Book Review: The Trouble With Diversity

Trouble With Diversity

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Diversity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006) Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1.The Trouble With Race
  • 2. Our Favorite Victims
  • 3. Richer, Not Better
  • 4. Just and Unjust Rewards
  • 5. Who We Are? Why Should We Care?
  • 6. Religion in Politics: The Good News
  • Conclusion: About the Author

WHAT IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? This book is a polemical critique of the left’s waning commitment to a certain form of political protest. According to Walter Benn Michaels, the problem with identity politics today is very simple: the American left has unwittingly given up on the real fight against ‘inequality’ (in purely economic terms) to celebrate ‘identity’ as an end in itself. This critique sounds almost Marxist in tone. Instead of reforming any type of prejudice that enables one part of the population to stay rich while another part remains poor, the left has turned its attention to policing political correct speech and including the most privileged of underrepresented groups at the expense of raising the living conditions of poor people everywhere. Michaels cites a striking example of this latter condition in the ‘diversity’ rubrics college admission boards use to select incoming freshman students; while each new classes is racially and ethnically diverse, many students attending the most elite colleges in the United States come from the same upper-middle class neighborhoods and schools, with similar preoccupations and biases. They listen to the same music, watch the same movies, and believe the same things about America – that it is wrong to be racist (as an individual) and to judge someone by the color of their skin (nevermind the size of their checkbook!).

In this sense I feel that Michaels is right – Americans have fallen in love with an image of racial and ethnic diversity that does not disrupt the structural mechanisms that permit some to inherit wealth and privilege and others to inherit poverty and want. This is why both the left and the right can claim diverse members: Sonia Sontamayor and Clarence Thomas are both products of affirmative action and both visually represent difference. However, their politics are very different and this has a lot to do with how each one sees class and access to power affecting everyday peoples’ lives. At this point in time, everyone believes it is wrong to hold racist views or to openly make racist claims. George W. Bush went to great lengths to claim that he was not prejudiced against black people after the inadequate response of FEMA to Hurricane Katrina (despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary.) What Michaels would say, and does say in his book, is that George W. Bush probably likes some black people (such as Condi Rice and Colin Powell). Who he doesn’t much care for is poor people of any color.

In his attempts to revive the left’s progressive war on poverty and class privilege, Michaels draws a wonderfully poetic comparison between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary assessment of wealth in the United States. According to Hemingway, in keeping with the protean tone and subject matter of his novels, rich people are nothing more than regular people with more money. The only difference is the amount of money they have saved up. For Fitzgerald, however, the rich were a distinct class of people onto themselves; they no longer think like the middle class do, which is what makes their personal motivations seem so strange to the rest of us. (Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) demonstrate how well historical writers have used wealth to demonstrate our changing attitudes toward money and privilege.) To Fitzgerald’s credit, he perceptively comments on the colloquial attitude many held toward wealth in early twentieth-century America. For the elite Anglo-Saxon Protestants who attended private universities and were members of elite country clubs, attended cotillions and threw massive private parties, their lifestyle provided them with a sense of entitlement that could not be hammered away by ‘new money’ earned by other white ethnics without the same pedigree. Wealth was not just the result of acquiring new money, it was the result of the common social values and the privileged lifestyle that regulated one’s attitude toward wealth. The tension between old and new money was not a phenomenon unique to Fitzgerald’s time and place, but it did come with some uneasy tensions for white ethnics who hoped to belong to the inner circle.

Michaels rightly picks up on this generations’ fetishization of wealth as a distinct category of culture. In a very essentialist way, ‘class’ operates in Fitzgerald’s novels much the same way as ‘race’ does in others; as something that is inherited from one generation to the next. This intergenerational passage of wealth was more than just a passing of assets; it was a passing of social privileges and values that that exceeded the mere making of money. Earning money was not the same thing as demonstrating one’s pedigree, which takes time to accrue. For Fitzgerald and his characters, the social distinctions that separated one generation of wealthy people from another was one of accrued social status. Yet, for Michaels this distinction should not mean that we must reinforce these social distinctions with a fetishized attitude toward wealth. Even though ‘new money’ is not as good as ‘old money’ in some people’s eyes, it is empirically better to be wealthy than it is to be poor. For Michaels, who is self-reportedly of an upper middle class background, it is desirable for a person to stop being poor in a way that it is not desirable for a person to deny their racial or ethnic heritage. Confusing the social dynamics of the two (i.e. ‘class’ and ‘race’) will only lead the left to waste its time celebrating a culture that needs to be eradicated. In this vein, Michaels’ sets out to do away with race and identity politics altogether in order to get us back on track – that is, get us back to combatting inequality in all its forms.

