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.