Originally posted on r h i z o m i c o n 3 June 2011, 4:39 EDT

On Wednesday, I tweeted about a Pew Internet report on the US demographics of Twitter users. Just now {h/t:: LinnyQat}, I was informed of a new trending topic meme, #ghettospellingbee. There’s plenty of funny to be had, but the interesting thing I’ve noticed over the years is how memes cross cultural boundaries. First off, there’s a school of thought explained in this Slate article that says that blacks use Twitter differently::

“Black people—specifically, young black people—do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. They form tighter clusters on the network—they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts directed at other users. It’s this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people—and in particular, black teenagers—the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.”

So, these “blacktags” {perhaps made famous by #ifsantawasblack}  are more prone to go viral. According to Baratunde Thurston, the Web editor of the Onion::

“Twitter works very naturally with that call-and-response tradition—it’s so short, so economical, and you get an instant signal validating the quality of your contribution. (If people like what you say, they retweet it.)”

Where things get fuzzy is who can participate in the joke. I think things are more nuanced than being in stark terms of participants being “in-group” {black} versus “out-group” {non-black}, but more in terms of an ironic post-racial poking fun of cultural usage of language versus a poking fun of others for being out of the norms.
A few years back on NBC’s “The Office” {‘Diversity Day’, s01e02}, Michael Scott {Steve Carell} did a Chris Rock impression about blacks being racist against other blacks. This impression caused complaints, necessitating the staff to engage in diversity training under orders from corporate::

Mainstream culture is still figuring out where the lines are with respect to being racist, since one person’s context isn’t the same as another’s. This fuzzy area makes it easy for people to get slammed for what they don’t see as being as offensive—a more nuanced version of the “who can say the N-word” debate.
Twitterversion:: [blog] Explanation of how blacktags like #ghettospellingbee go viral. Demographics? Likely cause: usage & follow patterns. @Prof_K

In The Trouble with Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels makes a provocative case against the elevation of cultural diversity, or respect and appreciation for different groups, over class concerns. This argument draws upon the classic American Exceptionalism argument that American society differs from Europe in that it lacks a class consciousness. Benn-Michaels adds an interesting twist: he argues that diversity, as we practice it on college campuses, is complicit in masking class inequality by encouraging us to focus on important, but less controversial aspects of cultural difference (food and holidays for instance) while ignoring the growing income inequality in the United States:

We love race — we love identity — because we don’t love class…..for 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities — as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor.

I’ve written a bit about how our current understanding of diversity emphasizes tolerance at the expense of broader civic obligations to work across group boundaries to solve vexing civic problems like poverty and inequality. The result is we develop a keen appreciation that difference exists in society, but have no incentive to address what Cathy Cohen calls “cross-cutting” issues — those that affect groups across identity categories and are thus require cross-group mobilization.

What do you think? Where does race stand vis-a-vis class in terms of an identity that affects life chances for individuals in American society? Do we emphasize group acceptance at the expense of class-based concerns? Can we do both? Why don’t we? Should we?

Scott Page says so (well not exactly):

New York City is the perfect example of diversity functioning well,” he said in an interview. “It’s an exciting place that produces lots of innovation and creativity. It’s not a coincidence that New York has so much energy and also so much diversity.

The University or Michigan Political Scientist recently wrote a book making the case for the productivity benefits of diversity.  This research underscores a growing body of literature extolling the benefits of diversity.   University of Illinois-Chicago’s Cedric Herring summarized in the Washington Post findings from his study of diversity in corporate America.  he found:

those companies that have very low levels of racial and ethnic minorities have the lowest profits and the lowest market share and the lowest number of customers.

It’s undeniable that all sorts of institutions are better because of diversity.    Sam Sommers at Tufts came to a similar conclusion about the role of diversity in group settings (per the same Washington Post Article):

Sommers asked all-white and diverse groups to read short passages and then asked them to answer SAT-style questions about the passages. When the topics touched on race — affirmative action, for example — whites who were part of diverse groups answered more questions correctly than people in all-white groups.

Page suggests that groups produce these better outcomes because diverse groups are more flexible at problem solving:

What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

But if all this is true, why do we still overwhelmingly choose to live in homogeneous neighborhoods?  If diversity enhances our workplaces, schools and military, then wouldn’t our neighborhoods be better off with more difference?  Is comfort and familiarity the enemy of productivity?