Missing the train

Study of rail commuters proves connectedness, not diversity, brings harmony

Anthony Russo for the Boston Globe

‘Can we all get along?” was Rodney King’s plaintive plea in the aftermath the 1992 LA riots, and the answer today is the same as it was then. As long as we’re not strangers, yes. Otherwise, no.

The question is being raised anew after the publication of a Harvard report that looked at the reactions of Boston-area workers toward intruders in their midst. The research kicked off by asking suburban rail commuters about their attitudes toward immigration. It then seeded some of the train stops with Mexican immigrants and again queried the commuters. Almost immediately, opinions changed. The commuters were now more likely to oppose increased immigration, to believe that kids of undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the United States, and to think English should be the nation’s official language. In other words, the commuters became less tolerant.

After a week or so, however, the anti-immigration attitudes softened, leading some — including Ryan Enos, the study’s author — to speculate that merely having different folks intermingle might make everyone more tolerant. One theory Enos advanced was that increasing the availability of public transit could somehow get diverse groups to become more accepting of each other.


Perhaps, although I think that if you want to get more funding for public transit, it would be better to focus on its advantages in speed and convenience rather than some nebulous social goals. But more to the point, while it’s true the attitudes of the suburban commuters did soften over time, they were still less tolerant than they had been before the study began. In fact, Enos’s conclusion from his research was that “even very minor demographic change causes strong exclusionary reactions.” The interesting upshot of that, he argued, is that increased immigration will cause “a politically conservative shift.”

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And it does. In general, the most strongly anti-immigration states are those where there are the most recent immigrants. Arizona became a hotbed of anti-immigrant zeal after experiencing a surge of illegal immigration (or “unauthorized” — a term I like much better). Massachusetts, on the other hand, has far fewer unauthorized immigrants. We’re also far less exercised about immigration issues.

So why is it that people become less tolerant when they encounter those different from them? It’s not the fault of the newcomers. It’s a basic human trait. People care most for those with whom they are closest. Families and communities are built out of a complex web of relationships that grow out of proximity, work, play, culture, and values. Outsiders disrupt those relationships.

We see this in our everyday lives. Every human life has equal worth, of course, yet we grieve far more for a death in our immediate families than we do in someone else’s. Bostonians were far more moved by the dead and injured from last year’s Marathon bombings than they were two days later when an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Waco, Texas, killed 15 and hurt over 300. The old National Lampoon once produced a parody newspaper from the fictional town of Dacron. “Two Dacron Women Feared Missing in Volcanic Disaster,” blared a giant headline. A smaller subtitle underneath explained why: “Japan Destroyed.”

Indeed, a large body of research has tried to explain why some nations have extensive social safety nets and public welfare programs while others do not. The basic finding is that those who are the most unstinting also tend to be more homogeneous; their citizens feel connected to each other. More heterogeneous places such as the United States are far less generous.


To go back to the Enos study: If those riders on the commuter rail line had later seen those same Mexicans in the office cubicle next to them, they would have started to think of them as co-workers and not Mexicans. If they later got together with them after work for a beer, they’d start to think of them as friends. And if even later their kids started dating and then perhaps married, they’d think of them as family.

This then becomes the basic challenge faced by those who tell us we should “celebrate diversity.” Diversity drives us apart. It’s what we have in common that brings us together. The trick is to find that common ground.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.