Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Trouble with Diversity

How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

Walter Benn Michaels





“The rich are different from you and me” is a famous remark supposedly made by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, although what made it famous—or at least made Hemingway famously repeat it—was not the remark itself but Hemingway’s reply: “Yes, they have more money.” In other words, the point of the story, as Hemingway told it, was that the rich really aren’t very different from you and me. Fitzgerald’s mistake, he thought, was that he mythologized or sentimentalized the rich, treating them as if they were a different kind of person instead of the same kind of person with more money. It was as if, according to Fitzgerald, what made rich people different was not what they had—their money—but what they were, “a special glamorous race.”

To Hemingway, this difference—between what people owned and what they were—seemed obvious, and it was also obvious that the important thing was what they were. No one cares much about Robert Cohn’s money in The Sun Also Rises, but everybody feels the force of the fact that he’s a “race-conscious” “little kike.” And whether or not it’s true that Fitzgerald sentimentalized the rich and made them more glamorous than they really were, it’s certainly true that he, like Hemingway, believed that the fundamental differences—the ones that really mattered—ran deeper than the question of how much money you had. That’s why in The Great Gatsby, the fact that Gatsby has made a great deal of money isn’t quite enough to win Daisy Buchanan back. Rich as he has become, he’s still “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” not Jay Gatsby but Jimmy Gatz. The change of name is what matters. One way to look at The Great Gatsby is as a story about a poor boy who makes good, which is to say, a poor boy who becomes rich—the so-called American dream. But Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is. Or, more precisely, it’s about someone who pretends to be something he’s not; it’s about Jimmy Gatz pretending to be Jay Gatsby. If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it’s not because she’s rich and he isn’t (by the end, he is) but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only “passing” as rich. “We’re all white here,” someone says, interrupting one of Tom Buchanan’s racist outbursts. Jimmy Gatz isn’t quite white enough.

What’s important about The Great Gatsby, then, is that it takes one kind of difference (the difference between the rich and the poor) and redescribes it as another kind of difference (the difference between the white and the not-so-white). To put the point more generally, books like The Great Gatsby (and there have been a great many of them) give us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes. And this vision has proven to be extraordinarily attractive. Indeed, it’s been so attractive that the vision has survived even though what we used to think were the races have not. In the 1920s, racial science was in its heyday; now very few scientists believe that there are any such things as races. But many of those who are quick to remind us that there are no biological entities called races are even quicker to remind us that races have not disappeared; they should just be understood as social entities instead. And these social entities have turned out to be remarkably tenacious, both in ways we know are bad and in ways we have come to think of as good. The bad ways involve racism, the inability or refusal to accept people who are different from us. The good ways involve just the opposite: embracing difference, celebrating what we have come to call diversity.

Indeed, in the United States, the commitment to appreciating diversity emerged out of the struggle against racism, and the word diversity itself began to have the importance it does for us today in 1978 when, in Bakke v. Board of Regents, the Supreme Court ruled that taking into consideration the race of an applicant to the University of California (in this case, it was the medical school at UC Davis) was an acceptable practice if it served “the interest of diversity.” The point the Court was making here was significant. It was not asserting that preference in admissions could be given, say, to black people because they had previously been discriminated against. It was saying instead that universities had a legitimate interest in taking race into account in exactly the same way they had a legitimate interest in taking into account what part of the country an applicant came from or what his or her nonacademic interests were. They had, in other words, a legitimate interest in having a “diverse student body,” and racial diversity, like geographic diversity, could thus be an acceptable goal for an admissions policy.

Two things happened here. First, even though the concept of diversity was not originally connected with race (universities had long sought diverse student bodies without worrying about race at all), the two now came to be firmly associated. When universities publish their diversity statistics today, they’re not talking about how many kids come from Oregon. My university—the University of Illinois at Chicago—is ranked as one of the most diverse in the country, but well over half the students in it come from Chicago. What the rankings measure is the number of African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos we have, not the number of Chicagoans.

