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.

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It was not just a site for the formal civility of business transactions, not a place of mere forbearance amid simmering resentment and mutual misunderstanding, and not a space of tolerance prevailing over underlying tension and conflict. No, it was a space with seemingly all the makings of real comity, deep mutual respect and a community spirit born of a broad sense of common destiny.

It was not just a polyglot space or cosmopolitan enclosure; it had more the feel of a new, vibrant, super-diverse American habitus. Of course, “habitus” is one of those not easily digested sociological terms. The mall exemplified a mode of self- and social understanding, of moving, interacting and living that reflected absolute comfort with the full swirl of humanity.

Of some note is that Fox Hills would once have been known as a “black mall,” given its proximity to Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills. I suspect that this matters for the super-diverse habitus I experienced there.

I take seriously the proposition that African Americas have frequently served as America’s conscience. No one has had more urgent practical need for — nor, as a result, more ardent passion about — the values that define the nation’s higher angels. Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that this should become a space where super-diversity works so well.  

To be sure, I have seen too many black people say bigoted, hurtful, xenophobic things, such as, “What is it about the word ‘illegal’ they don’t understand?” Yet I do not believe that sentiment has ever been the dominant thread of African-American public opinion. If anyone is ready to make super-diversity work, it is black America.

My friend and I strolled the full length of the mall three times, doing a full circuit of each level. From the Pakistani gentleman who tried to sell us some Stacy Adams shoes to the blond girl working the “dudes” section at the beachwear shop to the haggard, Afro-wearing teenage clerk who struggled to pull a pair of skinny jeans onto a mannequin, every space thoroughly defined by endless diversity, in a word, “worked”!

The whole experience reminded me of why I have no interest in “taking America back.” We are indeed moving forward. Super-diversity is here to stay, and it’s a good thing.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. He is a contributing editor for The Root.