Anyone who still believes in the reality of race ought to spend some time reading graduate school applications. Every year my department receives a few hundred, a growing portion from students who identify themselves as of “mixed race” or fail to check anything at all, leaving me to use my sleuthing skills for clues about their ethnic heritage.
I’m not alone. In the 2000 US Census, 7 million people, 40 percent of whom were under age 18, picked more than one racial or ethnic category for themselves. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of students in higher education whose race is officially “unknown” increased 100 percent. Americans still use the language of race to identify themselves–they just don’t agree about what “race” is.
Why do I spend so much effort trying to fit students into racial categories whose biological basis has been thoroughly discredited? According to literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, I’m engaging in a fruitless, even sinister, reactionary enterprise, one that distracts vital attention from the only social division that ultimately matters: class. How can I be certain that the “minorities” I’m admitting are truly disadvantaged, Michaels would ask, and not the children of the growing black middle class? And even if these minority candidates are economically disadvantaged, he’d continue, why do I assume that they, by virtue of their ethnicity, will bring more (or different) insights than other students?
Would that I could respond with the theoretical sophistication (though not the repetitiveness) of Michaels’s book. Alas, my answer is quite ad hoc and mundane. Given the pool applying to my expensive private university, I’ve found that race is a fairly reliable proxy for disadvantage (at least relative to the other applicants). While I’m always on the lookout for telltale phrases like “first in my family to attend college,” our application has no “poor” box to check, and virtually everyone requests financial aid.
Michaels is certainly correct that while in theory diversity includes such nonracial characteristics as geographic origin and economic status, they play a minor role in most calculations. In America, diversity is synonymous with race. In both the corporate and educational realms, the jargon of diversity has acquired a holy air. “Diversity has become a word that must be spoken,” Alan Contreras, the administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, writes on the website Inside Higher Ed. “Those who don’t speak it in the right slightly breathless tone while looking both sorrowful and committed are unemployable.”
Diversity acquired its current meaning in 1978, when the Supreme Court (in University of California Regents v. Bakke) ruled that taking the race of an applicant into consideration was acceptable if it served “the interest of diversity.” Never simple to begin with, the civil rights-era methods of race-based affirmative action were translated into the amorphous language of multiculturalism.
The Trouble With Diversity is a bracing jeremiad, an all-out assault on the way identity in general, and race in particular, is used to organize society. It is also a thought experiment in which Michaels invites us to remove our race-tinted glasses and view the world in the class-based terms that, he argues, actually define it. For Michaels, there is no middle ground, no room for compromise: Race shoved class out of American consciousness, and he wants to reverse the situation. “We love race–we love identity–because we don’t love class,” he writes. The alternative is not to “love” class, since Michaels knows that class, unlike race, is distinctly unlovable. Class inspires no “National Museum of Lower-Income Americans on the Mall” in Washington, and no special holidays celebrating the culture of the poor (indeed, the “culture of poverty” is a sociological epithet); while some poor people inherit their poverty, we would all agree with Michaels that it would be perverse to think of it as their “heritage.” The only area in which we are sentimental about poverty is in studies of working-class culture and literature, in which class is considered a form of identity.