In BROAD CITY, Ilana uttered a memorable quote: “Statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s going to be, like, caramel and queer.” Considering the effect of climate change on migration; globalization, and the vast differences between demographic growth across the world, that sounds about right. But can we contribute towards harmony in such diverse societies? That’s the million-dollar question for social scientists. The newest Harvard study suggests that it’s possible to raise tolerant humans: it could be enough to just have one black neighbor in childhood. It turns out that kids that grow up in diversity are more likely to become liberal decades later.
The neighborhood effect
The Harvard study is unprecedented: never before did the scientists analyze such long-term consequences of early exposure to diversity. This time, they leveraged machine learning to dissect an impressive dataset, including 650,000 Americans recorded at the 1940 census. The subjects were all male, as it would be difficult to track the women who changed their surnames.
The Harvard team explains that they were able to measure “the exact residential context of nearly every person in the United States in 1940 and, for men, connect this with the political behavior of those still alive over 70 years later.”
The results showed that if white Americans spent their early years next to black neighbors, they would be more likely to become Democrats. Those who lived next to Black neighbors when they were young were about 1.5 to 4.2 percent more likely to vote Democrat in 2005/2009. The percentage was even higher in 2017 – 2.8 to 5.3 percent.
The scientists also analyzed Republic Party registrations, and a Black next-door neighbor means a similarly decreased likelihood to vote Republican. The study team also points out that their method deems any other variable very unlikely, and the results are consistent.
Kids and schools: diversity or re-segregation?
The percentages don’t look like much, but imagine – what would happen if each of these Americans had a Black neighbor? “Ask how many more or less people would have different racial attitudes if we had a more or less segregated society at the time — it adds up to a lot,” explained Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard University, for Los Angeles Times.
This study is not solely about rooting out racism: it makes you wonder about diversity per se. In the Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell dedicated three episodes to inequality and problematic financing of the US education system. In one of the episodes, he depicts the contrast between two colleges that both offer high-quality education. One is thriving because it caters to the rich. The second one is struggling, fighting tooth and nail to stay available for all students regardless of background.
Think of kids and diversity. The kindergartens, after-school activities, the “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, summer camps: segregation is still very much present on many levels. But now we know the vicious circle doesn’t need to continue.