Saturday, October 07, 2006
Bradford DeLong: One Trouble With the The Trouble With Diversity
It is somewhat odd. You would think that I would be an aggressive cheerleader for Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity. After all, if you proposed to take six ladder-faculty slots from Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department and move two of them to Economics, two of them to Sociology, and two of them to the business school to hire people to really study the workings of the labor market, the intergenerational transmission of inequality, and compensation patterns within organizations—I would say that that would be a wonderful idea, and that it would make Berkeley a better university and the world a better world.
If you were to ask me who did more for the American minorites who are underrepresented at elite universities, and gave me a choice between (a) all the diversity deans in America and their staffs or (b) the neoliberals on the Clinton economic policy team who pushed through the 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit that boosts the collective incomes of poor Americans by what is now some $30 billion a year, I would have no hesitation in coming down on the side of Bill Clinton and his team—including, in a minor spear-carrying role, me—who changed in our own minor way not social consciousness but social being back in 1993.
I ought to be part of this book’s core constituency.
But, instead, The Trouble with Diversity raises my hackles.
Let’s dip into it. I flip it open, and land on page 85:
p. 85 ff: But the greatest value of diversity is not primarily in the contribution it makes to students’ self-esteem. Its real value, as the widespread acceptance of affirmative action shows, is in the contribution it makes to the collective fantasy that institutions like Harvard and UIC are… meritocracies. For if the students at Harvard are appropriately diverse, we know that no student is being kept from Harvard because of his or her race or culture.... How, then, do some students end up at Harvard and some at UIC? Since the differences between them that produce this divergence are not (indeed cannot be) cultural (remember, cultures are equal), they are attributed instead to the merit of the individual....
This helps explain the popularity on campus… of affirmative action: it is a powerful tool for legitimizing their sense of their individual merit.... Affirmative action guarantees that… the white students on campus can understand themselves to be there on merit because they didn’t get there at the expense of any black people. The problem with affirmative action is..,,, that it produces the illusion that we actually have a meritocracy.... [I]magine what that Harvard classroom would look like if we… [made] the [parental] income distribution at Harvard… look like the income distribution of the United States, over half the [current students]... would be gone.... Its no wonder that rich white kids and their parents aren’t complaining about diversity. Race-based affirmative action… is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn’t help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich....
Hence the irrelevance of Harvard’s 2004 announcement that it wouldn’t ask parents who earn less than [$60,000] a year to [contribute anything to tuition].... While this is no doubt great news to those financially pressed students who have gone to top high schools, taken college-prep courses, and scored well on their SATs, it is bound to seem a little beside the point to the great majority of the poor, since what’s keeping them out of elite universities is not their inability to pay the bill but their inability to qualify for admission in the first place....
We like diversity and we like programs such as affirmative action because they tell us that racism is the problem… that solving it requires us just to give up our prejudices. (Solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more; it might
require us to give up our money.)...
So on the one hand, we get affirmative action in universities, which solves a problem that no longer exists. It’s their lack of family wealth, not the color of their skin, that disproportionately keeps blacks out of elite colleges.... The injury done to the poor… has taken place long before anybody gets to Harvard. But this doesn’t mean that these solutions to fake problems serve no purpose. The purpose they serve is to disguise the real problem. We need, as I’ve already suggested, to believe that poor people aren’t kept out of our elite universities in order to also believe that the economic advantages conferred by going to them are earned and so are justified. If going to Harvard is more a reflection of your family’s wealth than it is of your merit… then, of course, the legitimating effect disappears. So the real point… the function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard…
I find that I cannot help but be annoyed by this.
I am annoyed by the shoddy sloppy neo-functionalist false-consciousness sociology. Perverse functionalist consequences that are asserted without supporting evidence are the “real” “purpose” of affirmative action programs. That’s simply wrong in fact, and illegitimate in argument. It’s taking 1970s-style cultural Marxism and eliminating the rational kernel while retaining only the mystical shell. Get rid of affirmative action in America tomorrow, and I guarantee that there will not be a great movement to tackle and repair the educational and other inequities and barriers that are driven by our Second Gilded Age distribution of income and wealth.
The primary purpose of affirmative action at elite universities is to partially—partially—counteract the steep differences in wealth distributions across races and ethnicities that our ancestors passed down to us, and give us as a society a chance to make full use of the talents and capabilities of the most fortunate and lucky slice of the rising generation of African-Americans, Hispanics, et cetera—not just of whites and Asians. The primary purpose is not to make the current cohort of students sleep more soundly.
