The opportunity and challenge of faith-based civic engagement.

The opportunity and challenge of diversity

Community connectedness linked to happiness and vibrant communities

Dimensions of social capital

Variation between communities/community analysis

Survey design, methodology, and other housekeeping details

Raw data available from Roper Center

Table 1
Communities Surveyed, Geography of Area, and Sample Size

Table 2
Effective Sample Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Percentage Estimates




The opportunity and challenge of diversity

As in some earlier eras in American history, America is rapidly becoming a more diverse society.  Just as the arrival of waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century roiled our large cities in the short run but enriched our nation in the long run, so now many of our communities now face the challenges and opportunities associated with rapid growth of racial and ethnic minorities.

Generally speaking, Americans seem open to this new diversity, at least by traditional measures of racial prejudice, as captured, for example, in the stereotypical expression of intolerance, "Yes, but would you let your daughter marry one?"  Our survey found remarkably low levels of opposition to a close relative marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity. For example, only 22% of Whites expressed any opposition to a close relative marrying a Black and 18% of Hispanics opposed this. [Others figures showing even lower opposition to racial intermarriage are given in the accompanying table.] Some of this apparent tolerance for intermarriage may reflect more recent norms that have made it less legitimate to express racial intolerance in public, but even that minimal sort of change marks a real shift in American mores.

Race/ethnicity of respondent:

National SCCBS data




Oppose somewhat or strongly a close relative
...marrying a black person



…marrying a Latino/Hispanic person



…marrying an Asian person




…marrying a white person




America's large, rapidly growing, ethnically diverse metropolitan communities, especially concentrated in the Sunbelt, constitute in some respects the most distinctive type of American community at the turn of the twenty-first century.  Indeed, important social features of places like LA, Houston, Phoenix, and the Bay Area are also increasingly mirrored in places like Yakima, Minneapolis, and Boston.  A primary asset of these communities is the richness of their multicultural "stew," adding chimichangas, kimche, and collard greens, both literally and metaphorically, to the traditional American cuisine.

Some aspects of this distinctive flavor appear in our community surveys.  Compared to ethnically more homogeneous sites, the most diverse communities in our project report a higher density of ethnic, neighborhood, and self-help groups.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, residents of ethnically diverse communities are more likely to report friendships with people of color and gays, as well as having a stronger sense of their own ethnic identity. 

On the other hand, our survey results also make clear the serious challenges of building social capital in a large, ethnically diverse community.  The more diverse a community in our study, the less likely its residents are:

  • to trust other people.  It is perhaps not surprising, given the inevitable ethnic tensions associated with rapid change, that interracial trust is substantially lower in ethnically diverse communities, but the pattern we find is much broader.  Residents of ethnically diverse communities are less likely to trust people in their neighborhoods, the clerks where they shop, the people they work with, and even (quite remarkably) people of their own ethnic group.  (In ethnically diverse communities, in other words, whites are less likely to trust other whites, Hispanics to trust other Hispanics, and so on.)
  • to connect with other people, even informally.  Residents of more diverse communities are more likely to be personally isolated; they claim fewer friends and confidants, spend less time socializing with friends and relatives, and have less sense of community with their friends.  (Compared to people in the most ethnically homogeneous sites in our study, respondents in the most ethnically diverse communities were nearly twice as likely to say that that there was no one or at most one other person "in your life with whom you can share confidences or discuss a difficult decision.")
  • to participate in politics.  People in more ethnically diverse communities are more likely to feel that "the people running my community don't really care much what happens to me."  They are less likely to vote, to participate in demonstrations or protests, or to sign petitions.   People at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are especially disengaged from politics in ethnically diverse communities.
  • to connect across class lines.  Residents of ethnically diverse communities are less likely to number among their acquaintances someone who has been on welfare, a manual worker, a business owner, a vacation homeowner, or someone of a different religious faith.  Although they are more likely to report having an acquaintance of a different race, they are not more likely to have invited those interracial acquaintances into their homes.  Moreover, as we discuss below, class differences in levels of social capital are much greater in ethnically diverse communities.

Much of our survey was designed to measure the amount of social capital in various communities, but the data also allow us to assess the social distribution of social capital in those same communities.   At any given level of social participation (say, 30 percent of the population attending public meetings), the social distribution of that participation could be quite different.  The 30 percent who attend meetings could be drawn more or less proportionately from different income, and racial, and educational categories, in which case we would describe the distribution as "egalitarian."  Or the 30 percent who attend meetings could be drawn entirely from the more privileged social strata—rich, well-educated, and white, so that rates of participation would be quite different at different levels of the local social hierarchy.  In some communities, the bank president, the bank teller, and the bank janitor all turn out for community activities, but in other communities only the president does.

Generally speaking, our survey found disturbingly unequal access to social capital in most American communities.  Rates of political participation, social participation, social trust, and the like are quite different in different social strata. For example, blacks/hispanics were less than half as likely to trust other people in their neighborhoods a lot as whites (56% of whites trusted people in their neighborhoods v. 21% for blacks and 19% for hispanics).   Forty-six percent of whites had 6 or more close friends versus only 28% of blacks and 30% of hispanics. Sixteen percent of blacks and 26% of hispanics never spoke with their neighbors versus this being the case with only 6% of whites.  Whites were more likely to vote and be registered to vote than blacks or hispanics (controlling for citizenship), and more likely than blacks and hispanics to work on community projects or sign a petition. [5] In some sense, that is, our survey uncovered the social capital equivalent of the "digital divide."  Americans who lack access to financial and human capital also lack access to social capital.  Quite apart from increasing the level of civic engagement in American communities, we need to attend to its social distribution.

This problem of inequality in access to social capital is, it turns out, greatly exacerbated in ethnically diverse communities.  More than size or wealth or education, it is ethnic diversity that distinguishes communities in which class differences in community involvement are greatest.  In ethnically diverse places like Los Angeles, Houston, or Yakima (Washington), college graduates are four or five times more likely to be politically involved than their fellow residents who did not get past high school.  In ethnically less diverse places like Montana or New Hampshire, the class gaps in political participation are less than half that large.  In terms of civic activity, there is not much difference between a high-tech executive in Houston and a high-tech executive in Nashua (New Hampshire), but there is a very substantial difference between an auto mechanic in Houston and an auto mechanic in Nashua.

In short, the opportunities for social capital building in America's increasingly diverse communities are substantial, but the challenges are great, as well.  Our evidence suggests that community activists in settings of unusual diversity need to redouble their efforts to build trust (and not just across racial lines), to reduce social isolation, to expand political participation and to bridge class barriers.  If we are creative and thoughtful, we can build greater social connectedness in diverse places, and we will surely benefit, as we have in earlier periods of our history, from the rich diversity of multiculturalism.

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