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Kathleen Parker - 04/24/09
DIVERSITY AS THE NEW PATRIOTISM

WASHINGTON - Racial and ethnic diversity is the key to happiness, success in the global marketplace and, not least, an interesting life.

So we are told in a batch of new "fair housing" radio ads that are the sort of treacly propaganda that cause sober drivers to run off the road.

Presented as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the ads were produced by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a private, nonprofit group whose stated purpose is to make sure the act is properly implemented. The act bans housing discrimination and imposes stiff penalties for those who get caught.

Lately, the fine intent of eliminating discrimination seems to have morphed into diversity advocacy.

Before I proceed, let me say that I prefer a world in which not everyone is the same. I like that my neighbors include a gay couple, a single mother, and that several languages are spoken on my street.

But happy diversity is an organic process that results when like-minded citizens congregate around shared values and interests. Often those interests and values have evolved from racial and ethnic identities, but not necessarily. Sometimes neighbors of diverse backgrounds share affection for old houses, or window boxes, or pet-friendliness.

That not all people have access to all the same housing opportunities is called life in a free-market society. But the fair housing folks want life to be more fair and the ads are warming us up for some really fun social engineering.

The wormiest of three ads posted online features a mother and daughter just home from visiting mom's workplace. Daughter is breathless with wonder at how diverse Mom's workplace is, but wants to know why everyone in their neighborhood "looks just like us?" Dum-de-dum-dum.

A cheerful, third-party voice explains that "diversity shouldn't be left behind at work each day. In our neighborhoods, we can create a greater appreciation and respect for cultural differences. And prepare our children for the global life that lies ahead. After all, your family doesn't live in a 9-to-5 world. Why should diversity?"

Another ad called "Parallel Lives" features a boring white guy and an exciting Latino. White Guy is dull because "my neighborhood always stayed the same." Latino is vivacious and engaging because his diverse neighborhood "always got more interesting!"

In a flourish of diversity solidarity, dull White Guy and fascinating Latino say in unison: "I want my kids to live a richer life."

Doesn't everyone? But is diversity the key to prosperity and happiness? Or, is diversity what naturally occurs when people from different backgrounds are drawn to a nation where prosperity can be earned and the pursuit of happiness is a founding principle?

In fact, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that diversity actually hampers civic engagement: The greater the diversity, the less people engaged in charity and community projects. In the most diverse communities, people trust each other half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings.

Putnam, a pro-diversity fellow, didn't particularly like his findings and has insisted that the data suggest challenges rather than excuses to avoid diversification. Hear, hear. But wouldn't those challenges best be met by individuals discovering the rewards of diversity rather than by receiving the superior wisdom of bureaucrats through chirpy public service messaging?

No one's suggesting that the government or the alliance intends to direct where people live, but coercion usually nips the heels of propaganda. More than a hint of inorganic engineering seeps between the lines of a December 2008 report by the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Based on hearings across the country, the commission found high levels of residential segregation, which "result in significant disparities between minority and non-minority households, in access to good jobs, quality education, homeownership attainment and asset accumulation."

And what is the solution to such disparities? How does one make a neighborhood more diverse? Is it only luck - or the absence thereof - that determines how people cluster themselves?

Apparently, a little proactivity is in order. Commissioners have recommended creation of an independent enforcement agency to "advance fair housing, not just to avoid discriminating." (Emphasis mine.) They also want to "break down residential segregation and provide households isolated in segregated areas the opportunity to find integrative alternatives."

What exactly this means isn't clear, but it doesn't sound like a prescription for self-determination or free markets. And "Love Thy Neighbor" is beginning to sound like an "or else" proposition - not so much an expression of Christian charity, but a patriotic duty.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.