Thursday, October 12, 2006
The Trouble With Diversity: Walter Benn Michaels Responds
I want to start by thanking Scott for organizing and the Valve for hosting this event. I’ve been an occasional reader of the Valve for some time now and I admire the spirit of contention it fosters (even if sometimes the fostering just consists of throwing my name and a little blood into the water). Lots of substantive issues have been raised here, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about them and to respond.
I should also say that I’m not going to try to deal with everything that’s been said. Partly this is because I’ve been traveling and reading things in bits and pieces so I’m a little disorganized and pressed for time. It’s also because some of the things people have been interested in criticizing—especially my views on language and culture—are much more central to and thoroughly expressed in Our America and The Shape of the Signifier (just out in paper! with a wonderful blurb from Lindsay Waters!) than they are in The Trouble With Diversity. So I think it makes more sense to leave them aside for now. And, finally, I’m not going to say anything about the chapter on religious tolerance and belief that so annoyed Alan Wolfe, since I think lots of people on the Valve understand my views much better than he does.
What follows, then, is an effort to hit the high points, beginning with the claim that
we can do both
diversity and equality. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true—they’re not logically contradictory. But the point is that we aren’t doing both (diversity’s been increasing while equality’s been declining) and that, historically, this has been pretty much a zero-sum game. This is only partly because the money schools like Berkeley provide for diversity, as DeLong’s first post suggests, is not going into the kinds of programs needed to educate the people who can’t go there, indeed who don’t go to college at all. It’s also, more importantly, that the commitment to diversity in general has taken the place of the commitment to equality. Which is possible because, just as diversity and equality are not contradictory, diversity and inequality are also not contradictory. And which many have found desirable because diversity and anti-racism actually make neoliberalism more efficient.
Hence corporations, which have no interest whatsoever in economic equality, can be—and increasingly are—completely committed to diversity. Just to take an obvious example, two of the four criteria the American Lawyer uses in compiling its “A-List” of top law firms are diversity and revenue per lawyer. They understand perfectly well that there’s no tension between these criteria (and that the first might even help to enhance the second. Diversity and anti-racism pose no threat in principle (and precious little in practice) to economic inequality.
Thus I don’t accept what Rich Puchalsky calls the “common criticism of WBM’s proposals,” that I “would take away current affirmative action-style programs without having any concrete alternate form of income redistribution in place.” The problem with race-based affirmative action is not that it’s too weak a form of income redistribution; the problem is that it has nothing to do with income redistribution. If liberals were arguing today for class-based affirmative action, then we might worry about whether or not it was enough. But they’re not. No university has even contemplated the idea of seeking to achieve economic proportionality as well as racial proportionality. None of the diversity- and justice-loving students, faculty, parents, administrators or whoever at Harvard or Berkeley or, for that matter, UIC is looking to create a student body half of whom come from households with an income under $47,000. And as long as racial rather than economic proportionality is the goal, affirmative action is every bit as conservative as I say it is, as are the liberals to whom it matters so much.
shoddy functionalism (in addition to what Sean said)
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.”
Of course, making elites more comfortable wouldn’t be a bad thing if it really made them more open and I agree that getting rid of affirmative action won’t help much now—an elite of upper middle class white people and Asians isn’t an improvement over an elite of upper middle class whites, Asians and blacks. At the same time however, insofar as the message affirmative action sends is that universities care about your color rather than your poverty, getting rid at least of the professions of virtue that accompany it might be useful in pacifying the vast majority (i.e. virtually every student who doesn’t come from the upper-middle class) who doesn’t benefit from it. But, from a liberal perspective, we shouldn’t want these people pacified, either by affirmative action or even by the efforts to help poorer students pay their tuition at Harvard. I mean, when Harvard gets to the point of deciding to give tuition breaks to their “middle income” group of families earning $110,000 to $160,000 a year, that vast tax-free endowment is functioning entirely as welfare for the rich (welfare for the rich is its purpose). And it’s now Berkeley’s purpose too. Public universities give all their students the tuition break that Harvard gives only a few. (And since the students at public universities are increasingly coming from already wealthy families, we are getting some redistribution of wealth—upward.)
