Sunday, October 08, 2006
Does Walter Benn Michaels’s Trouble With Diversity offer, as Brad says, a neo-functionalist account of the relation between affirmative action and economic inequality? Though I have to admit that it sometimes sounds that way, I don’t think so.
I take Michaels’s strongest argument to be rather that policy choices and public discourse are shaped significantly by rhetorical frameworks. (In comparison to someone like Lakoff, I take him further to be presuming that those frameworks are deeply rooted in history and in social and institutional structures and so not changeable by fiat.) So, while it’s not the case that doing away with diversity talk would lead automatically to a concern with inequality, it may be the case that conceiving social injustice in terms of diversity affects how we conceive where problems lie and how they should be addressed.
This is why I think Eric Rauchway‘s point that social justice in the U. S. has always been conceived in terms of identity doesn’t necessarily count strongly against Michaels’s argument. At one level, I think, it’s a confirmation of Michaels’s basic point—that there’s a strong bias in the U. S. toward conceiving social organization in racial terms. At critical moments, the pressing, central problem has seemed: how can a multiethnic society function and prosper? In certain times (i.e., roughly 1877 through 1965, with some very significant changes beginning with the New Deal and especially WWII), the predominant answer was that it couldn’t, and that segregation, coercion, or exclusion were necessary to preserve a functioning democracy. At other moments, (i.e. with increasing salience, but not without very significant struggle, since 1965), the predominant answer has seemed that it can, so long as citizens are tolerant and respectful and so long as social institutions and public discourse work effectively to encourage tolerance and respect.
Though Michaels doesn’t stress this point heavily, I think he makes it pretty clear that he thinks the history of American racism has been indeed the central problem of American history, and that moving from the first to the second of the hypothetical answers I mentioned above has meant a very real gain in social justice. (I don’t think it’s the case, as some have suggested, that he thinks we’re living in a post-racist society, only that there’s a very significant difference between living in a world where the state is actively committed to maintaining the structures of racial hierarchy and one where it isn’t--and where the terms of public discourse no longer make it acceptable to argue that the state should be in the business of maintaining racial hierarchy.)
But it’s possible to believe in that gain and also to think that the predominant American language of politics makes it easy to talk about culture and hard to talk about class, easy to talk about difference and hard to talk about inequality. Eric is surely right that one consequence of all this is that it’s politically efficacious to make arguments for redistribution by appealing to cultural or national identity. But that’s all the more reason to draw attention to the ways in which cultural frameworks shape political discourse, especially for intellectuals—who should be concerned with the ways that what’s possible is never fully consistent with what’s just.
Brad says that:
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.
I think that’s true, so long as we’re considering affirmative action as policy. I’m not sure it’s the case if we’re considering affirmative action as politics—which is what Michaels clearly suspects is the force ensuring its place in current arrangements. The analogy would be to say that the primary purpose of welfare reform was to address the irrationalities in public provision, when it seems more likely that the primary purpose of welfare reform, so far as it was supported by Democrats, was to take a killer issue away from Republicans. (Republican motivations are less palatable to entertain.) Considering it as politics, it doesn’t seem crazy to me to say that the role of affirmative action is to increase everyone’s sense that the sorting mechanisms of higher education are decent and fair.
Personally, I think that’s a worthwhile goal. And I think Michaels may be too quick to pass over the importance of the sense of fairness and decency to higher education and to democratic society more generally. Relatedly, I think he doesn’t consider what seems to me the most compelling reason for multiculturalism and the motivation it actually shares with the pursuit of economic fairness—which is the need to foster not only equality, but the widest possible distribution of dignity.
Still, even if Brad’s characterization is entirely correct, and the primary purpose of affirmative action is just he puts it, that leaves Michaels’s strongest claims about it mostly untouched. As Brad describes it, affirmative action in higher education at its best does indeed work as Michaels charges: to make a more effective system of meritocracy. By the same token, it can’t address the inequality and injustice that is perfectly consistent with meritocracy and that has become an increasingly problematic feature of American life over the past several decades.
