The Plot Against Equality

The Plot Against Equality

Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble With Diversity challenges us to remove our race-tinted glasses and view the world in the class-based terms that, he argues, define it.


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.

By lumping together the categories of race, class and gender–the holy trinity of academic cultural studies–and treating them as different but equal identities, we have decided to manage inequality rather than reduce, much less eradicate, it. For Michaels, this conceptual sleight of hand is nothing less than a crime.

The Trouble With Diversity is the most recent product of the movement the late cultural critic Ellen Willis dubbed “economic majoritarianism.” Readers of Thomas Frank, Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty and others will be familiar with the thesis, according to which identity politics has led the left astray, miring it in endless cultural debates that sap the will and sacrifice elections. Only a renewed commitment to economic justice, the majoritarians argue, can revive it (a strategy vindicated, some argue, by the results of the midterm elections). Even literary critic Terry Eagleton has joined the anti-identity crowd, concluding his book After Theory (2003) with the charge that “cultural theory…cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender.”

Michaels’s approach is more philosophical than that of these politically minded critics. Where they cautiously distance themselves from divisive ideological positions, he embraces them: He calls for redistributing wealth, abolishing inheritance and doing away with race-based affirmative action. He doesn’t care about rallying a particular party or crusading for the underclass (“I’m not writing this book out of a passionate sense of identification with the poor,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education), and he confesses that even his $175,000 salary isn’t enough to stifle his envy of the truly rich. His strategy is to reveal the flawed foundation on which the concepts of race and identity rest, in the hope that we therefore stop caring about them. “Treating race as a social fact amounts to nothing more than acknowledging that we were mistaken to think of it as a biological fact and then insisting that we ought to keep making the mistake,” he writes. “Maybe instead we ought to stop making the mistake.”

You don’t have to be a black person from the slums or a Native American raised on a reservation to recognize the naïveté of this “sophisticated” analysis–resting, as it does, on the premise that a logical deconstruction of a concept can neutralize the power with which history has invested it. Michaels isn’t a reactionary, but his quixotic faith in abstract reason is, as Orwell once wrote, “the sort of nonsense only an intellectual could believe.” In a sense, The Trouble With Diversity is really two books in one. The first is a smart, unsentimental polemic that thinks nothing of declaring the death of a language (like American Sign Language) or a culture (like Bolivia’s Aymara Indians) a “victimless crime.” Coupled with that is a second book that resembles one of those yearly late-night conversations in which freshman philosophy majors scrutinize, and swiftly “solve,” the problems of the world. Michaels is as right about the conceptual incoherence of racial/identity politics as he is wrong and facile about how one might go about alleviating them.

Michaels’s fondness for all-or-nothing reasoning first appeared in “Against Theory,” the 1982 essay he wrote with Steven Knapp. Theory had come to dominate literary studies, they complained, leading critics to view themselves as working with the kind of foundational, transcendental principles commonly associated with science or certain branches of philosophy. As an alternative, they advocated more practical, if less precise, approaches, such as New Historicism. No school of thought was exempt from their wrath. “If we are right,” they wrote, “then the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned.”

In The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987), Michaels solidified his reputation as one of the leading scholars of American culture with innovative readings of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novelists like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Nathaniel Hawthorne. With Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995), he rehearsed the ideas that come to fruition in The Trouble With Diversity. Our America is essentially a genealogy of American multiculturalism, beginning with the story of how authors of the 1920s–William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather–contributed to a racial (and racist) basis for American identity. Whereas these authors conceived of their work as shifting from a racial to a cultural conception of identity–from stultifying superiority to a liberating diversity, in which all identities are equal–Michaels showed how their project was not as progressive as it seemed, and in fact lent itself to racial thinking of a kind they would have abhorred. At one point, even the Ku Klux Klan adopted the phrase “Difference Not Inferiority” as a slogan.

Furthermore, Michaels accused contemporary champions of postidentity theory–those who envisage identity as contingent, performative and fluid–of employing the very racial essentialism they oppose. The more we emphasize culture and diversity, he scolded, the more we become mired in race. We inevitably answer the question “What should we do?” in terms of “who we are”–an appeal to racial/ethnic identity. The quest for identity is a vicious circle in which one can never escape the nineteenth-century notion of race. “For racial identity to become a project, it must turn to culture; for cultural identity to become a project, it must turn to race,” he wrote.

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.”

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