Recent discussions of Somalis in St. Cloud and central Minnesota (“The other side of the St. Cloud story,” editorial, June 29) have missed an important piece of research relevant to the topic. The 2015 Social Capital Survey Central Minnesota, the final report of which was published in February 2016 by UpFront Consulting in collaboration with the St. Cloud State University Survey, showed some very interesting results (tinyurl.com/soccap-survey). The survey was also conducted in 2010 and allows us to make some valuable comparisons regarding views of Somalis by non-Somali residents of central Minnesota.
For our purposes, the important question in the survey is about trust, an important factor in a community and a key element of social capital. The survey asked respondents a general question about the degree of trust they had in others, with three possible responses: (1) People can be trusted; (2) You can’t be too careful; and (3) Depends. In 2015, some 69% of the respondents said people can be trusted, whereas 28% said you can’t be too careful. This is a significant difference from the survey responses in 2010, when just over half of the respondents, 55%, said people could be trusted, and 38% said you can’t be too careful.
This general finding sets the context for the survey responses regarding trust of Somalis. In the 2015 survey, 73% of respondents said they trusted Somalis. This is a significant increase in trust of Somalis from 2010, when only 56% of respondents said you can trust Somalis. More significantly, a closer look at the responses show that in 2010 only 9% of respondents said they trusted Somalis “a lot,” whereas that number increased to 36% in 2015. In 2015, 37% said they trusted Somalis “some.” The 2015 level of trust of Somalis (73%) is roughly similar to the 2015 level of general trust of others (69%) that we saw above.
Social scientists such as Robert Putnam (famous for his book “Bowling Alone”) have predicted, and have presented evidence to support their claim, that the increase in diversity in a community will lead to a decrease in overall trust of others (not just the diverse newcomers) in that community. However, the untold story about St. Cloud is that it is a case (and there are others) in which we see that the increase in diversity from 2010 to 2015 did not lead to a decrease in overall trust. Similarly, the increase in the number of Somalis in that period did not lead to a decrease in trust in Somalis; in fact, we see a 17-point increase of trust in Somalis and a 27-point increase in the number of respondents who say they trust Somalis “a lot.” This is an important finding that does not fit with some of the characterizations of central Minnesota and St. Cloud.
As a sociologist, I must consider the obvious question of why. We don’t have hard data on this question, but I would hypothesize that the increase of the number of Somalis led to an increase in the likelihood that members of the broader community would get to know Somalis (as fellow students, as co-workers, as fellow shoppers, as neighbors, etc.), and that getting to know a Somali increases the likelihood of developing a trust and a more positive view of Somalis. There is survey evidence from Pew Research that people who know a Muslim are more likely to have a positive view of Muslims than people who do not know a Muslim. Similarly, the increase in the number of Somalis increases the likelihood that friendships will develop with Somalis, which may help to explain the increase in the number of respondents who said they trust Somalis “a lot.” Also we should note that a number of church groups, nonprofit organizations and individuals had been organizing bridge-building activities between Somalis and the broader community during the 2010-2015 period.
The story of Somalis in St. Cloud and central Minnesota is much more interesting than many stories would suggest.
Ron Pagnucco is associate professor in the Department of Peace Studies at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University.