The argument that Michaels is making is, I think, a version of what Albert Hirschman calls “the argument of the perverse effect” in his little book on The Rhetoric of Reaction: the claim that one’s intellectual adversaries, are not just directing their efforts at low-value targets, but are doing positive harm. I see this argument every year when I teach Malthus. In Malthus’s formulation, the argument is:
You Enlightenment liberals think your attacks on Throne and Altar are liberating humanity from the chains of superstition and ignorance. Fools! Break those chains and you will find humanity enslaved to its sexual appetites, population will rise until checked by famine and epidemic, and life will become even nastier, more brutish, and shorter than before.
Michaels’s argument seems to me to have the same structure:
You twenty-first century diversity liberals think that you are reducing inequality. Fools! The more you reduce race, ethnic, and cultural inequality the more you legitimate and reduce pressure on the big enchilada, economic inequality.
I do think there is a difference between Malthus and Michaels. Malthus makes arguments and presents evidence. To counter Malthus’s arguments—and I think that for the post-1500 period they can be countered—you have to engage him on the substance. Michaels, by contrast, makes assertions—where is the evidence? How can you respond? By saying, “Your father was a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries. Now go away, before I taunt you again”?
And Harvard’s “irrelevant” policy of not asking for money for parents making under $60,000 a year? I think that there are 1,000 families today for whom that policy is not “irrelevant.” It’s $2 million a year.
Thanks for the post, Brad. Let me say something that is (very slightly) in defense of Michaels’ account: It seems to me that there might be a pattern of liberal/progressive LEGAL strategies - emphasizing diversity is one - that have gradually ceased to be as efficacious as they once were; and liberals/progressives may be left holding the bag - the wind-bag, if you will - of a deformed rhetoric they adopted for legal purposes. (The clearest example of this is diversity of species. You don’t really care so much about the spotted owl, but the only way you can get the logging stopped is by invoking laws intended to protect species diversity.) I think there is some plausibility to the view that liberals/progressive spent much time and effort casting about for proxy legal devices for redressing inequality and somewhat fell out of the habit of just talking straight about inequality itself. I would hasten to add: I wouldn’t want to push that thesis too hard. But maybe there’s something to it. (Take the spotted owl case: how many environmentalists really got confused about what they really cared about and became deformed owl-o-philes.)
I also think there is something right about the idea that emphasizing the rottenness of inequality is a feel-bad experience for the whole ‘overclass’ - to use the Gunnar Myrdal-Michael Lind term from my post. There is no way you can purify yourself, or raise your consciousness about that, to the point of overcoming it, just by talking about it. It’s easier to make people feel good about talking about, say, diversity because, just by talking about it, it’s like you are getting good work done. Consciousness feels raised. So it’s less of a bummer to talk about that sort of thing. This is, I think, sort of important because only a few things ever get talked about.
How many sit-coms/dramas in the history of US television have really focused on the differences between rich and poor? (I’m told that “Veronica Mars” does, for example, but the first season DVD’s are still sitting in their box until I finish “Lost: Season 2”.) By contrast, there have been endless shows about race and ‘diversity’ and ‘identity’ issues, broadly construed. I think this is to some degree a function of the fact that rich people find it to be a bummer to watch shows about what a bummer it is that there are rich people and poor people. So the advertisers are not exactly clamoring for the slots in those shows. (Admittedly, this is a flagrantly speculative argument, which I would not feel the confidence to put in a post. So it’s here, in a comment box.)
What about the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly known as welfare reform? Did that change both social consciousness and social being?
The neolibs giveth, and the neolibs taketh away. I’m guessing that the Ethnic Studies Department, had they been “spear carrying” for the Clinton administration, wouldn’t have been quite as enthusiastic about this as the economists who pulled it off…
The whole debate here in The Valve over class seems un peu precieux et nerveux, like hinging (would that it were so simple!) the difference between those who can properly employ the Latin or English optative subjunctive and those who can’t manage it. But while yesterday one might appeal to his Gildersleeve, today one might appeal to his/her/its favourite movie for support.
There was also *Rosanne*, which did a far better job than *Veronica Mars* of showing what being poor was like. Or at least *Rosanne* was more like my own poorness.
Fortunately we at the Valve cultivate a manly commentariat class, whose virile members preserve us quite from being even un peu precieux.
"It’s easier to make people feel good about talking about, say, diversity because, just by talking about it, it’s like you are getting good work done.”
But there’s a problem with this analysis that concerns the reality of actually getting things done. At present, we (if I may use “we” to represent liberals as a group) are unable to get even a raise in the minimum wage passed. That’s a step that would directly help the poor, there is widespread support for the idea involved (i.e., you wouldn’t have to introduce to middle-class America new ideas about how their kids couldn’t go to the school of their choice), there are pre-existing interest groups in favor, etc. Yet we can’t do it.