the good life
I plead completely guilty to the charge of not articulating any account of what a good life would be. The point of my account of Wife Swap is not meant to be that Jodi is happier than Lynn but that Jodi’s opportunities are much greater than Lynn’s, and that in a more just society, their opportunities would be more equal. Our society doesn’t owe either one of them happiness, but it does owe Lynn opportunities that she doesn’t have. This is obviously not to say that rich people are necessarily happy (have we read no novels?) or that it isn’t possible for poor people to be happier—either despite their poverty or even because of their poverty. I was on a talk show the other night where a caller (trying, like all the other callers, to show that I was mistaken about decreasing social mobility in the U.S.) described himself as dropping out of Yale and floating like a leaf through the American class system until he landed somewhere near the bottom. Since whenever I talk about social mobility I customarily find myself surrounded by self-made, risen from the ranks, men and women, I had to give the guy credit for originality. But his real point (enthusiastically embraced by the other panelist, a self-described Burkean conservative) was not just that he was poor but that he was happy, which I have no doubt he was. I don’t see, however, why the fact that some people will prove to be indifferent to their opportunities (or even eager to reject them), counts as an argument that they shouldn’t have them.
about the author
Bill Benzon thoughtfully reproduces University Diarist’s indignation about what she calls the self-flattering, KISS ME I’M HONEST revelations about my salary, etc. in the conclusion. I was struck by this because I remembered reading UD herself commenting on the egalitarian sentiments expressed in an article by E.J. Dionne and saying that
It would have been far more honest - and probably politically more productive—for Dionne to have ended this piece with a little honesty and a little introspection ["In another big home sale, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and wife Mary T. Boyle bought a shingle-and-stone Colonial in Bethesda’s Glen Echo Heights for $1.6 million. The 2004 house has ten-foot ceilings on the first floor, three fireplaces, and an elevator."], as in we have met the enemy, and he is us.
I agree at least with the spirit of that remark but not, as Benzon recognizes, because it’s important to foreground the importance of the subject position. My point is, just the opposite, its irrelevance. The question of whether what I say is true has nothing to do with the question of whether I myself am rich or poor or a good person. I do think, however, it matters that people understand whether they are rich or poor so a large part of the Conclusion is taken up with describing people’s (including my own) difficulty in recognizing what position they occupy in the American class system and the relation between that and their wealth relative to everyone else in the U.S. Rich Americans tend not to recognize their wealth and, perhaps more important, poor people tend not to recognize their poverty, or, at least, its consequences—they think they’re on their way to becoming rich. And this matters to my argument because, if you mistakenly think you have a real opportunity to succeed, you may also mistakenly think that our class system is fairer and more flexible than it actually is. So if one point of “About the Author” is that the truth of political arguments has nothing to do with the subject position of the person making them, another point is that people’s interest in hearing those arguments may well depend upon their understanding what their own subject position really is.
All this is put a lot more provokingly in the chapter itself, and because it’s put provokingly, I am not surprised that people are provoked. UD’s also being provoked by the dedication, however, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because she literally misread it (she says it’s to “my wife” but it never mentions “my wife”). Maybe it’s because she doesn’t recognize that “so necessary” is an allusion and hence doesn’t see that it involves a certain amount of irony. But as to where her coital death fantasies come from, I’ve got nothing.
English teachers’ books
Finally, I should say something about the idea that because The Trouble with Diversity doesn’t make lots of policy recommendations, it’s an “English professors book” that can’t possibly make any difference. Suppose—just sticking to universities—that people became convinced that diversity initiatives like affirmative action were actually at this moment deeply anti-egalitarian; suppose they were convinced more broadly that universities, instead of being hotbeds of leftism, were actually passthroughs for privilege, whose professors not only helped bestow the privilege but confirmed the privileged in their sense of merit. Suppose then that universities became controversial not because they were the site of empty debates over individual ability versus racial identity but because they were the sites of debate over class privilege, and Harvard professors were up in arms not because their President cast aspersions on women’s potential to do math but because he or she cheerfully participated in a system that made the math potential of most of the American population invisible. Suppose further that liberals, devoted to thinking through the entailments of their commitment to equality of opportunity, focused also on making conservatives justify their acceptance of inequality of opportunity so that you didn’t get to be conservative just by saying that white people should be treated as fairly as black people, you had to explain instead why poor people should not be treated as fairly as rich people. Suppose...
