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The Trouble with Diversity

How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

Walter Benn Michaels


The Trouble with Diversity Download image

ISBN10: 1250099331
ISBN13: 9781250099334

Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s the value of diversity. Our corporations vie for slots in the Diversity Top 50, our universities brag about minority recruiting, and every month is Somebody’s History Month. In this book, Walter Benn Michaels argues that our enthusiastic celebration of “difference” masks our neglect of America’s vast and growing economic divide.

When it was first published in 2006, The Trouble with Diversity provoked a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Now, a decade later, Michaels offers a new afterword on how our regime of equal-opportunity exploitation has only intensified. He demonstrates that commitments to diversity fail to offer a premise for social justice and in fact legitimize the economic forces that drive inequality rather than offering a resistance or even a critique. Most importantly, he makes the case that we should pay less attention to the illusory distinction of culture, and more attention to the real discrepancies of class and wealth.


Praise for The Trouble with Diversity

"[A] daring new book . . . Michaels convincingly argues that the emphasis on diversity in modern American life often obscures dangerous economic inequalities. . . . [H]is conclusions are valuable, crucial and impossible to disagree with."—David Treuer, The Washington Post Book World

"Michaels is on to something here. He is at his best when he is running his chain saw through other people's cant. He mostly sticks to this strength. His method is to insist that we be as principled as principle demands . . . [A] captivating read and a necessary provocation . . . Michaels confronts us with an essential challenge."—Wesley Yang, Los Angeles Times

"The trouble with diversity, in this intriguing argument, is that it's a false issue distracting people from the real problem of American life, which is economic inequality. The left and the right like to think that what divides people are differences among those who are black or white or Latino or Asian, but it is actually the difference between those who have money and those who don't. America has made vigorous attempts to address the issue of diversity as a way of ignoring economic inequality. There has been a huge increase in economic inequality in this country, while ‘there are more black people than poor people in elite universities.' People have poured their energies and resources into fighting racism rather than poverty, fighting discrimination rather than exploitation. They have decided it is enough to respect the poor instead of paying them. Politics has become etiquette. Respect for difference has become the highest value . . . Michaels makes excellent distinctions between apologies (to Black slaves, Native Americans, European Jews) and restitution. The first are easy and irrelevant, the second difficult and potentially costly. He separates religious differences from cultural ones. Believers by definition do not respect the validity of other beliefs, whereas cultural differences must be respected. Michaels concludes his truly provocative book with this: ‘When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural difference but on reducing the reality of economic difference.'"—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

"As seen in Katrina's aftermath, raising the it's-not-race-it's-class specter in contemporary America elicits some pretty complex concerns. Yet with wit, incisive argumentation and a good deal of humor, Michaels, one of the founders of the New Historicist school of criticism, rises to the challenge, increasing the intelligence level of the discussion with one of the best (and, surely, most provocative) nonfiction books of the year."—Austin Considine, San Francisco Chronicle

"[Michaels] describes in eloquent detail how the liberal pursuit of social and economic equality was sidetracked by the pursuit of 'diversity.'"—Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune

"In this cogent jeremiad, which is certain to be controversial, Michaels diagnoses America's love of diversity as one of our greatest problems. Not only does it reinforce ideas of racial essentialism that it claims to repudiate; it obscures the crevasse between rich and poor. Michaels, a scholar of American literature, suggests that the growth of economic inequality over the past few decades is the result of a deeply ingrained and unchallenged class structure. Scrutinizing current events and religion, he argues that our fixation with the ‘phantasm' of race promotes identity over ideology, and he rejects the idea that meritocracy prevails in America's élite universities. A believer in the power of progressive politics, he calls for a debate in which class, rather than identity, would be at the fore."—The New Yorker

"Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond."—Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books

"Michaels deserves plaudits for putting economic inequality back in the center of political debate, where it should be not only for the left but for all America. He deserves similar praise for arguing in a creative, if discomfiting, way about how flawed thinking about race continues to work in new ways to reinforce an exploitative and increasingly unequal economic system."—David Moberg, In These Times

"The Trouble With Diversity is a bracing jeremiad, an all-out assault on the way identity in general, and race in particular, is used to organize society . . . Its greatest virtue is the tenacity and precision with which Michaels dissects out muddled ideas about race and inequality."—Robert S. Boynton, The Nation

"Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond."—Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books

"Mr. Michaels' position as an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago carries significant advantages for this book. He is situated within academia, the realm where diversity has been consciously sought for the longest time and where most of the diversity talk is talked . . . Short [and] snappy . . . The book's principal value is as a wake-up call to address those larger intractable problems. It's difficult to dispute Mr. Michaels' conclusion that today's America 'would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.'"—National Catholic Reporter

"The Trouble with Diversity is perhaps the most incisive look yet at how liberalism—in its polite, well-meaning way—missed the boat on the greatest liberal issue of our time: inequality. Worse: as Walter Ben Michaels shows, liberalism, with its almost obsessive concern for diversity, has actually managed to make the problem invisible."—Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas?

"[E]legant and literary . . . Michaels's book is directed squarely at American society; his engaging stories and telling statistics are all drawn from south-of-the-border. Yet Canadians resist his admonitions and analyses at their peril. As a nation committed to diversity, we must confront the awkward fact that, as we preach and occasionally revel in the virtues of diversity, our society has been getting more economically unequal. Measured by both wealth and income, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing over the past decade. The fact that the chattering classes seem to pretend otherwise is a sad indictment of political integrity . . . [H]is call to refocus attention on economic equality is sound and compelling . . . a potent and disturbing critique . . . His taunt that 'celebrating diversity is now our way of accepting inequality' is a less a cold shower (and we need that to wash off the spilt blood) and more like being thrown into freezing waters with no life-belt; it is invigorating as well as threatening and refreshing as well as disorienting. All self-respecting liberals should endure Michaels' harsh therapy; it is a telling tonic for all manner of liberal righteousness. Our native smugness and complacency demand nothing less."—Allan C. Hutchinson, distinguished Research Professor, Osgoode Hall School of Law, in The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

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About the author

Walter Benn Michaels

Walter Benn Michaels is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “One of the most influential Americanists of his generation” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), he is the author of Our America and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and n+1. He lives in Chicago.

Walter Benn Michaels