And, second, even though the concept of diversity was introduced as a kind of end run around the historical problem of racism (the whole point was that you could argue for the desirability of a diverse student body without appealing to the history of discrimination against blacks and so without getting accused by people like Alan Bakke of reverse discrimination against whites), the commitment to diversity became deeply associated with the struggle against racism. Indeed, the goal of overcoming racism, which had sometimes been identified as the goal of creating a “color-blind” society, was now reconceived as the goal of creating a diverse, that is, a color-conscious, society.1 Instead of trying to treat people as if their race didn’t matter, we would not only recognize but celebrate racial identity. Indeed, race has turned out to be a gateway drug for all kinds of identities, cultural, religious, sexual, even medical. To take what may seem like an extreme case, advocates for the disabled now urge us to stop thinking of disability as a condition to be “cured” or “eliminated” and to start thinking of it instead on the model of race: we don’t think black people should want to stop being black; why do we assume the deaf want to hear?2

The general principle here is that our commitment to diversity has redefined the opposition to discrimination as the appreciation (rather than the elimination) of difference. So with respect to race, the idea is not just that racism is a bad thing (which of course it is) but that race itself is a good thing. Indeed, we have become so committed to the attractions of race that (as I’ve already suggested above and as we’ll see at greater length in chapter 1) our enthusiasm for racial identity has been utterly undiminished by scientific skepticism about whether there is any such thing. Once the students in my American literature classes have taken a course in human genetics, they just stop talking about black and white and Asian races and start talking about black and European and Asian cultures instead. We love race, and we love the identities to which it has given birth.

The fundamental point of this book is to explain why this is true. The argument, in its simplest form, will be that we love race—we love identity—because we don’t love class.3 We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don’t have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it. A world where some of us are black and some of us are white—or biracial or Native American or transgendered—is a world where the differences between us present a solution: appreciating our diversity. So we like to talk about the differences we can appreciate, and we don’t like to talk about the ones we can’t. Indeed, we don’t even like to acknowledge that they exist. As survey after survey has shown, Americans are very reluctant to identify themselves as belonging to the lower class and even more reluctant to identify themselves as belonging to the upper class. The class we like is the middle class.

But the fact that we all like to think of ourselves as belonging to the same class doesn’t, of course, mean that we actually do belong to the same class. In reality, we obviously and increasingly don’t. “The last few decades,” as The Economist puts it, “have seen a huge increase in inequality in America.”4 The rich are different from you and me, and one of the ways they’re different is that they’re getting richer and we’re not. And while it’s not surprising that most of the rich and their apologists on the intellectual right are unperturbed by this development, it is at least a little surprising that the intellectual left has managed to remain almost equally unperturbed. Giving priority to issues like affirmative action and committing itself to the celebration of difference, the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity. So for thirty years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities—as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor. From the economic standpoint, however, what poor people want is not to contribute to diversity but to minimize their contribution to it—they want to stop being poor. Celebrating the diversity of American life has become the American left’s way of accepting their poverty, of accepting inequality.

I have three goals in writing this book. The first is to show how our current notion of cultural diversity—trumpeted as the repudiation of racism and biological essentialism—in fact grew out of and perpetuates the very concepts it congratulates itself on having escaped. The second is to show how and why the American love affair with race—especially when you can dress race up as culture—has continued and even intensified. Almost everything we say about culture (that the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that our cultural heritages should be perpetuated, that there’s a value in making sure that different cultures survive) seems to me mistaken, and this book will try to show why. And the third goal is—by shifting our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality—to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life.

In the last year, it has sometimes seemed as if this terrain might in fact be starting to change, and there has been what at least looks like the beginning of a new interest in the problem of economic inequality. Various newspapers have run series noticing the growth of inequality and the decline of class mobility; it turns out, for example, that the Gatsby-style American dream—poor boy makes good, buys beautiful, beautiful shirts—now has a better chance of coming true in Sweden than it does in America, and as good a chance of coming true in western Europe (which is to say, not very good) as it does here. So when someone like the New York Times columnist David Brooks observes with satisfaction that what he thinks of as the “gangsta” behavior of young black rioters in suburban France is different from equivalent behavior in the United States, because in the United States, “the gangsta fan ends up in college or in law school” but “in France the barriers to ascent are higher,” his own newspaper has already pointed out his mistake. In fact, according to the Times, “One surprising fact about mobility is that it is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.”5 People have begun to notice also that the intensity of interest in the race of students in our universities has coincided with more or less complete indifference to their wealth. We’re getting to the point where there are more black people than poor people in elite universities (even though there are still precious few black people). And Hurricane Katrina—with its televised images of the people left to fend for themselves in a drowning New Orleans—provided both a reminder that there still are poor people in America and a vision of what the consequences of that poverty can be.

