The Trouble with Diversity

I found this article in The Climax, Hampshire College’s “only news source.” I haven’t thought much about it yet, but it’s something I ought to think about.

More and more relevant information with lots of numbers from sources I know nothing about.

Walter Benn Michaels came up with the idea for his book The Trouble with Diversity when he gave a lecture to a seemingly very diverse group of a few hundred Harvard students. They “were extremely proud of their diversity,”he said, but “were completely indifferent to the one way in which they were not diverse, which is to say they all came overwhelmingly from the top 5 to 10 percent of American wealth.”

The central problem of contemporary progressive politics, according to Michaels, is that anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-discrimination in general have become the fundamental measures of social justice. This has happened, he said, “in a moment when actually the greatest problem in American society is not racism and it’s not sexism. The greatest problem in American society is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.”

“It’s obvious that racism and sexism and homophobia are all bad things,”Michaels noted, “and indeed we should be opposed to them. But at the very same time that we’ve been doing this, we have also become an increasingly unequal society overall.”He argues that the liberal obsession with diversity is in direct conflict with a legitimate fight against economic inequality. In his thinking, it covers up structural economic inequality with a feel-good sense of appreciation for difference.

According to Michaels, his argument has elicited many different responses. College students have been skeptical of his argument, particularly students at elite universities like Harvard. He is often criticized on the left for underestimating the important role of racism in perpetuating inequality. In response, he simply argued, “This is a lot of rich people telling themselves that virtue consists of getting rid of their prejudices and not getting rid of their money.”

Michaels placed special attention on the role universities play in “legitimating inequality.”He gave Princeton University as an example of how, for instance, financial aid practices that seem equitable can actually hinder attempts to fix inequality, and offered a fittingly provocative solution.

Princeton reports that 16 percent of its entering class comes from families making under $50,100 annually because, Michaels remarked somewhat snidely, “Princeton has decided for some reason that $50,100 makes you count as poor.”He continued to note that the median income for American families is actually even less than this, at $45,500. Keeping this statistic in mind, 55 percent of Princeton students receive financial aid, even though the vast majority of students come from families making over the median family income.

He used the Princeton website’s financial aid calculator to determine that families with an income of $150,000 will actually get $16,000 in grants, as well as a work study job for their child. “Where does Princeton get that $16,000? It gets it from its endowment,”he said. “How does it build its endowment? Its endowment is tax-free.”In other words, according to Michaels, money is taken from the state that could otherwise-in a liberal administration at least-be used on healthcare, education, and other progressive programs. But instead, he said, “that money is going to people who are already rich-the 97th percentile-and it’s giving them a little more money.”

That, he said, “is the pure definition of welfare for the rich. It’s redistribution upwards instead of downwards. That’s structure.”He suggested removing the tax-exempt status of universities and then seeing what they do about really increasing economic diversity among their students.

Conservatives have had a mixed reaction to his argument. He tried to sum up their standard response by mimicking right-wing talk show hosts that have interviewed him: “Yeah, yeah he’s really right about diversity-but he’s a communist!”They are happy to find problems with diversity, but less than pleased to talk about wealth inequality. Reflecting on this dissatisfaction on both sides of the political spectrum, Michaels contemplated, “It’s not because my position is somewhere in the middle. It’s because it’s none of the above.”

When pressed more about the relationship between racism and economic inequality, he relented somewhat. “In one sense, they’re completely intertwined.”Explaining further, he noted, “In the US if you look at quintiles of American wealth, it’s obvious right up front: African Americans in particular are overrepresented at the bottom and they’re underrepresented at the top. And why is that? We know perfectly well why that is. It’s because of slavery. It’s because of Jim Crow. It’s because of concurrent racism. So you’ve got the legacy of past racism and you’ve got the continuation of racism. In that sense, you want to say yeah, being black and being poor are closely related.”

“But the crucial thing to see is that racism is just a selection mechanism,”he said. “It’s capitalism that produces inequality, not racism. In a completely non-racist society, you’d still have poor people. They just wouldn’t be predominantly black.”

“In that sense,”he continued, “I argue anti-racism and indeed the commitment to diversity are fundamentally conservative positions. Because what they’re trying to do is take neo-liberalism-the contemporary form of unrestrained, untaxed, unhindered capitalism-and trying to make it work better.”

According to Michaels, discrimination is bad for neoliberal economies. He said people on the left that emphasize racism over economic inequality itself are “basically acting like the human resources division of the right.”He continued, “They are trying to produce exactly the right work force for a neoliberal economy. And that doesn’t count as a critique of capitalism. That counts as a perfection of capitalism.”

“It’s not that that means anti-racism is wrong. It means preaching against racism has about as much progressive political force as preaching against theft. Theft is also wrong. But the world would not be a more equal place with respect to the division of resources if there were no theft. Racism is wrong. But the world would not be a more equal place with respect to division of resources if there were no racism.”

Walter Benn Michaels is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author most recently of The Trouble with Diversity. He spoke at Mount Holyoke on March 7 and agreed to be interviewed by The Climax a few hours prior to his lecture.


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