Last week Huffington Post put out an article declaring the 10 “most and least diverse cities” in the U.S., based on research from Brown University.
In a country where diversity is, on the surface, an honored value, the implied message from this article is that more diverse cities are better. The problem is that the “most and least diverse” labels are one-dimensional: the only measure is how many people of different races live in those cities.
Racial percentages don’t tell you anything about the way people actually interact. Washington, D.C., where I went to college is number 4 on the most diverse list. D.C. is also the most segregated city I’ve been to. You can track the dividing line between white and non-white neighborhoods by riding a cross-city bus or Metro and seeing where skin colors swap.
What’s more, racial composition is only one of many measures of diversity. A significant omission from the picture of these “most and least diverse” cities is any information about class and economics. Is the gap between rich and poor any bigger or smaller in less diverse cities?
Take West Virginia, for example. It has 4 cities on the list of least diverse cities, but WV is also one of the poorest states in the country. What is the concentration of wealth in its cities, and how does that compare to the rural areas?
As my friend Emily, a WV native, put it:
WV is famously ‘not diverse’ in the sense that it’s about 96% white. But that means that people don’t really think about things like, where do black people and immigrants live? Because they tend to be stratified in urban centers. Or, what is the class makeup of these cities or the places around them? Or, where do people who live there come from?…So this ‘diversity’ thing tends to mask or erase other kinds of differentiation that might be more powerful in various settings.
I like racial diversity (and so does Emily). I like that when I go to Harrisburg or Philly, I interact with people of color, because it doesn’t happen much at home. That doesn’t make Duncannon a bad place, though—it has its positive and negative cultural characteristics like anywhere else. And for me, understanding who has power and who doesn’t is much more useful than simply calculating proportions of people by race when trying to understand the dynamics of a place.