At the same time, however, the understanding of these issues has proven to be more a symptom of the problem than an actual diagnosis of it. In the Class Matters series of the New York Times, for example, the class differences that mattered most turned out to be the ones between the rich and the really rich and between the new rich and the old rich or between rich people who choose to save some money by shopping at Costco and rich people who have to save some money to shop at Chanel. Indeed, at one point in the series, the Times started treating class not as an issue to be addressed in addition to (much less instead of) race but as itself a version of race, as if the rich and the poor really were, as Fitzgerald thought, different races, and so as if the occasional marriage between them were a kind of interracial marriage. Indeed, the only thing missing was an account of the children of mixed (wealth) marriages, half rich, half poor, confronting a world in which they can’t quite find a place. And, actually, the Times even provided a version of that in its profile of one of the (rare) people who has moved up in class, treating her predicament with all the pathos of the torn-between-two-worlds “not fully at ease”-in-either stories that have been a staple of American literature since the first tragic mulatta found herself at home nowhere. Americans like stories in which the big problem is whether or not you fit in. It’s as if being born poor and managing to become middle-class were like being born light skinned into a dark-skinned family—too white to be black, too black to be white. Or (our favorite story of all) like being the child of immigrants, with a loyalty to two different cultures.

But classes, as I will be arguing, are not like races and cultures, and treating them as if they were like races or cultures—different but equal—is one of our strategies for managing inequality rather than minimizing or eliminating it. White is not better than black, but rich is definitely better than poor. Poor people are an endangered species in elite universities not because the universities put quotas on them (as they did with Jews in the old days) and not even because they can’t afford to go to them (Harvard will lend you or even give you the money you need to go there) but because they can’t get into them. Hence the irrelevance of most of the proposed solutions to the systematic exclusion of poor people (it’s actually the systematic exclusion of three quarters of the population) from elite universities, which involve ideas like increased financial aid for students who can’t afford the high tuition, support systems for the few poor students who manage to end up there anyway and, in general, an effort to increase the “cultural capital” of the poor. Today, says David Brooks (who despite his Horatio Alger fantasies about “gangstas” in law school has begun to notice the predominance of rich kids), “the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just out-compete them.”6 And if outcompeting people means tying their ankles together and loading them down with extra weight while hiring yourself the most expensive coaches and the best practice facilities, he’s right. The entire U.S. school system, from pre-K up, is structured from the very start to enable the rich to outcompete the poor, which is to say, the race is fixed. And the kinds of solutions that might actually make a difference—financing every school district equally, abolishing private schools, making high-quality child care available to every family—are treated as if they were positively un-American.

But it’s the response to Katrina that is most illuminating for our purposes, especially the response from the left, not from the David Brooks right. “Let’s be honest,” Cornel West told an audience at the Paul Robeson Student Center at Rutgers University, “we live in one of the bleakest moments in the history of black people in this nation.” “Look at the Super Dome,” he went on to say, it’s “a living hell for black people. It’s not a big move from the hull of the slave ship to the living hell of the Super Dome.”7 This is what we might call the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” interpretation of the government’s failed response to the catastrophe. But nobody doubts that George Bush cares about Condoleezza Rice, who is very much a black person and who is fond of pointing out that she’s been black since birth. And there are, of course, lots of other black people—like Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell and Janice Rogers Brown and, at least once upon a time, Colin Powell—for whom George Bush almost certainly has warm feelings. But what American liberals want is for our conservatives to be racists. We want the black people George Bush cares about to be “some of my best friends are black” tokens. We want a fictional George Bush who doesn’t care about black people rather than the George Bush we’ve actually got, one who doesn’t care about poor people.

Although that’s not quite the right way to put it. First because, for all I know, George Bush does care about poor people; at least he cares as much about poor people as anyone else does. What he doesn’t care about—and what Bill Clinton, judging by his eight years in office, didn’t much care about, and what John Kerry, judging from his presidential campaign, doesn’t much care about and what we on the so-called left, judging by our willingness to accept Kerry as the alternative to Bush, don’t care about either—is taking any steps to get them to stop being poor. We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.

Indeed, diversity has become virtually a sacred concept in American life today. No one’s really against it; people tend instead to differ only in their degrees of enthusiasm for it and their ingenuity in pursuing it. Microsoft, for example, is very ingenious indeed. Almost every company has the standard racial and sexual “employee relations groups,” just as every college has the standard student groups: African American, Black and Latino Brotherhood, Alliance of South Asians, Chinese Adopted Sibs (this one’s pretty cutting-edge) and the standard GLBTQ (the Q is for Questioning) support center. But (as reported in a 2003 article in Workforce Management) Microsoft also includes groups for “single parents, dads, Singaporean, Malaysian, Hellenic, and Brazilian employees, and one for those with attention deficit disorder.” And the same article goes on to quote Patricia Pope, CEO of a diversity-management firm in Cincinnati, describing companies that “tackle other differences” like “diversity of birth order” and, most impressive of all, “diversity of thought.” If it’s a little hard to imagine the diversity of birth order workshops (all the oldest siblings trying to take care of each other, all the youngest competing to be the baby), it’s harder still to imagine how the diversity of thought workshops go. What if the diversity of thought is about your sales plan? Are you supposed to reach agreement (but that would eliminate diversity) or celebrate disagreement (but that would eliminate the sales plan)?

