The Plot Against Equality
In The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004), Michaels attacked the identity politics of those who believe they are ineluctably connected to events--slavery, the Holocaust--they never experienced. The notion that the past "belongs" to anyone is absurd, he argued. "Why should slavery and apartheid be compensable," he asked in a discussion of the reparations movement, while "free but poorly paid labor is not?" His claim wasn't only that all affirmations of connection to the past are futile but that anyone who makes them is a foe of economic justice. "It's one thing to celebrate Black History Month; it's another thing to redistribute wealth. And, in fact, the two things are not only different, they are, in crucial ways, opposed," he wrote. Race isn't merely trumped by class in the world according to Walter Benn Michaels, it is, bizarrely enough, obliterated by it.
That we must choose between a society concerned with race and one concerned with economic inequality is the cornerstone of Michaels's project. But must we? And even if we must, is it really so obvious that the evils of economic inequality always trump those of racism (or that the two can be so neatly disentangled)? It is telling that Michaels never feels the need to formulate an argument for the superiority of a class-oriented society. It is just assumed; all of his energy goes into debunking race. As a result, The Trouble With Diversity has a relentless, monomaniacal tone, its author marshaling more and more evidence to prove that considerations of race are never more than a ploy to avoid confronting poverty.
But there is something perverse about the way Michaels looks at America, as if it were little more than a university writ large. In fact, most cases in which race-based affirmative action comes into play do so in a fashion that has little to do with the way it influences higher education. There are plenty of spheres (civil service, the military) in which affirmative action has reduced economic inequality--evidence that there are occasions when society can simultaneously tackle racial injustice and look out for its less fortunate members. According to the 2005 Annual Review of Sociology, the wages of both black men and women rose during periods when affirmative action laws were vigorously enforced. Outside the university, Michaels's either/or choice isn't always so stark.
At a time when public school segregation is returning to Brown v. Board of Education-era levels, particularly in urban areas, I find it hard to believe that race is as unimportant as Michaels believes it is. Studies that take their inspiration from the racial and class composition of Harvard's freshman class are bound to end up prisoners of their own (class?) assumptions. Had Michaels spent more time pondering the world beyond the campus walls, he might have reconsidered his assumption that class-conscious, rather than race-conscious, societies are more likely to prize economic equality. What to make of countries like India, Indonesia and France, to mention only a few? Have their attempts to diminish consciousness about identity among their citizens unleashed a surge of concern for economic equality?
The greatest virtue of The Trouble With Diversity is the tenacity and precision with which Michaels dissects our muddled ideas about race and identity. Our obsession with identity has stifled not only the discussion of economic inequality but of politics itself. When "the debate we might have about inequality...becomes a debate instead about prejudice and respect," he writes, "we end up having no debate at all."