A Peek at America’s Super-Diverse Future

Straight Up: The mix of people at one Southern California mall shows the promise of our changing demographics.

Generic image (Thinkstock Images)
Generic image (Thinkstock Images)

(The Root) — Diversity works. Every now and again it is refreshing — indeed, profoundly rejuvenating — to get a reminder of that fact. And I don’t mean this as just another celebration of the political coalition that has twice elected Barack Obama. No, I mean this in terms of everyday experience and the real future of America.

Our future will certainly involve an even more diverse nation than the one we know today. Indeed, America is well on its way to becoming the great super-diverse nation.

During the same week that the American Conservative Union held its deeply revanchist annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, and the last dull echoes of Mitt Romney’s failed effort to “take back America” could still be heard, I visited Southern California and my former neighborhood mall. Westfield Culver City Mall, née Fox Hills Mall, is a coursing, dynamic, vivid exemplar of the new American pattern of “super-diversity” in full florescence.

Ironically, the term “super-diversity” was coined to characterize the impact of immigration on the United Kingdom. The term is intended to describe a social milieu in which terms like “pluralism” and “multiculturalism” no longer seem sufficient. It pertains to a circumstance in which the complexity of mixing diverse peoples has reached a truly remarkable level.

The term tries to capture a social setting in which a massive number of dynamic and interacting people share a community but hail from a vastly dispersed and large number of countries, have different religious and cultural traditions, speak different languages and have varying levels of human capital and class resources.

Certainly the term fits Westfield Mall, and indeed the larger city of Los Angeles. Consider that regular report cards (pdf) on the performance of the Los Angeles public schools are issued in nine languages: English, Spanish, East Armenian, Tagalog, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Russian, Arabic and Korean. In addition, students attending the Los Angeles Unified School District come from households where no less than 92 languages are spoken!

I went to Westfield Culver City at the suggestion of a colleague and friend who thought that as a sociologist, I really needed to see the new mall. My friend is a skinny, gregarious, 6-foot Chicano-studies scholar who studies poverty and low-wage earners. He often brings his young boys to the mall. He assured me that this mall “is what super-diversity, the new L.A., is all about. You gotta see it.”

As I waited for him to arrive, I stopped to buy a large cup of Brazilian Cerrado coffee. The young man working the counter had a shaved head, many tattoos on his arms, a goatee and what appeared to be jade ear discs — and, among other things, happened to be white. I apologized as I handed him a $20 bill for my $2 purchase. “It’s all I’ve got,” I said.

“Not to worry,” he remarked. “It all spends green. Now, if you walked in with a baggie filled with pennies, I might ask you to step over to the bank and get some folding money. But this is fine.” We exchanged friendly smiles, and as he handed me my coffee, he nodded and said, “Have a good day, bro.”

I nodded and said, “You, too, my friend.”