Among the most enthusiastic proponents of diversity, needless to say, are the thousands of companies providing “diversity products,” from diversity training (currently estimated to be a $10-billion-a-year industry) to diversity newsletters (I subscribe to Diversity Inc., but there are dozens of them) to diversity rankings (my university’s in the top ten) to diversity gifts and clothing—you can “show your support for multiculturalism” and “put an end to panty lines” with a “Diversity Rocks Classic Thong” ($9.99). The “Show Me the Money Diversity Venture Capital Conference” says what needs to be said here. But it’s not all about the benjamins. There’s no money for the government in proclaiming Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (it used to be just a week, but the first President Bush upgraded it) or in Women’s History Month or National Disability Employment Awareness Month or Black History Month or American Indian Heritage Month (all of which, except the last, have also been upgraded from weeks to months in the last thirty years; American Indian Heritage Month was only a day). And there’s no money for the Asians, Indians, blacks and women whose history gets honored.

In fact, the closest thing we have to a holiday that addresses economic inequality instead of racial or sexual identity is Labor Day, which is a product not of the multicultural cheerleading at the end of the twentieth century but of the labor unrest at the end of the nineteenth. The union workers who took a day off to protest President Grover Cleveland’s deployment of twelve thousand troops to break the Pullman strike weren’t campaigning to have their otherness respected. And when, in 1894, their day off was made official, the president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, looked forward not just to a “holiday” but to “the day to which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and wrongs would be discussed.” The idea was not that they’d celebrate their history but that they’d figure out how to build a stronger labor movement and make the dream of economic justice a reality.

Obviously, it didn’t work out that way, either for labor (which is weaker than it’s ever been) or for Labor Day (which mainly marks the end of summer). You get bigger crowds, a lot livelier party and a much stronger sense of solidarity for Gay Pride Day. But Gay Pride Day isn’t about economic equality, and celebrating diversity shouldn’t be an acceptable alternative to seeking economic equality. In an ideal universe we wouldn’t be celebrating diversity at all—we wouldn’t even be encouraging it—because in an ideal universe the question of who you wanted to sleep with would be a matter of concern only to you and to your loved (or unloved) ones. As would your skin color; some people might like it, some people might not, but it would have no political significance whatsoever. Diversity of skin color is something we should happily take for granted, the way we do diversity of hair color. When you go to school or to work—just like when you go to vote—the question of whether you’re black or white, straight or gay, a man or a woman shouldn’t matter any more than the question of whether you are blond or brunette. An important issue of social justice hangs on not discriminating against people because of their hair color or their skin color or their sexuality. No issue of social justice hangs on appreciating hair color diversity; no issue of social justice hangs on appreciating racial or cultural diversity.

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. While some cultural conservatives may wish that everyone should be assimilated to their fantasy of one truly American culture, and while the supposed radicals of the “tenured left” continue to struggle for what they hope will finally become a truly inclusive multiculturalism, the really radical idea of redistributing wealth becomes almost literally unthinkable. In the early 1930s, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana proposed a law making it illegal for anyone to earn more than a million dollars a year and for anyone to inherit more than five million dollars. Imagine the response if—even suitably adjusted for inflation—any senator were to propose such a law today, cutting off incomes at, say, $15 million a year and inheritances at $75 million. It’s not just the numbers that wouldn’t fly; it’s the whole concept. Such a restriction today would seem as outrageous and unnatural as interracial—not to mention gay—marriage seemed or would have seemed then. But we don’t need to purchase our progress in civil rights at the expense of a commitment to economic justice. More fundamentally still, we should not allow—or we should not continue to allow—the phantasm of respect for difference to take the place of that commitment to economic justice. In short, this book is an effort to move beyond diversity—to make it clear that the commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position—and to help put equality back on the national agenda.

