I wanted to admire The Trouble With Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels’s much-discussed polemic against identity politics and economic inequality. Like him, I’m bothered by the extent to which symbolic politics has replaced class grievances on campus, and off it too: the obsessive cultivation of one’s roots, the fetishizing of difference, the nitpicky moral one-upmanship over language. Call an argument “lame” on one academic-feminist list I’m on and you’ll get–still!–an electronic earful about your insensitivity to the disabled.
But right away, I ran into trouble. Small problem: Michaels’s main thesis is that the “intellectual left”–a k a “we”–has “responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” But most of his villains are neither intellectuals nor leftists–they’re college admissions officers, people who run employee relations groups for Microsoft, Jews who loved Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America too much. Maybe economic reality doesn’t get much airtime in the University of Illinois-Chicago’s English department, which Michaels chairs (he gleefully bemoans his $175,000 annual salary), but poverty, inequality and class are major objects of attention in sociology, economics, public policy, ed schools and investigative journalism–to say nothing of the pages of The Nation. Michaels isn’t the loner he pretends to be.
Bigger problem: Michaels is aggressively, almost proudly obtuse about racism and sexism, which he sees as distractions from class struggle. Thus, he continually contrasts “blacks” and “the poor” as if these were two entirely different sets of people. But racism and sexism are an integral part of the economic inequality he decries. That’s how the system works. (I can’t believe I have to explain this in 2006–what is it with white male leftists?) An hour or so in an urban public school, a welfare office, a public hospital or a prison would have helped him out here. Race may be a fiction–I enjoyed his clever proof that race does not exist, biologically or culturally–but so what? Somehow, realtors know which houses not to show “black” people, car salesmen know to charge “blacks” more and cops can spot a “black youth” blocks away–and if they mistake a Spaniard with a suntan for a graduate of Howard University, I doubt they’re much disturbed. Even if they wanted to, most blacks can’t walk away from their identity: Too many nonblacks want to keep them there.
The central move of The Trouble With Diversity is not just that people are narcissistically preoccupied with identity and thus distracted from the big story of economic injustice. It’s that fighting racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination reinforces class privilege. Thus, “feminism is what you appeal to when you want to make it sound as if the women of Wall Street and the women of Wal-Mart are both victims of sexism. Which is to say, when you want to disguise the fact that the women of Wall Street are not victims at all.” This is a bit hard to take from the man who complains about being one of the highest-paid English professors in the country and who goes on at some length about his envy of the fabulously wealthy.
It’s Michaels’s attack on race-based affirmative action, though, that has got him the most attention. Like feminism, affirmative action reinforces economic privilege because it makes admissions look meritocratic: “the white students on campus can understand themselves to be there on merit because they didn’t get there at the expense of any black people…. Race-based affirmative action…is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn’t help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich.”
I haven’t noticed that students at elite universities are unaware of the role their parents’ income plays in their education–they may not mind, but they’re not stupid. But let’s say Michaels is on to something. Let’s even pretend that affirmative action doesn’t increase the number of low-income students on campus even as it gives extra points to black graduates of Andover and Madonna’s adopted African baby. Maybe Michaels is even right, and affirmative action helps the president of Yale go to bed with a clear conscience. Does it follow that ending diversity-increasing measures, as Michaels seems to advocate, would increase the attention admissions departments, employers or anyone else pays to low-income people? I see no evidence for this. Opponents of race-based preferences tend not to be class-oriented leftists but conservatives who liked the system the way it was before. Ward Connerly, the black University of California regent who did so much to abolish affirmative action there, didn’t call for an overhaul of public schools and the abolition of poverty so that every student got an equal shot. He just told poor black students to “work harder”–presumably that would go for poor whites as well. In fact, the University of California’s elite campuses have far fewer black and Latino students these days–but those empty seats have not been filled by the poor. State plans that replace affirmative action with race-neutral measures–scholarships for good students, automatic acceptance for the top 10 percent of each class–have ended up benefiting middle-class kids, who are mostly white.
Michaels comes off as a primitive Marxist–class is all, everything else is bunk–but actually, he’s not primitive enough. He forgets that people with money and status will do just about anything to keep them. (In fact, except in a few pockets of guilty liberalism, like English departments, they’ll go pretty far to keep their white-skin and masculine privileges too.) They not only don’t mind economic inequality, they require it. The system depends upon it. And so do their children–there is no more powerful force on earth than a well-off parent angling to advance a child. Diversity can be cringe-making, insincere, sappy and arbitrary; it may promote some people who would succeed anyway and some who don’t deserve their lucky break. But take it away, and you won’t get more equality. You’ll only get more privilege.