Managed Diversity

Putin’s Russia is described as a managed democracy: a country that holds elections and maintains a democratic facade, but is in reality autocratic and brutal toward dissenters. On the same principle, the trend in gentrified first-world cities can be described as managed diversity. City leaders will build cultural districts for popular minorities – Chinatowns, Little Indias – and even amenities for well-assimilated gays and lesbians. Then when nobody looks or cares they will promote police brutality, ignore hate crimes, and do nothing to fight discrimination or segregation.

Ever since Richard Florida told cities that being gay-tolerant would make them more prosperous (and happier, and economically freer), and perhaps even before, mayors in more liberal American cities have dedicated gay bars and found nice clean areas for some amount of counterculture to exist. While this represents a welcome change from the days of the Stonewall raid, the attitude toward less photogenic minorities is changing at glacial pace. See, for example, police and emergency service treatment of the transgendered, a minority that so far has not been on anyone’s list of interest groups to be nice to. For another example, look at community groups’ treatment of sex workers. And while the emphasis on the power of diversity leads to recognition of people who do good work, it can also lead to pinkwashing, in which companies with dubious human rights records sponsor events that make them look better.

If things are getting better, it’s in fits and starts, and usually the credit should go to local organizations that pushed for them rather than to top-down leadership. Even Bloomberg, a top-down reformer whose record on e.g. needle exchange is strongly positive, cut funding to the program in the recession. Other sources of authority have much less positive records on such issues. The process of civil rights activism is partly about putting a minority group’s status in the limelight, so that it becomes one of the groups leaders hug in order to look good.

This relates to what I brought up in my previous post, about the distinction between individuality and individualism. The pro-gentrification mayors who worry about property values and investment have no trouble with harsh attitudes toward protesters or minorities or the homeless or sex workers. In much more general terms than this, Risk and Culture alludes to this by noting the alliance between individualists and hierarchists, something that can also be seen in real estate developers’ embrace of bigoted attitudes as a source of profit.

This is not to say that individualism is opposed to individuality. For all I know, they could even be correlated. But they’re distinct. In my experience, if you go to any group or event or community that fights for radical self-expression of a group that’s not terribly photogenic (for example, BDSM), the political attitudes will range from libertarian to mainline liberal to far left. Some will be radical libertarians, motivated by the idea that racism (and by extension other forms of discrimination) is a type of collectivism; others will have communitarian and egalitarian motivations. And if you go to a community that practices radical individualism, for example Seasteaders, you’ll see a mixture of people who think women’s suffrage was bad and people who find the above brutality to be a special type of communism.

The importance of this is that a city leader who supports diversity that looks good and says all the right things about gay rights and immigration may still engage in brutal activity toward people who are different where we are not looking.

When Jane Jacobs tried to identify the characteristics that make a good diverse neighborhood, she was talking about physical and economic diversity. But she might as well have been talking about diversity as understood today, as an issue of a space that’s open to everyone and not just members of a dominant social group. A city that takes diversity seriously will have not just ritzy gay bars and civil rights museums, important as they are; it’ll also have harm reduction programs, and unmolested BDSM clubs, and shelters for homeless transgendered youth, and sex workers who feel safe when the police is nearby, and an ironclad anti-discrimination law.

None of the above will come from benevolent, progressive mayors who think diversity is good for the city economy, though such mayors may be instrumental in helping implement these policies, as in the example of Bloomberg’s funding for needle exchange. They come from activists in the community in question, a community that is almost by definition more than just one neighborhood (in which the majority is frequently NIMBY) and is instead a city- or region-wide network. After all, gay rights, too, used to be a radical movement struggling to gain even minor foothold in New York and San Francisco, and it’s decades after the fact that mayors embrace gays as a source of good diversity. And the same is true of every other group that’s currently typecast as deviant or nonconforming.


  1. Pingback: Squelching | Motown To Tree Town
  2. Pingback: Consensus and Policing | Pedestrian Observations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.