*   *   *

The first chapter begins by exploring a central contradiction in American life today, the more or less complete disconnect between what we like to believe about racial identity and what probably is the case. “Races,” as the molecular anthropologist Jonathan Marks recently put it, are “like angels. Many people believe in them, devoutly. They can even tell you what properties they have. But the closer you try to examine them to discover their real nature, the more elusive they become.”8 This chapter is about the ways in which, confronted with the skepticism of scientists (“Does race exist?” asks the December 2003 Scientific American, and it answers, “From a purely genetic standpoint, no”), people have reinvented race as a social or cultural rather than a physiological entity. Our very notion of identity—the thing that diversity is diversity of—is a consequence of this reinvention.

While the first chapter provides an account of our attachment to the idea of race, the next two chapters provide an account of the motives for that attachment. The question they ask is why, if races don’t exist and the cultures we have attempted to replace them with cannot be said to exist either, we are so determined to hang on to the idea that they do. And the answer they give is that we like the idea of cultural equality better than we like the idea of economic equality (and we like the idea of culture wars much better than we like the idea of class wars). These chapters show, first, how antiracism plays an essentially conservative role in American politics today and, second, how the universities—as something like the diversity avant-garde—play an equally conservative role. People like David Horowitz are always complaining that universities are hotbeds of liberalism in which conservatives can’t get a job, much less a fair hearing. These chapters argue that even if Horowitz and his friends are right, true conservatives needn’t worry; from their affirmative-action admissions procedures to their multicultural graduation requirements, American universities are propaganda machines that might as well have been designed to ensure that the class structure of American society remains unchallenged. Contrasting the obligations of diversity (being nice to each other) with the obligations of equality (giving up our money) these chapters focus in particular on how the commitment to diversity has turned liberalism into a program for making rich people of different skin colors and sexual orientations more “comfortable” while leaving intact the thing that makes them most comfortable of all: their wealth.

As much as we like being proud of our culture, we also like being proud of our history and being proud of the way our people (whoever we think our people are) have triumphed, or at least survived. And, conversely, we like being outraged by the bad things somebody else’s people did to ours, and we like thinking that justice requires they make up—or at least apologize—for them. But if the first three chapters give us reasons to be skeptical of the category “our people” and of the links we can have to people in the past, chapter 4 gives us reasons to doubt the relevance of the past itself. The question it asks is why we should care about the past, and the answer it gives is that we shouldn’t, and that our current near obsession with the importance of history is profoundly misplaced. Like the idea of diversity itself, history functions at best as a distraction from present injustices and at worst as a way of perpetuating them. Henry Ford said a long time ago, “History is bunk”; the purpose of this chapter will be to show that he was right.

The final two chapters are about the ways in which the question of identity—who you are—has come to replace not only the economic question of what you have but the political and religious questions of what you believe. The first of these chapters is on globalization and on the “indigenist” resistance to it; the second is on the rise of religious conflict and our difficulty in figuring out how to understand it. The basic idea in both is that we have come to think of disagreement as a form of prejudice (we’ve turned disagreement into “diversity of thought”), and thus we have come to think even of our own beliefs as expressions of who we are rather than as declarations of the truth. And the argument is that, with respect to our beliefs, it doesn’t matter who we are.

Indeed, the point of this book as a whole is that the least important thing about us—our identity—is the thing we have become most committed to talking about, and that this commitment is, especially from the standpoint of a left politics, a profound mistake. What it means is that the political left—increasingly committed to the celebration of diversity and the redress of historical grievance—has converted itself into the accomplice rather than the opponent of the right. The old Socialist leader Eugene Debs used to be criticized for being unwilling to interest himself in any social reform that didn’t involve the attack on economic inequality. The situation now is almost exactly the opposite; the left today obsessively interests itself in issues that have nothing to do with economic inequality.

And, not content with pretending that our real problem is cultural difference rather than economic difference, we have also started to treat economic difference as if it were cultural difference. So now we’re urged to be more respectful of poor people and to stop thinking of them as victims, since to treat them as victims is condescending—it denies them their “agency.” And if we can stop thinking of the poor as people who have too little money and start thinking of them instead as people who have too little respect, then it’s our attitude toward the poor, not their poverty, that becomes the problem to be solved, and we can focus our efforts of reform not on getting rid of classes but on getting rid of what we like to call classism. The trick, in other words, is to stop thinking of poverty as a disadvantage, and once you stop thinking of it as a disadvantage then, of course, you no longer need to worry about getting rid of it. More generally, the trick is to think of inequality as a consequence of our prejudices rather than as a consequence of our social system and thus to turn the project of creating a more egalitarian society into the project of getting people (ourselves and, especially, others) to stop being racist, sexist, classist homophobes. This book is an attack on that trick.


Copyright © 2006 by Walter Benn Michaels