So of course people will play on the guilt that right-wingers feel over their past and present racism in order to get some measures against inequity. As Brad says, $2 mil a year at Harvard—that’s better than nothing. If we could get more, we’d get more.
Or actually, here’s a good metaphor—it’s like complaining that the Republicans may lose the upcoming election, not because they voted for dictatorial powers for the President, and for torture, but because of a half-hearted coverup of a cybersex scandal with a 16 year old. Sure, I’d rather that a majority of American voters really cared about torture and habeas corpus. But they don’t. So sex scandals it is.
Rich, I didn’t say this in my comments but I’m somewhat sympathetic to a line I’ve gotten from the likes of Rick Perlstein and Mark Schmidt: namely, liberals/progressives used to get a lot more mileage out of certain legal strategies than they do now. The fact that the liberal/progressive coalition is largely splintered into groups focused each on its pet issue used to work better than it does today. And diversity is sort of one of those issues. So the idea would be: yeah, work it if it works. But maybe it doesn’t work as well as it used to. I realize you are actually someone who works on single-issue advocacy (I’m right about that, aren’t I?) I don’t mean to denigrate that, and I don’t suppose I actually know as much about how it works as you do. But those were the second-hand progressive strategy opinions percolating around in my mind, resulting in me leaving that particular comment.
Not to mention, John, this site’s “offending parts”, especially the smarmily (neologism?) flaccid politics of the faineant or even of the eunuch, as I see above. Such politics might make for a few good quips and mocks at my next VFW red state beer n’ fish fry (Fridays). For how many of your “virile members” have taken the king’s shilling and honourably served in our nation’s military? For a starter list of soldier-authors you might be interested in scanning my blogs on ACTA--Oct 4th; also for the “make my day, punk!” destruction of a perfumed wimp a la Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon (since some of your readers’ tastes incline to the flics perhaps even more than books) of a dept. chair, see my ACTA blog on the “devil’s advocate” article by George Leef for the last week of Sept.
Hmmm, well I took Taekwondo for, like, four years. But I’m kinda out of shape now. Does that qualify me for virile membership? (I had to wear a protective cup.)
JH: “The fact that the liberal/progressive coalition is largely splintered into groups focused each on its pet issue used to work better than it does today.”
Well, yes, but everything used to work better than it does today. It’s not like any of the strategies of the last century, all of which still have their advocates, are currently working that well.
I do work on single-issue advocacy, sort of—actually, my particular skills tend to push me in the direction of working on general liberal open-government initiatives in multiple issue areas; I’ve worked with environmental data (toxics issues), housing/loan data (red-lining, etc.), and most recently, in partial response to the ongoing corruption issues, I’ve been busy doing programming for a site about to open Oct. 10 that will let people look at fairly complete databases of U.S. Federal government contracts and grants (http://www.fedspending.org).
That overview doesn’t put me in the thick of things in the same way as an electoral politics consultant might be, but I do have the general sense that this kind of thing isn’t new. For instance, in the environmental community, there was the flap around the essay “The Death of Environmentalism” (it might be worth while reading Carl Pope’s reply, which is significantly more readable than the original). Mostly, I think that people in general come up with all sorts of poorly supported reasons for failure, and stop looking for reasons when they have success. Looking for reasons for failure is a great thing to do if you have any actual imformation about or experience with the process under consideration; if you don’t, I don’t think it has much value.
WBM’s critique might be a bit different, in that it shares something with old-line Marxist critique. (Thus my questions about whether it’s really a leftist or liberal analysis.) That being, liberals could be “successful”, in terms of what WBM presents as their current goals, and still produce an outcome unsatisfactory to WBM. Of course, WBM’s rhetoric insists that his goals *should* be liberalism’s goals, so he can’t really say that he’s opposed to liberalism, only that its advocates, insofar as they are committed to multiculturalism, have taken the wrong path. I’m not sure if I find this convincing. What if most liberals simply have a different judgement than WBM does about the importance of the lingering racism within contemporary U.S. society?
WBM’s critique might be a bit different, in that it shares something with old-line Marxist critique.
What I wonder is whether or not WBM just hankers for the good old days when you could explain everything about social injustice by reference to class conflict.
What I wonder is whether or not WBM just hankers for the good old days when you could explain everything about social injustice by reference to class conflict.
It was wrong then too.
What’s the lag-time for posts on this blog? Or is there a fairly “selective” clientele here?
