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At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Blair A. Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute, discussed his new book Creating Diversity Capital: Transnational Migrants in Montreal, Washington, and Kyiv. The book explores how migrants have shaped civic and political life in three cities with histories of ethnic, racial, and language divisions. According to Ruble, "migrants do not erase troubled histories, but they can provide new opportunities to get around them."
Ruble explained that Creating Diversity Capital addresses three common perceptions about migration and urban diversity: that cities are not viable; that immigrants overwhelm cities; and that migrants are objects who are acted upon, rather than agents of change. He argued that, contrary to these perceptions, migrants are very active in urban life, and they can bring new vitality to cities by increasing cities' stocks of diversity capital. Ruble defined diversity capital as the ability of an urban system to be open and accommodating to many different groups, including new immigrant groups, and argued that diversity capital is essential if cities are to be socially sustainable in the era of globalization. He emphasized that diversity capital arises from a pragmatic need for tolerant institutions and tolerant behaviors, rather than from the personal feelings of individual citizens about tolerance and openness.
Montreal, Washington, and Kyiv are three examples of cities that have recently increased their levels of diversity capital, according to Ruble. As recently as the 1970s, observers feared that Montreal and Washington could face inter-ethnic violence on the level of cities such as Belfast and Johannesburg. Since then, both cities have experienced dramatic inflows of international migrants, which, Ruble argued, has turned them into very different places—demographically, culturally, and politically. Montreal, he explained, is further along in its development of diversity capital than is Washington, where political issues are still frequently seen in terms of Blacks versus Whites. Kyiv is a somewhat different case, Ruble said, because large scale immigration into Ukraine began in the mid-1990s, and the presence of migrants is only now becoming a political issue in the city. Diversity capital is just beginning to develop in Kyiv, in complex and sometimes hidden ways.
Discussant Dominique Arel, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Ottawa, praised Ruble's ambitious take on an important topic, and noted that he found the argument that building tolerance does not require tolerant people to be the key conclusion of the book. He cautioned that Kyiv may not be on the same path as Montreal or Washington. The Russian-Ukrainian language division in Kyiv, according to Arel, is not as distinct as the racial and language divisions in Washington and Montreal, and the city has a shorter history of migration. While Kyiv may increase its diversity capital and become an attractive destination for migrants, it may also follow the path of Paris and become a city where immigrants feel excluded.
Audrey Singer, Immigration Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution, commented on some additional factors influencing the development of diversity capital. She noted that suburbanization has important consequences for the development of urban diversity. National policy also affects how immigrants are incorporated into different urban systems. She argued that Canada's long history of multi-cultural policy (originally developed to accommodate French, English, and native groups) facilitated openness to immigrants in Montreal, while the lack of coherent national policy on migration in the U.S. has made local-level policy in Washington and its suburbs particularly important. Singer concluded with a discussion of some of the obstacles to the creation of diversity capital, including language barriers, limited social mobility for immigrants, limited government resources, and anti-immigration sentiment among the general population.