Diversity or Equality? A Talk With Walter Benn Michaels

Diversity or Equality? A Talk With Walter Benn Michaels

Diversity or Equality? A Talk With Walter Benn Michaels

Walter Benn Michaels: Diversity is no cure-all.


Andrew Nelson

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.

Yet that vision of a diverse but unequal society still seems to appeal to many Americans, and Michaels suggests this is a problem. We have not only replaced our vision of the good society with that of a merely integrated society, he writes, but we have given up on the idea that we’ll have to work to get there. That’s because our chief diversity rituals require little sacrifice. As Michaels writes, multiculturalism went from being a radical position to standard corporate policy “in about 10 minutes.” He highlights this point by poking fun at several recent apologies by major corporations for the fact that companies they acquired more than a century ago may have owned slaves. “[A]s long as progressive politics consists of disapproving of bad things that happened a long time ago,” Michaels writes, “it isn’t all that hard for corporations to be [politically correct].”

Similar problems mar other apparent diversity victories, Michaels argues. For instance, he criticizes several recent gender-discrimination lawsuits as mere games among the rich, opportunities for already-wealthy women to make slightly more money while the real victims–the women making minimum wage and the man making only slightly more–go unnoticed.

But the problem (or pseudo-problem) that bothers Michaels most is “classism.” Elite universities in particular, he writes, are going to greater and greater lengths to be sensitive to the needs of poor (er, economically disadvantaged) students. But what they have failed to notice is that there are hardly any poor students at elite institutions anymore–their public schools just aren’t good enough to propel them there. Yet by making a show of “respect” toward a minuscule or imagined population of poor students, the faculty and students of top universities are allowed to feel as if they are the vanguard of progressivism. We spend so much time talking about diversity that we forget there is anything else. And it is indeed something else–the yearning for a just society–that must be a goal for progressives.

There are two main objections one could make to Michaels’s arguments, and both have some validity. The first is that he has vastly underestimated the impact of racism and other forms of discrimination on American life. According to Michaels, many of these issues are just economic inequality in disguise. But there’s no reason diversity-lovers could not attempt to work with Michaels on this; economic inequality is such a problem in the United States that any improvement would probably improve our racial diversity record as well. For instance, if one didn’t need to have a small fortune to seek political office, presumably more people of color could run and win.

The second major objection to Michaels’s argument is that while diversity issues may be distracting the left from tackling economic injustice, it is hardly the worst of the distractions. Whether it’s the war on terror or the war on Christmas, it seems like politicians have managed to make America talk about everything over the past six years except making a more just society. But the war for diversity is the only one of these potential distractions perpetuated by the left. And it’s also the one responsible for the Democratic Party’s inability to offer its former core constituency–working-class whites–much of anything. As Michaels writes, “discrimination is not their problem, and diversity is not their solution.” And this is true for the poor everywhere, black and white, male and female–the problem of poverty far outweighs the problem of disrespect.

The main shortcoming of this book, though, is what’s not there. Michaels writes an excellent polemic, a short book that will force you to re-examine your political views and fill you with a passion for economic justice whether you agree with him or not. But because of its brevity, there are two important stories the book cannot tell. The first is a more complete account of the role of class in American life. While Michaels cites plenty of troubling statistics in his chapter on class and higher education, there is very little description of the origins and outcomes of America’s present income gap. As a result, someone who does not already believe that inequality is a significant problem in American life will not be persuaded. However, there are already several good books that serve this purpose.

The more important absence is an explanation of the role diversity ought to play in a liberal democracy–and despite Michaels’s protestations–that is something like the alpha and the omega. The origins of our system of government resulted from attempts to solve perhaps the most fundamental problems of diversity: conflicts over religion and ideology. While Michaels nods at these issues in his chapter on religious diversity, he does not really recognize their proper place. Further, the human potential for diversity is surely one of the reasons we are interested in creating a just society to begin with. It may be that the usual demographic indicators we associate with diversity aren’t helping to solve that problem. But the problem will also not be solved satisfactorily unless our society also allows and empowers each individual to think, to feel, to be all the things our hearts tell us to be.

Andrew Nelson is a recent graduate of Northwestern University. He is currently learning about the world of nonprofits through a fellowship with Leitner Public Affairs in Chicago.

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