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The University of Illinois at Chicago, a struggling but ambitious public university in the heart of the city, celebrates its ethnically diverse student body as a great achievement. But Walter Benn Michaels, chairman of the university’s English department, is unimpressed. The commitment of universities, corporations and other institutions to such diversity is “at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position,” he argues in his new book, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.
Right-wing academics and pundits have built careers taking potshots at affirmative action, multiculturalism and identity politics – pursuits that some postmodern leftists see as the heart of radical politics. Michaels criticizes diversity politics from the left. His argument represents a fundamental and constructive challenge to conventional thinking about the most important issues facing our society. But it is also easily misunderstood.
“I’ve been called a liberal racist more often than anything else in my life,” he says, sitting in his office at the university’s one towering office building, stylishly dressed in black jeans and t-shirt under a black window-pane jacket.
He argues that the pursuit of diversity is based on a flawed understanding of humanity and stands as a roadblock to confrontation with the most basic injustices in society: “The trouble with diversity … is not just that it won’t solve the problem of economic inequality; it’s that it makes it hard for us to even see the problem.”
Race, as virtually all modern anthropologists and geneticists agree, is not a scientifically valid concept. Obvious physical differences exist among humans, but the genetic variation within conventionally defined races is often greater than the variation among those races. Still, “race” is a concept that people use all the time with profound consequences, even if they can’t define it.
Race gets defined in ways that vary by time, geography and situation. Why, except for the peculiar American notion of blackness as being determined by one drop of “blood” of African ancestry, would a person of half African and half European genetic heritage, like Sen. Barack Obama, be called “black” rather than “white” – the latter a supposedly racial category that has grown more inclusive over many years?
People may talk instead about belonging to different ethnic cultures, borrowing the notion that anthropologists developed to describe the shared symbols and understanding of a distinct group of people, like the Navajo or Mbuti. But as valuable, if elusive, as this idea may be in studying tribal societies, Michaels contends that in our society it is another way to create biological categories that don’t exist and thereby perpetuate an inaccurate and racist view of the world. In his zeal, however, Michaels unnecessarily jettisons entirely, rather than reformulates, the notion of culture.
As Michaels sees it, the social focus on achieving diversity diverts attention from the most fundamental injustice in our society – economic inequality. Moreover, the pursuit of diversity, especially in universities, gives legitimacy to the growing economic inequality of American society, because it protects the inheritance of economic privilege and does little to create opportunity for the poor, whether black or white.
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Michaels, author of Our America and a writer about both literary theory and American literature, became interested in contemporary ideas of race and identity when studying American novels of the ’20s. During that era, many public figures argued for the supremacy of what was seen as America’s Anglo-Saxon or Nordic character. But by the ’80s, Michaels notes, it was no longer publicly acceptable to advocate racial supremacy.
Today, at a time when liberals and conservatives alike profess to abhor racism and prejudice, a new free-market fundamentalism – dubbed neo-liberalism – also claims that racism inefficiently interferes with the workings of a free labor market.
“The question is,” Michaels says, “once we’ve given up the racism, and once we’ve given up to some degree the idea that races are a biological reality, why are we so attached to races? The first answer is that American society as a whole loves race. What I mean by that is that generally both right and left are – in neo-liberal terms – conservatives. The fundamental precepts of neoliberalism – the sense that in American society, effort and hard work are rewarded, that there’s a rough justice in the distribution of wealth, and that inherited inequality is not a fundamental problem – are widely held views in American society. The two sets of ideas go together because one supports the other.
“The vision that the primary problems of America are intolerance – sexism, racism – is completely compatible with the view that if we could just get rid of that intolerance and hatred and fear of the other, we’d be living in a fundamentally just society.”
That has not happened. Economic inequality, increasing for decades, has accelerated in recent years. As a new edition of the Economic Policy Institute’s The State of Working America points out, productivity has grown for the past four years but the median American family income has fallen. According to recent Commerce Department figures, wages and salaries (which include soaring executive paychecks) took the smallest share of national income since records started in 1929, and corporate profits took the largest share since 1950.
Blacks still fare worse on average than whites, but Michaels argues that the central problem here is exploitation of workers, not discrimination against blacks. And diversity is not the solution. He writes, “If you’re worried about the growing economic inequality in American life, if you suspect that there may be something unjust as well as unpleasant in the spectacle of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, no cause is less worth supporting, no battle is less worth fighting than the ones we fight for diversity.”
The obligation of diversity is to be nice to each other, Michaels writes, but the obligation of equality is to give up some money. Given the choice, diversity has the advantage of appearing to be morally righteous while at the same time preserving economic self-interest.
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The notion of diversity took off after 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke v. Board of Regents that the University of California could, as part of its legitimate interest in maintaining a diverse student body, take race into account when admitting students. According to Michaels, the response to the decision fostered the idea that universities should encourage students to appreciate the differences among races (or other identities more or less modeled on race). But it did not address the issue of economic inequality, which retards achievement for blacks proportionally more than for whites. Economic inequality makes it harder for poor (including poor black) students to be able to afford to go to college. What’s more, inequality – in education or family social capital – also makes it harder for poor students, once they reach college age, to compete academically with students from affluent families.
Michaels asserts that diversity gives legitimacy to higher education as a supposed meritocracy, which is important in an era when everyone is told that a college education is the key to success. Admitting a diverse student body, especially for the most elite schools, helps to create the impression that upper middle-class and rich students have won this educational ticket to higher incomes fairly, not because they come from families that are well off.
“The problem with affirmative action is not (as is often said) that it violates the principles of meritocracy,” he writes; “the problem is that it produces the illusion that we actually have a meritocracy. … Race-based affirmative action … is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality.” If class-based affirmative action replaced racial affirmative action at Harvard, and its student body reflected the country’s income distribution, he calculates that more than half the students would be gone, most of them rich and white.
“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.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.