Should We Shut Up About Diversity?

A good question, with a cynical answer from Walter Benn Michaels.

Let’s stop talking so much about race, argues University of Illinois at Chicago English professor Walter Benn Michaels in The Trouble With Diversity; let’s talk about class instead. Rarely have I found myself more in agreement with a book’s conclusion. Over the past six years, Americans have barely paid attention as every mechanism of government has been mobilized to benefit those who need help the least, punishing, even if they fail to recognize the fact, those who need assistance the most. To focus so obsessively instead on questions of diversity, as if the ideal society were one in which both rich black kids and rich white kids could attend the same elite college, is, as Michaels rightly asserts, to opt for a politics of symbolism over a politics of results.

The interesting question is not whether we should talk more about class but how we should do so. And here, it has to be said, Michaels’ book is a failure.  Rarely have I found myself more in disagreement about how to reach a conclusion than I did while reading The Trouble With Diversity. Walter Benn Michaels is a master of rhetoric, a dazzling wordsmith who loves to poke holes in what he takes to be conventional thinking. Yet to make his points, he makes a series of assertions that, when examined with care, simply crumble. There is nothing in this book that would help promote informed discussions of economic equality in this country. There is instead a profusion of cynicism incompatible with any serious political agenda, including the one in which Michaels professes to believe.

Here are some examples of Michaels’ rhetorical excess. Cultural differences, including those involving race, are “lovable,” whereas class differences “are not so obviously appealing.” Affirmative action is therefore “a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality.”  It is absurd to focus so much on affirmative action because “there are no people of different races.” It makes more sense to talk about concrete things, such as paying African-Americans reparations for slavery, than it does to engage in symbolic politics in which nothing really is at stake: “No issue of social justice hangs on appreciating hair color diversity; no issue of social justice hangs on appreciating racial or cultural diversity.”

Michaels, as these examples illustrates, belongs to the “shock and awe” school of political argument. First, you say something wildly implausible in the hopes that its dramatic counterintuitiveness will make it seem brilliant. Yet in the United States in which I live, race is an obvious fact of life, conversations about it remain awkward and uncomfortable, and both supporters and opponents of affirmative action are sincere in their convictions. It is true that saying such things would make for a very unoriginal book. But at least it would be an accurate one.

Then, you posit false choices. For Michaels, every time we talk about race, we fail the poor. But why should discussions of racial injustice preclude taking on issues of class injustice? Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the high point of postwar liberalism, featured both a Civil Rights Act and a War on Poverty; one way of redressing racial discrimination, in those days, was to further economic equality. In more recent times, a concern with racial inequality has relied on the same underlying moral logic as a concern with economic inequality: Arbitrary differences are unfair, and their impact ought to be minimized. For all its problems, affirmative action has had one great benefit: It has linked questions of justice to mundane realities, such as college admissions and jobs. That is why former Harvard President Larry Summers insisted on opening up his institution to more working-class students. Without affirmative action in the past, it is hard to imagine Harvard and Princeton abolishing early decision in the present.

Once you have made absurd claims and posited false choices, you can next assume, as Michaels does, an aura of bemused superiority. Diversity advocates on the one hand and conservative activists on the other spend lots of time and money arguing about affirmative action, but Michaels knows, even if they do not, that it is all much ado about nothing: “[I]t doesn’t matter which side you’re on and it doesn’t matter who wins. Either way, economic inequality is absolutely untouched.” (But surely it matters who wins, for if conservative opponents of affirmative action are successful in turning Americans away from discussions of racial injustice, they will be emboldened to push for policies resulting in greater economic injustice.) Lots of Jews worry about anti-Semitism—Michaels spends considerable time on Philip Roth—but they are simply mistaken: When “compared to Negrophobia, anti-Semitism was never a very significant factor in American life.” (Race, according to Michaels, does not exist, but racism evidently does.)  Liberals may want to believe that they won a political victory every now and then, but, at least according to Walter Benn Michaels, they “ended up playing a useful if no doubt unintended role, the role of supplying the right with just the kind of left it wants.” And then there is this repeated insistence on the idea that there is no such thing as race; Michaels shakes his head in bewilderment that so many of us just refuse to accept what he knows as true. 

Michaels pictures himself as the tough guy willing to take on the hard issues of class while everyone else opts for warm and fuzzy bromides promising cultural and racial diversity. Indeed, he argues, so prevalent is this superficial desire to bring everyone together that Americans apply ideas of tolerance and acceptance to areas where they do not belong, especially the area of religion. “Only someone who doesn’t believe in any religion can take the view that all religions may plausibly be considered equal and that their differences can be appreciated,” Michaels writes.  (I am one of the people he has in mind here.)  Like his former colleague Stanley Fish, he insists that “if you believe that Jesus is the way and I don’t believe Jesus is the way, one of us must be wrong.”* Believers, including nonbelievers, have no choice but to fight it out. Convincing each other is futile; converting each other is our only option.

With all due respect, Michaels has no idea what he is talking about. He writes about religion without distinguishing between religions. Hence, you would never know that some religions do indeed look for converts, while others actually place barriers in front of those who would join. Nor do all religions assign the same priority to belief as evangelical Christians do; observance, for some, is more important than belief, and so long as a society allows them to keep their strict observance, they can easily live together with others of different convictions. And even those who believe that Jesus is the way have come to accept that others can find God in other ways. Since Nostra Aetate (1965), the Vatican has worked assiduously to recognize the validity of Judaism to Jews, and the great bulk of American evangelicals, for all their talk of witnessing the faith, do not routinely tell their Hindu co-workers that they will burn in hell. In a world in which intermarriage is a fact of life and switching congregations hardly worthy of notice, religious diversity is an inescapable fact, not a logical impossibility. 

In the end, The Trouble With Diversity calls more attention to Walter Benn Michaels than it proposes anything of value to American society. Writing in the third person, Michaels tells us his annual salary and frankly confesses his greed (shock and awe, again).  He lets us know where he lives and casually mentions that most of his book was written in the course of one summer. (It shows.) By revealing these facts about himself, Michaels hopes to demonstrate that “the validity of the arguments does not depend upon the virtue of the person making them.” Not only is his stance trite—economists down the road from him at the University of Chicago have been saying this for some time—it is also, in a way Michaels fails to recognize, much more what the right wants to hear than anything associated with the multicultural left.  He winds up including himself in a world in which everyone is motivated by self-interest and everything is hypocritical. If anyone can be accused of doing what Walter Benn Michaels accuses everyone else of doing—ignoring class by talking about race—it is Walter Benn Michaels himself.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2006: This article originally and mistakenly identified Walter Benn Michaels and Stanley Fish as colleagues. They are former colleagues, as Fish left the University of Illinois at Chicago for Florida International University in 2005. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)