Thursday, December 21
David Brooks, America’s favorite gee-whiz conservative, has famously argued that the United States is not divided by class, but by lunchroom cliques–voluntary social groups that just need to learn to get along. But as much as we may love The Breakfast Club, most people know this view of the world to be a farce. Many progressives would be glad to provide a list of groups and sub-groups who have been denied entrance to the American Dream buffet.
But according to lefty iconoclast Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, our habitual list-making may actually be helping to keep history’s most oppressed group–the poor–away from the table. In his new book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Michaels argues that many of the racial and ethnic identity divides we have grown so comfortable getting upset over have served as a great distraction from our true national crisis, the growing divide between the rich and the poor. Perhaps even more unnerving is Michaels’s account of how universities serve as “research and development” laboratories for the continued disorientation of American political life.
Michaels is by no means the first person to claim that class difference currently sits too low on the liberal docket. But he may have chosen the most difficult way to make this point–namely, by impugning one of the key activities of today’s progressive politics: vigilance against discrimination.
Michaels begins with the proposition that what demographers call race has no objective genetic basis, a notion which has been well-documented by biologists. Everyone has mixed genetic heritage, and even many of the traits we normally associate with “races” as we know them (like susceptibility to disease) don’t correlate as well as previously thought. As evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has pointed out , if we really wanted to organize races by genes, those races would look nothing like the ones we know today. Nonetheless, Michaels writes, Americans have “learned to love” race and still love to talk about it, even if they have to consider it a social construction or replace it with the word “culture.”
Michaels considers the intellectual history of each of these new formulations of race and finds them lacking. But the reason Michaels chooses to tackle this touchy subject is that in his pursuit of a truly just society, Michaels feels that race is not part of the equation.
Imagine, he writes, that a Martian could magically fix the demographics of American life so the number of blacks, whites, Hispanics, or Asians in each income tax bracket was proportionate to the American population. So long as the class structure of American society remained unchanged, a huge number of children would still attend crumbling schools, a huge number of families would still lack health insurance, and CEOs would still make hundreds of times the average worker’s wage.