MY CRITIQUE On the whole, I tend to agree with Michaels’ critique of identity politics. Many left and liberal persons are satisfied with giving lip service to celebrating diversity instead of rolling up their sleeves and pressuring those in control to give up structural privileges that preserve wealth for the very few. This includes some of the best academics who have written the most detailed histories of racism in the States, only to be purveyors of gentrification and elite privilege in their day to day lives. I am almost certain that this type of guilt is what drove Michaels to write his book in the first place. (He comments extensively on his own wealth privilege in the Conclusion of the book.) However, I think that Michaels’ polemical approach is wrong on at least two fronts. First, he insists on maintaining a distinct separation between ‘race’ and ‘class’ categories, as if the two can ever exist in isolation in real life. And second, he insists on producing a polemical critique of these terms without providing us with proper historical contextualization. If Michaels’ understanding of race was historically rooted instead of consructed in philosophical isolation, then he would recognize that the race concept did not move from a biological definition to a social construction of difference, but that the biological definition was used to legitimize socially constructed categories from the start.

Even the architects reading this blog should be able to use their ‘Architectural History 101’ classes to critique this mistake. For example, Roman writers as far back as Pollo Vitruvius insisted on cataloguing antique material cultures by the racial (i.e. ‘cultural’) differences of its peoples. This belief led to the notion that vernacular architectures were representative of autochthonous cultures – one style for one civilization. Vitruvius believed that these cultural differences coincided with physical characteristics that could be taken as emblematic signs for social groups because of the geographical separation that existed between some very early peoples. In other words, there was no reason to invent a scientific definition for cultural differences that were largely reinforced by social isolation. (The vast scope of the Empire did introduce foreign peoples into the elite strata of Roman society, which brought some anxieties about identity in the present. However, this did not keep people like Vitruvius from imagining a distant past where social groups were completely segregated by space. In fact, it may have motivated this ‘pure’ element of their writings.) The social mixing of people, however, routinely introduces social anxieties and the eighteenth and nineteenth century were no different.

During the age of Enlightenment, when the geography between relatively stable cultural enclaves was drastically reduced by increases in trade and colonial exploitation, intermarriage and new foreign elites threatened to decrease the power of local elites. Thus, wealthy Europeans needed to reaffirm the traditional definitions that distinguished them from new groups (e.g. ‘foreigners’) attempting to grasp power. In addition, the rise of nation-state politics required the invention of national histories to keep colonial peoples in a subject position. It was under this regime that an Algerian could be fully French in Morocco (via the claim of citizenship), but entirely foreign in Paris (via the claim of culture). In these ways, national elites essentially lied about their cultural purity to preserve their social privileges. Race was a tool of economic domination, along with many other tools of social and economic separation. (This toolkit is deep and various!) And despite Michaels’ claims to the contrary, much of the rationale behind the persistence of race can be directly related back to a class analysis of nation-state politics.

This is a major limitation of his argument. Even a casual student of American history will tell you that stoking social and economic divisions between poor peoples has regularly been a convenient way of preserving a ruling groups’ existing privileges. The early American planters were completely satisfied with breaking up the strong class affiliations between European and Atlantic Creole indentured servants when they needed to solidify a ready source of cheap labor. Before the mid-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century, class differences kept poor white farmers from ever thinking of themselves as affiliated with plantation owners. Instead, many of the former spent most of their free time eating, drinking, and mating with Atlantic Creoles who shared thier economic status. It is this fear of potential class affiliation that drove the ‘Southern Strategy’ of modern Republicans as well. By stoking the fears of poor whites against poor blacks, they were able to motivate the former to vote against their own interests and preserve the centers of social and economic power.

Without considering this cultural history of social and economic privilege, we end up where Michaels begins, which is with the belief that ending racism only requires the scientific invalidation of the ‘race’ concept. He spends a lot of his time lamenting the potential revolution of race relations that never came in the wake of the Human Genome Project. By Michaels’ logic, a clear understanding of genetic variation should have eradicated our need for racial differences. This ahistorical perspective fails to even consider the possibility that lingering racism is the result of existing class privileges; one must eradicate white privilege (and not the scientific alibis that mask this intent) in order to do away with racial discrimination. Michaels failure to even mention this possibility is a reult of his unnecessary separation of race and class; it is impossible to discuss precisely because he has made it invisible in his analysis. In the end, he confuses the cause (racism) with an effect (the scientific definition of race).

SOME THOUGHTS MOVING FORWARD I read (and reread) this book for the sake of my ‘Race and Place’ class. It is written in a very accessible tone and is polemical as well, so I believe that undergraduate students will find it engaging. Given recent events surrounding the continued use of police brutality against young black men and the renewal of protest from the American public, I do think it is important to isolate its shortcomings for students. For me, this will require having my students read some equally polemical texts that discount this approach… I will be looking for a few good candidates in the next couple of weeks.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Trouble With Diversity

  1. Were you able to find any decent “polemical” texts opposing the arguments presented in this book?

    1. Scott – I have found such critiques made by second-wave feminists that insist upon revealing the ‘intersectionality’ of privilege that relates sex and gender issues to race and class. (bell hooks is an obvious example.) I have also read several texts that outline the continued influence of segregation (both in racial and class terms) in affordable housing, which requires thinking across race and class distinctions. See for example George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place (Temple University Press, 2011) and just about any text written by Douglas Massey in the last five years.

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