Racial diversity might make people feel warm and fuzzy about "race relations," but it's wrong to assume that living in diverse places means life gets better for people of color.
A new study of 1,504 Californians by USC Dornslife/Los Angeles Times is a sobering reminder of this. The results suggest that residents of California — an extremely racially diverse state — feel great about race relations there. But at the same time, they know the discrimination black and Latino people face, especially by police, is still a huge problem.
The lesson: as the United States moves toward becoming a "majority-minority" nation (in which people who identify as something other than white are predicted to outnumber people who identify as white by about 2044), it's important to manage expectations and seriously question the belief that different ethnic groups living near each other — and even getting along with each other, for the most part — means racism will die out.
A lot of people associate diversity with improved race relations
"California is the most demographically diverse community in the history of the planet Earth," Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll and executive director of the Unruh Institute of Politics of USC, told LA Weekly.
According to the most recent US Census, the state's population is 39 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian, 7 percent black, and 2 percent Native American (including some who identify with more than one racial group).
The people the pollsters talked to were well aware of their community's diversity, with most saying their neighborhoods were at least somewhat diverse and almost a third reporting that they lived in "very diverse" areas.
There was a dominant view that this diversity was a good thing. The majority said it had a positive influence on their communities, and most said race relations in the state were at least "stable" or "improving," with nearly 75 percent saying things were "excellent" or "good" in their neighborhoods.
And according to LA Weekly, a large majority — 65 percent of white voters, 61 percent of Latin American [Latino] voters, 60 percent of African-American voters, and 79 percent of Asian-American voters — believed race relations were better in California than in other parts of the country.
"When you know your neighbor and have more diverse communities, which California does, it becomes much harder to discriminate against other people," pollster Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm on the bipartisan polling team, told the LA Times.
Kanevesky's take is something you hear a lot — and it's no surprise that it's often stated as fact. President Barack Obama echoed it in a February interview with Vox. He admitted that he worried a lot about "the immediate consequences of mistrust between police and minority communities" but said he was optimistic generally about this issue, and about racial polarization in politics. Why? Because of the country's increasing diversity:
"But over the long term, I'm pretty optimistic, and the reason is because this country just becomes more and more of a hodgepodge of folks. Again, this is an example where things seem very polarized at the national level and media spotlight, but you go into communities — you know, one of the great things about being president is you travel through the entire country, and you go to Tennessee and it turns out that you've got this huge Kurdish community. And you go to some little town in Iowa and you see some Hasidic Jewish community, and then you see a bunch of interracial black and white couples running around with their kids. And this is in these little farm communities, and you've got Latinos in the classroom when you visit the schools there. So people are getting more and more comfortable with the diversity of this country, much more sophisticated about both the cultural differences but more importantly, the basic commonality that we have."
But diversity doesn't cure racism
While Californians generally feel really good about the impact of diversity on their communities and in their personal lives, most were under no illusions that it would put an end racism or its consequences.
"An overwhelming majority of voters — of all races — say blacks and Latinos still face substantial discrimination in California," the LA Times reported.
More than three in four African Americans surveyed said police were tougher on black people than on other groups, and they weren't alone. More than half of Asian voters and 42 percent of white voters saw the problem, too. And just 36 percent of Californians felt law enforcement officials treated all racial and ethnic groups equally, suggesting a problem that persists in the face of the country's enormous diversity.
"I personally feel that the white people are trying to push back time and take blacks back where they used to be," Joyce Cox, 79, told the LA Times.
She's not the first to suggest that increased diversity not only exists alongside discrimination, but can actually foster racial anxiety rather than harmony and equality.
The Atlantic reported in May 2014 on a 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, a controlled survey experiment designed to assess anxieties concerning the changing racial makeup of the country. While the Americans who agreed that "the idea of an America that is not mostly white bothers me" weren't a majority in any demographic, they certainly weren't insignificant, either, as you can see in the Atlantic's chart:
A reality check for a rapidly diversifying country
A lot of other states are following in California's footsteps when it comes to racial diversity.
You can really get a sense of how things are going to change, just by comparing the amount of darker blue shading on the 2060 map below with the amount in the 2014 map, both of which are from "States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974-2060," a report by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, and demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution.
The predictions for when the 22 states that are expected to be majority-minority by 2060 will each hit their tipping points certainly signify changes in America.
But we should pause before buying into the myth that there's a direct line between these changes and decreased racism in the most important areas of American life.
California's story — one in which people generally feel good about diversity and its role in their day-to-day interactions, but there's a widespread understanding that black and Latino people still suffer discrimination, especially at the hands of law enforcement officers — is a sobering reminder not to assume that melting pots automatically create equality.