Great post, Sean. This is the best account yet of Michaels’ argument that I’ve seen on the Valve (or elsewhere in the blogsphere, I should add):
“I take Michaels’s strongest argument to be rather that policy choices and public discourse are shaped significantly by rhetorical frameworks. (In comparison to someone like Lakoff, I take him further to be presuming that those frameworks are deeply rooted in history and in social and institutional structures and so not changeable by fiat.) So, while it’s not the case that doing away with diversity talk would lead automatically to a concern with inequality, it may be the case that conceiving social injustice in terms of diversity affects how we conceive where problems lie and how they should be addressed.”
If you start around page 85, you run into phrases like: “the greatest value of diversity… is real value… is in the contribution it makes to the collective fantasy… of the] meritocracies.”; “affirmative action… a powerful tool for legitimizing… individual merit”; “affirmative action… produces the illusion that we actually have a meritocracy”; “affirmative action… a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality”.
It certainly sounds as though Michael thinks that the end result of having the sixteen-year-old’s high school pull down its Ramadan informational displays would be a better world. And the structure of the argument seems to be a combination of Hirschman “perverse effect” and Leninist “the worse, the better.”
I think that the distinction between “policy purpose” and “political purpose” is a very useful and insightful one.
I’m not sure that it applies here. I know many people who said, “We have to pass welfare reform before the next election and so take the issue away from the Republicans, or we’ll get wiped and lose not only welfare but a great deal of the other substantive good policies of social democracy.” I know nobody who says, “We have to keep race-based affirmative action or we’ll have a much more redistributive government.” I don’t think it is good to speak of “purposes” without their being some conscious agency behind them.
Sean, I find your argument here convincing. Earlier today, I was finishing an essay on E. D. Hirsch and the “cultural literacy” debate, in which I had occassion to use WBM’s argument in part. You could see Hirsch (and Allan Bloom) as very similar to the diversity folks, even if the content each is pushing is different. In both cases, some change in cultural representation will somehow affect social conditions. For Hirsch, it’s his assertion that cultural literacy will mean better education and class mobility. Bob Scholes referred to this as “voodoo education,” like voodoo economics, in which huge ends are promised based on slim means.
It’s interesting that left critics had these arguments against Hirsch and Bloom in the 80s, but that we didn’t really see them pushed against diversity until 20 years later.
Thanks, Lydia and Luther. (I’m going to mark this day on my calendar, LB. We actually agree on something!)
You’re right, of course, Brad that I shouldn’t talk about purposes without referring to a conscious agency behind them. But there are surely conscious agents who defend affirmative action in higher education strongly--including students, faculty, and administration. It isn’t really a mark against them either to say that they want admissions to their schools to be as fair as possible, or very surprising, I think. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve heard many people defend affirmative action in exactly the terms you use. But I have heard people many times argue either that affirmative action is necessary to ensure the fairness of admissions or, more prominently still, that it’s needed to create a diverse student body that will be valuable for a school, all of its students, and the school’s public reputation because diversity is both a public responsibility and a good in itself.
In that light, it doesn’t seem wildly off base to me to think that, say, wealthy white kids could knowingly support affirmative action for the good purposes it serves, take pride in the fact that it contributes to the fairness of a publically admirable institution, and appreciate the added bonus that it means their own admission won’t have been the product of racism. That’s what Michaels says at his most functionalist, but the function being served is not preventing redistribution, only maintaining the fairness of admissions to higher education and everyone’s concern that it be extended and maintained. The problem is that, however appealing meritocracy is in itself, it can’t address the problem of economic inequality.
Here’s what I will post:
Somewhere in _Race Matters_, Cornell West makes makes a counter argument to Micheals’ position (which is close to William J Wilson’s in the Truly Disadvantaged). West concedes that the affirmative action agenda has problems and is only the second best strategy for dealing with inequality and that a social democratic\universalist agenda would be preferred.
