rely on entirely different media sources. There were also important asymmetries: Conservatives were tightly clustered around watching Fox News and broadly distrusted other media sources, whereas liberals consumed a greater variety of media and trusted more sources. Conservatives were more likely to only see similar opinions to their own on social media, but liberals were more likely to defriend someone on social media because of politics. Contemporary America has much more polarized patterns of media consumption than it used to, and much more polarized media outlets. These trends are only exacerbated by the algorithmically delivered news on Facebook, Google, and other platforms.

So, what to do? We need not to worry about the fact of diversity, but rather how we encourage diverse people to interact. We need spaces where different factions can engage with each other seriously–where the marketplace of ideas is allowed to operate. Here are some ideas:

  • Companies like Facebook are well-positioned to show their users what people who are differently situated than them see and are responding to. Rather than just give us more of what we like, these platforms can help us understand what other people are like.
  • Use the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction in the tax code to encourage integration. For instance, the size of the deduction for new home mortgages could be calculated on a sliding scale that relates to neighborhood diversity at the moment of the sale. This type of policy would invert the redlining policies that exacerbated residential segregation in the United States, and would plausibly generate a reasonable financial incentive to people to live in more integrated neighborhoods.
  • End the use of local property taxes to fund public school systems. This practice distorts the housing market, and increases economic and ethnic segregation. Another related policy would be to expand the size of school districts so that they cross boundaries of residential segregation, and implement an integration policy within the district’s schools.

These are just a few ideas — and admittedly, they would be a tough sell in the current polarized environment. They are not the only ideas, however, and there are many ways we can fight segregation.

And fight segregation we must. Segregation fundamentally rips the social fabric and exacerbates our worst tendencies. While we may be able to take steps to mitigate the damage caused by segregation, at some point we have deal with segregation itself. Segregation is a problem that disguises itself as a solution. We can be led to think that diversity is the source of our ills, and that we need to find ways to mitigate its effects. Instead, it is segregation that breaks the engine of our democracy. Diversity and disagreement are healthy parts of a dynamic free society. Segregation divides us and encourages our stagnation.


This piece is adapted from “Diversity isn’t what divides us. Division is what divides us,” by Ryan Muldoon, associate professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, and is part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about how thinking about faction can help guide practical solutions to combat misinformation.