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Is Diversity Enough? (cont’d)

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“Universities are important not just because they pass on privilege,” he elaborates in our interview, “but because they legitimate passing on privilege. Every white kid on campus can feel better when there are black kids and Asian kids on campus and not look around and see who’s not there, which is poor kids.”

Summing up his view of the contemporary American dilemma, he writes, “We love race–we love identity–because we don’t love class.” But the problem isn’t “classism,” or prejudice against poor or working class individuals, a concept modeled on racial identity. The problem is inequality, or lack of money. The solution, then, is economic equality, not diversity. We shouldn’t celebrate a difference that should be instead overcome.

Michael argues that the moral goal for society–but especially for those on the left–should be justice, not respect for identity. Indeed, he is skeptical about the value or validity of almost all attempts at establishing a historical or ethnic identity (though he says he has no objection to people seeking group identities, such as his identity as a White Sox fan).

He does approve of people sorting themselves into groups based on their beliefs. Such groupings can’t be safely appreciated for their diversity. Instead they clash in the quest for truth (or at least dominance for their beliefs). But religious beliefs, or identities, are often inherited much like ethnic identities. And despite his own rationalist penchant for groups supporting clashing ideas, he underestimates the emotional needs most people have for a sense of personal history and for a feeling of community–even if they have to make up their stories and create cultures for themselves.

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For the left, the most important groups have traditionally been social classes, and leftist analysts have long debated how to overcome the division of the working class over race and ethnic identities. Michaels adds a new twist to that debate, showing how the embrace of these differences obscures the issue of inequality and gives it legitimacy.

Michaels often argues as if commitment to racial diversity were the only obstacle to overcoming equality. When pressed, he says, “I completely agree it’s not the only thing that distracts people from inequality. [Nonetheless] it’s a very central factor, because there’s nothing deeper in the American self than the set of stories that are based around race: ‘We’re two nations–black and white.’ It’s foundational scripture.”

Would Americans view society as economically unfair if there was less focus on diversity? Might they not continue to think, as Michaels says they do now, that the highly unequal rewards from a neo-liberal market are just?

Many leftists have long thought that if racial, ethnic and other conflicts among workers were reduced, they would more readily recognize their self-interest and act against inequality.

But Michaels thinks that people are–or should be–motivated by a sense of justice, not self-interest. “It’s naivete to think you reduce people’s beliefs to a question of their interests,” he says. Yet it is equally naive to think that interests do not–or should not–play a major role in politics.

Whether they act in their own self interest or on their beliefs (or a combination of both), people also need both a sense of hope and the belief that they have the power to change their world. Historically, the left has seen a united working class as providing the power to overcome inequality. But for all of his valuable attention to economic inequality, Michaels does not address the inequality of political power. And he pointedly observes that he is interested in inequality, not class.

“The goal is not to insist that class identification matters and racial identification doesn’t matter,” he said. “The crucial question I’m interested in is what’s right and just, and that doesn’t matter whether you belong to the upper middle class or working class but what you think is just and right. My commitment has never been to thinking about class. It’s been on the importance of minimizing economic inequality and the irrelevance of race to that question.”

But racism itself is still relevant, both the legacy effects and current practice outside of institutions like universities, making it politically unwise to drop all race-based policies before dealing with economic inequality. Indeed, Michaels is even somewhat sympathetic to reparations, which could provide money, not just apologies.

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To minimize economic inequality, Michaels advocates equality of opportunity, not greater equality of income and living conditions. “You want to say that people should not be poor unless they somehow deserve their poverty,” he argued. “Black people don’t deserve their poverty because of the history of slavery, but no child deserves his or her poverty at all. We should at least guarantee that every child has equality of opportunity. Children become an important linchpin because children are the way in which inequality is transmitted.”

In order to provide equality of opportunity for all children, Michaels would at the least abolish private schools, improve and equalize public school funding, and provide universal health care. But in order to have meaningful equality of opportunity, economic inequality among families must also be reduced–something he does not advocate. After all, education research consistently shows that school performance is closely linked to the economic status of students’ families.

Michaels’ commitment to a political strategy based on equality of opportunity suffers from another shortcoming. “Only if everybody has a chance to get rich can the people who don’t get rich, the people who stay poor, be said to deserve their poverty,” he writes. “And only if everybody has a chance to get rich can the people who do succeed be said to deserve their wealth.” But, the market system values work in highly unequal and unfair ways and puts some people (like stockbrokers and CEOs) structurally in a position to capture more of the wealth others create. In any case, far more than skill or hard work determines financial success–from dumb luck to making choices that may be socially valuable but not highly valued in the market, for example.

Further, the equality of opportunity that Michaels advocates would also leave intact and legitimate the neoliberal system of inequality. Equality of opportunity might reduce the likelihood that each generation would end up where their parents were, but society would still be growing more economically unequal.

That said, Michaels deserve plaudits for putting economic inequality back in the center of political debate, where it should be not only for the left but for all America. He deserves similar praise for arguing in a creative, if discomfiting, way about how flawed thinking about race continues to work in new ways to reinforce an exploitative and increasingly unequal economic system.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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