(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."
Prior to getting the coffee, I stopped to buy several cookies. I was in line behind a young couple who had what appeared to be a 1-year-old baby in a stroller and perhaps a 3-year-old holding the mother's hand. The 3-year-old pointed excitedly to several types of cookies that he wanted, and the young woman behind the counter, who appeared to be a Latina, smiled and dutifully filled a bag.
After paying, the mother, who happened to be African American, as was her husband, turned, bent down and gave a smaller cookie to the baby, who eagerly grabbed at it. The manager of the cookie stand, who had been dealing with a delivery while I waited my turn in line, smiled warmly as he watched the baby grab at the cookie. He appeared to be Sikh, to judge by his turban.
With my coffee and cookies in hand, I sat at a table. Near me sat a couple in their late 40s. The man, with graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, happened to be white. The woman, with reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair, happened to be black. They laughed and chatted amiably as they worked through a small stack of lottery scratch-off tickets and planned the rest of their day. Numerous other mixed couples walked by; during the half hour or so that I was there, at least three were black and Latino, one was black and Asian and several were Asian and white.
Behind me was an Easter Bunny exhibit where a stream of parents — black, white, Latino, Asian — brought young children to meet the bunny. Just a few steps away at a two-stall hair salon, you could see a young African-American woman styling a Latina's hair. Pairs of white and Mexican-American co-workers stopped in to buy lattes, cappuccinos and iced coffees.
I overheard conversations in no less than four languages. I can say with high certainty that I saw folks of Mexican, Guatemalan, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Arabic backgrounds, as well as those of European, African and African American descent, walk past the coffee shop's sitting area. Indeed, two young Ethiopian men walked by, looking at me closely but not in an unfriendly way. I am often assumed to be Ethiopian. We nodded at each other.
I regard this scene as noteworthy not merely because of the diversity. One can see plenty of diversity on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or, closer to home for me, at the Prudential Center and Copley Plaza of Boston. Westfield Culver City, however, differs in that, unlike the other two places, it is not a major tourist destination.
The great overwhelming fraction of folks here almost certainly come from the surrounding communities of Mar Vista, Playa del Rey, Marina del Rey, Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills. These are folks who are likely sharing not just shopping but, to a degree, also working and living space. And that is why the atmosphere and dynamic of the space was noteworthy to me.
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.