Do you trust your neighbors?

Your answer may depend on how many people in your area look like you.

New research says the more racially or ethnically diverse the community, the less people trust one another. That holds true for trust within groups as well as between them. So whites in diverse communities distrust whites as well as Latinos, blacks and Asians.

Call it the “turtle effect,” says the lead researcher, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. People pull into their shells in the face of difference.

The findings – from a survey of 30,000 Americans – fuel an already fractious debate about immigration. But far from proffering a doomsday scenario of societal breakdown, Putnam says, his research illuminates initial human reaction and how to overcome it.

“Getting used to diversity is not easy. Having different people around us is genuinely unsettling,” Putnam said. But he added, “Over time, especially with some thought and care, we get used to diversity. That’s what the country has done in the past, and that’s what the country is going through now.”

Published this month in Scandinavian Political Studies and presented in a lecture in Sweden last fall, the research is making waves in the U.S. and abroad as leaders struggle to govern increasingly multicultural countries.

Putnam, an international guru of sorts on what makes democracies work, is best known for his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The 2000 book plots a decline in civic involvement – from voting to attending public meetings – as Americans increasingly hole up in front of their televisions.

He launched his newest research, also in 2000, to better understand what makes communities cohesive. He surveyed people from Los Angeles to Lewiston, Maine.

One trend leapt out.

In example after example, those who reported the biggest civic disconnect lived in more diverse places.

They had less confidence in local government, leaders and news media; less belief in their own political effectiveness; and lower expectations that others would cooperate to solve common dilemmas. They were less likely to give to charity, less likely to have a lot of close friends and less likely to register to vote.

Their only high scores came in interest and knowledge about politics; participation in protest marches and social reform groups; and time watching TV.

So, the picture that emerges: well-informed but frustrated and angry TV junkies.

The research also packed a surprise.

Past theories, Putnam says, argued that diversity either fosters tolerance and solidarity or it breeds conflict among groups. But researchers always assumed that cohesion within groups remained strong.

Putnam’s research found that people in the most diverse areas withdraw from everyone.

The finding that convinced him? In cities such as Los Angeles and Houston, people were least likely to say that they trust their neighbors – meaning their immediate neighbors – “a lot.” Putnam’s assumption: Even in these highly diverse places, because of de facto residential segregation, your immediate neighbors tend to look like you. Nevertheless, you don’t trust them.

But isn’t it a no-brainer that people don’t trust one another in chaotic metropolises such as Los Angeles and Houston?

Putnam says he held off on publishing results until now in part to figure out whether something else might explain his findings. He and his colleagues controlled for everything from poverty, crime and education to language and residential mobility.

Results showed that even comparing two equally poor, equally crime-ridden areas, trust among neighbors was lower in the more diverse locations.

“I don’t think that progressives do ourselves any favors by denying that getting comfortable with diversity is not easy,” Putnam said. “We also don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming that this is a permanent fact of life that never changes.”

The trick, Putnam says, is a shared identity that transcends differences. Parents come in all colors. So do truck drivers. So do Americans.

It’s a lesson that places such as Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Portland, Ore., learned a long time ago.

Irish and German immigrants founded the church in the late 1800s. African Americans from the South filtered in as they arrived to work in Portland’s shipyards.

Today the church serves 300 families, including U.S.-born whites, blacks and Asians as well as Filipino, African and Vietnamese immigrants. At Sunday Mass, the color of the parishioners is nearly as varied as the colors of the stained-glass windows.

But, as Putnam pointed out, harmony doesn’t just happen.

Over time, Immaculate Heart leaders such as the Rev. Nicolaus Marandu set a positive tone. Marandu, who hails from Tanzania, launched small cross-cultural dinners with parishioners after coming here in 1994.

“It kind of breaks down the barriers when people are open and welcoming of a person no matter what their color is or their condition,” says Sam Jackson Jr., an African American and longtime church member who helped Marandu plan the dinners.

Marandu also embraced new groups – inviting Filipinos to launch prayer circles and welcoming African immigrants. Each culture stages a fundraising dinner for the church. Everyone is invited. The key, found Putnam and Marandu: Celebrate and recognize individual cultures but use a common identity – in this case Catholicism – as a bridge.

Putnam says people must continue building bridges and that the immigration debate must expand. “Our current debate is should we welcome people or not welcome them, rather than how do we learn to live together,” he said.

He points out that in 1970, when Portland was whiter, civic involvement was about at the national average. Then, while the rest of the nation fell into a “civic coma” for the next 30 years, Portland ramped up activism.

Putnam’s conclusion: As Marandu has shown, the strength of communities is not determined by demographics alone. City leaders and ordinary citizens can also make a difference.

Erin Hoover Barnett is a reporter for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. E-mail her at [email protected]

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