But, West argues, Americans have an innate hostility to big government and European welfare state policies would never catch on here.
I think West is wrong. Americans dislike affirmative action much more than they dislike universal health care, and their dislike for AA is one of the reasons we don’t have the health care. Note that no Republican legislature or Congress has ever voted to strike down Affirmative Action even though they campaign against it in all sorts of ways. They’re like a boxer who holds his opponent up with one hand while pummeling him in the face with the other.
Wilson makes this point (but more weakly every time he writes): the focus on identity politics divides the working poor and working class, does little to address the interests of the Truly Disadvantaged, and distracts attention from a social democratic agenda that would address those interests.
"Note that no Republican legislature or Congress has ever voted to strike down Affirmative Action even though they campaign against it in all sorts of ways.”
That’s a very bad argument. You could say the same thing about any social issue that Republicans run on—abortion, tolerance of gays, etc. That doesn’t mean that we should preemptively give up on abortion rights so that Republicans won’t be able to use the issue, so that in turn, we magically achieve social democracy.
America is racist. Not in the trendy “everyone has unexamined racist assumptions” way, but in the old-fashioned I’m not going to hire black people or admit them to university way. If you happen to be black, that’s a much larger influence on your life than if you happen to be poor. And if it is true that “Americans dislike affirmative action much more than they dislike universal health care”, it’s because they’re racist, not because they have some well-worked-out opinion on meritocracy or social democracy.
Therefore, this whole line is bad for two reasons. First, affirmative action is not something that we’re going to give up on for some feeble promise of maybe-perhaps social democracy down the road, because doing so will hurt actual people. Second, the people who are “distracted” by an AA agenda are not amenable to social democracy. Racists tend to be authoritarian, and authoritarians hate social democracy.
Note that the argument that Gary posts above is not WBM’s. WBM appears to believe that we’re distracting ourselves, not that we’re distracting America as a whole.
You shouldn’t be discussing affirmative action, since Michaels’ problem is with diversity. They are not the same. The legally supportable arguments for diversity have nothing to do with anti-minority racism. They have to do with enriching the education of our leaders of the future by exposing them to those American subcultures they know nothing about. THAT is the “compelling” state reason for allowing race to be considered in education AND employment.
Calling the means of achieving diversity affirmative action program is an erroneous conflation; what you call affirmative action is a tool that can be used to pursue diversity or justice.
No consideration of justice anywhere to be seen.
Sean, we agree on more than I often make clear—part of my enjoys arguments, because I end up learning more than when I simply agree.
Not to kiss up, but you should know that you and Scott and the Valve in general get a few thankful footnotes in my dissertation, and my Toni Morrison chapter draws on your article with Szalay.
hey, thanks, Luther!
Am I wrong to think that Michaels has just cut you off at the knees?:
“My view on the above is not altered by DeLong’s accusation of shoddy functionalism. Foucault has a memorably relevant remark in this regard about people knowing what they do and why they do what they do but not knowing what what they do does. By now, it’s pretty clear what affirmative action does and therefore it should be pretty clear what continued commitment to it means—the production of a more diverse and hence more legitimate elite. And the point of legitimation is precisely that it reassures people. It tells them they deserve their elite status, thus enabling the rich white kids and their rich moms and dads to (DeLong to the contrary notwithstanding) “sleep more soundly.”
Could well be. Wouldn’t be the first time I ended up on stumps. But I’m not seeing things that way. By my reading, the Foucault quote is simply another way of packaging the idea of unintended consequences. It was an unintended consequence of affirmative action that it would bolster the sense of desert among the beneficiaries of higher education, but it was arguably a consequence nevertheless and one that, now in place, contributes to the appreciation for an established institution. I wouldn’t say myself that the only point of legitimacy is that it reassures people, but that’s certainly one thing it does. It doesn’t follow, of course, that merely undermining that sense of legitimacy would in any way lead necessarily to a preferable alternative.