Thursday, September 21, 2006

Is Diversity harmful to Equality in America?

A new book by Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity, challenges the focus of our most popular podcast to date: the ethics of diversity. In his book, Michaels argues that the preoccupation with diversity in this country in the past 20 to 30 years has actually damaged the prospects for equality. The "left", in his view, has concentrated so much on eradicating racism and sexism that it has ignored class. The result is that there has been no social and political force to counteract the growing economic inequality in America. He believes that a focus on cultural differences is either a frivolous distraction from more important matters or a dangerous attempt to cloud over the deep problems that prevent the United States from becoming an egalitarian society.

Michaels makes some startling claims in his work. One point, that he explains in this interview, is that by concentrating on diversity, American universities are complicit with right-wing attempts to ignore class and privilege. By trying to work to get students to be less racist and sexist, and creating different opportunities to attract students of color and women to higher education, universities and colleges are doing nothing more than training more and more people to be the managers for a capitalist system that keeps the economic status quo.

He also claims that our identities are the least important aspects about ourselves. He suggests that our racial or gender identities should matter just about as much as our hair or eye color--that is, not at all. By focusing so much attention on anti-racism and anti-sexism, we perpetuate stories about who we as individuals are that is deeply disconnected from the biggest social problems of the day.

Scott McLemee critically reviews Michaels's book and points out that the so-called "left" that is being taken to task is probably a miniscule number of people working in the academy and this commitment to diversity is not a broad social commitment. As a result, we should still work to eliminate racism and sexism and not see this kind of effort as an obstacle to equality.

Michaels view is not particularly new and seems to have friends on both the left and the right. American philosopher Richard Rorty made a similar point in his book, Achieving Our Country, in 1998. Rorty maintains that the left has divided into two branches--a Cultural Left interested in race and gender difference and a Reformist Left interested in economic class. These two branches don't talk to each other, according to Rorty, and the result is that America is a nicer place to live in than it was 40 years ago (people of color are less likely to run into bigots on a regular basis), but it is a harsher place to make a living and the poor will continue to suffer as the rich run around and consolidate their privilege.

Oddly enough, this criticism of a Cultural Left is also something that is a hallmark of the kind of conservative criticism found in the work of Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, and David Horowitz (who is making a one man crusade, through the Academic Bill of Rights movement, to prevent the so-called Cultural Left from having too much power to set the course of higher education).

Must we see the commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism as opposed to economic justice? Does it make a difference to Michaels's argument that, historically speaking, many of the groups most committed to economic justice in U.S. history, such as labor unions, were racist and sexist? Can we rest now on all the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has been done in the past 40 years and "move on"?

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At 1:15 PM , Anonymous Lani said...

The claim that working for ethnic/racial and gender equality somehow detracts from or undermines working for socioeconomic justice is built on a false dichotomy which needs to be recognized for what it is. Although I am not a social scientist, from the data I've read, the vast majority of poor people in our country are white women with children and peoples of oppressed ethnic/racial identities. Although there are clearly white men who are also poor, I believe the statistics show this demographic group to be a numerical minority. So, to work on behalf of ethnic/racial and gender equality is, in large part, to work for socioeconomic justice. In fact, there is good evidence that working for socioeconomic justice without taking race into account has resulted in gains first by white women. This is borne out by the effects of Affirmative Action, e.g.

Finally, what I am calling here a false dichotomy also appears to be responsible for the "split" in the left/progressive community. It all seems built on a mistake in thinking.

At 6:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've not read the book in question, but this bears the hallmark of what seems to be a pretty common mistake in these sorts of discussions: Who/what counts as "the left" in the first place? I get really annoyed when people - especially well-meaning ones like this guy seems to be - make such sweeping generalizations about the makeup and nature of the "left." I hope he goes into more detail in the book.

Also, check out the discussion over at The Valve ( regarding this book. It's been going for some time.

- Dennis

At 8:48 AM , Blogger Matt Norwood said...

I think Michaels may overstate his case (I haven't read the book), but this is one of the dangers of publishing: to make a book-long case for something like this, you are almost required to overstate it.

That being said, I have to disagree with McLemee's criticism that the "left" under criticism is a small or marginal group limited to academia. I can draw a counterexample from the world I'm most familiar with at present: New York lawfirms publish their "diversity" scores to great interest among prospective associates, and diversity statistics are a major selling point for law schools as well. But my experience at Columbia Law School and at firms has revealed a world of black, white, asian, gay, straight, male, and female students and lawyers who hail almost exclusively from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. The political discourse in this world is anemic and close-minded because of it, although almost no one seems to be aware of it; they seem to almost universally believe that the "diversity" of their group necessarily grants them robust insight into the ways of the world.

I agree that race, gender, and sexuality are important progressive issues that still have great battles ahead for them. But right now, we are at a crisis of inequality, and using those other factors as proxies isn't working the way many had hoped it would. Instead, we're seeing institutionalized tokenism, with women and non-whites being cherry-picked from wealthy backgrounds to fill positions and boost the diversity statistics of firms and schools.

At 6:05 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

A good observation, Matt. One might ask then: what strategy should progressives use to address the kinds of inequalties we see in society today without using proxies of race? Some suggest class based affirmative action, but does that do the anti-racist work that we need to do?


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