Just curious. Like a reply, if, as the modest Louis XIV used to say, “it’s not too much trouble”. Cheers, Dr JA
Or is there a fairly “selective” clientele here?
Since Mr. Kaufman followed the Technorati reference to my site and offered to include me in his package of material on and about Michaels, is it obviously not so selective as to keep me out.
Jacques, the reason none of us went in the service is that when we were young, we all wanted to be strategic planners, and military service disqualifies you for that position.
Rumsfeld is from an older generation even than me, so he was granddaddied in. He’s unique that way. I met Wolfowitz, Shulsky, and at least three other prominent neocons in my youth, and they didn’t serve either.
Still waiting for a posting I sent a day and a half ago to arrive here (wouldn’t be the first time this site “lost” one of my “thoughts out of season"--sorry for the scare quote manacles--reminds one of other verbunculi (neologism), like “truth”, “intention”, “meaning”, etc. that literary academics are wont(ton) to shackle these past thirty years or so in the lisping lit-cret trade Dryden, Pope and Swift caught so well in their satires. Waiting also for another war vet to weigh in with his or her perspectives on academic politics (sorry if they weren’t recruiting in YOUR neighbourhoods). Also waiting for a few practioners of the old agonistic rhetoric based on Latin and Greek models for a little dian ton logon poreuesthai (voyage across discourse). Sorry, too, for any offence which from time to time I have committed . . .--you know the rest, but at my back I always hear . . . the old sagesse, “lui tanto buon che vale niente”. Let’s see if I can find an apt movie reference to my perspective for those who think film and photography and real arts (read Roger Scruton on them and get back to me)--right!--Susan Hayworth’s Gilda’s “if I were a ranch, they’d call me the Bar-None”. What I (perhaps erroneously) heard in earlier comments was Woody Allen’s servant-character, hungry and thirsty, who’s told casually by the Spanish (?) nobleman, “I’d invite you to our table, but the difference in education and social class. . . .” It’s just that a paleo-rightist in the tradition of Thomas Molnar doesn’t often get a seat at your table, so, advocatus diaboli or not, I’ll try de temps en temps to supply that deficiency; for starters, then, despite the horrible atrocities committed by both sides, yes, I’d have fought for Franco--Viva muerte!
It’s been a pleasure Jacques—I’d be happy to poke a stick in your eye sometime too. Can we expect your elaborate prelude to be followed by a fugue?
John, I think he’s building toward a performance of P.D.Q. Bach’s Double Concerto for Rattled Sabre and Classey Quotes. I haven’t got the foggiest idea why he’s decided to manifest here.
Coincidence, guys--just watched PDQ’s “Abduction of Figaro” again with me mum and me grad-student right-wing gun moll last night! Have to say, also, I have a special affinity for W.F. and J.C. (hey now, no punning or cheap psycho-anal-ysis here!), the latter of whom went Catholic and used to refer to papa as “the old wig”. Papa was magnificent, though.
Yes, Bill, “not our kind”, just as I said above (I AM supporting this site by membership in the ALSC)--"m’invitasti e son venuto” . . ., I say to you dons--let’s shake hands on it!
Still hoping for a posting of my post on Al Gore’s pan-planetary horror show (sans candles and squirtguns, alas!)--you know the one I sent 10-08/06--even had a touch of mediocre fiction in it.
(I AM supporting this site by membership in the ALSC)
I liked this thread better when it was about Brad DeLong’s article instead of Jacques Albert’s swinging cod. But that was a short period a long time ago.
re: Recent TV drama and economic inequality, you’ve got The Wire, certainly; certain aspects of The Cosby Show (which is a can of worms but at least made explicit class-consciousness arguments); Roseanne for sure; King of the Hill, which markets a portrait of a certain class stratum to an audience largely sitting pretty in a different one; aspects of NYPD Blue, which made a valiant effort to ground its morality plays in socioeconomic reality; etc., etc., etc. There are such shows, but generally TV entertainment focusing on class difference plays it for comedy (Who’s the Boss?, The Nanny, and so forth) or liberal self-congratulation.
The treatment of social class has been more up-front on shows with largely black casts - the not-terribly-good A Different World springs to mind, with its largely middle-class characters situated inbetween the debutantes and the up-by-the-bootstraps crowd.
Crushing poverty isn’t good entertainment, and insofar as its usual media presentations stun us rather than galvanizing us (because most artists are incompetent or selfish or both or worse), it’s often better to come at the subject(s) elliptically.
Social class in film? Spike Lee. America’s most dangerous director, his nostalgia and occasional too-easy shorthand notwithstanding.