My point, of course, is not that The Trouble with Diversity is likely to bring about those results, although, if it somehow did become an airport book—from “Luther Blissert’s” lips (if there is a “Luther Blissert”) to God’s ears (if there is a God)—who knows? My point is that the conversation I’ve begun to outline above would be very different from the conversation we’ve been having. And better.
My question is, why complain about diversity when your objection is to affirmative action?
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.
And it’s why your lead educational institutions are going to have diversity programs...just as Harvard admitted W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin.
Finally, I should say something about the idea that because The Trouble with Diversity doesn’t make lots of policy recommendations, it’s an “English professors book” that can’t possibly make any difference.
It’s not an English Professor’s book. It’s a polemic.
I don’t believe your book will make no
difference. I think its potential is Bell Curvian...and (books shaped out racial attitudes?) just as soundly based in real events.
"The problem with race-based affirmative action is not that it’s too weak a form of income redistribution; the problem is that it has nothing to do with income redistribution.”
Thanks for the reply, and I’ll think over the rest of it, but I have an immediate disagreement with the above as a bald assertion. A good deal of the difference between the “conversation” that you’d like people to have and the one that they’re having seems to do with differing assumptions about what makes poor people poor.
In particular, I’d guess that many liberals assume that black people are disproportionately poor—which they are, as a matter of fact—because of contemporary racism, not because of the lingering effects of past racism. That means that by sending a middle-class black person to an elite college, you aren’t merely having no effect on income redistribution. That person becomes a counterexample to racism, because people who go to elite schools eventually get elite jobs, and once black people are proportionally present among the elite, that helps to disprove the racist myth.
Races are, of course, meaningless as biological categories—as “brute facts”. But they still exist in America as social facts. A good deal of your criticism of affirmative action seems to be based on an assumption that only the summation of individual outcomes matters, and that the black poor would be just as bad off as they are now if there were no black middle class among the elite. That’s certainly arguable, but I think that it needs more argument (which perhaps I’ve missed).
A second point has to do with the reason why liberals are concerned about issues, and what they should be concerned about. As I’ve previously expressed, I’m not sure that your critique makes sense as a liberal rather than a socialist/social democratic critique. Being concerned about racism is being concerned about an obvious historical and present injustice; concern about egalitarianism is not quite the same as concern about justice. I would say that the proximate source of educational inequality is high school, and high schools are unequal in part because of a constellation of American localist/populist ideas that liberalism doesn’t have as much problem with.
Re-reading my comment—a bad habit—I may have put too little emphasis on what liberals in general do actually try to do, directly, about income inequality. Usually this is through a set of actions like supporting unions, rises in the minimum wage, progressive taxation, and so on. The first part of my comment above may sound very indirect, but it’s probably worth pointing out that education is itself indirectly concerned with income. As long as work is stratified into a particular proportion of high-paying vs low-paying jobs, and as long as there is no effective redistribution of money from wealthy to poor through taxes and services, then education of individuals makes no difference to the overall poverty level.
Over at Bérubé’s joint Michael is quoting from Laura Kipnis’s latest, The Female Thing:
So who actually gained over the last thirty years, the heyday of women’s much-vaunted expedition into the workforce? As we see, the job market proved flexible enough to absorb women into its ranks with barely a hiccup, while suppressing salaries and quashing labor demands across the board. The exhilarating women’s lib notion that women entering positions of economic and political power would somehow transform the character of existing social institutions turned out to be just wrong. With hindsight, the question is whether something got left out of the political calculation along the way—quality-of-life issues, for instance. Or what kind of equity to aspire to. But then why be surprised that feminism too succumbed to the winner-take-all logic of a winner-take-all economy with the oppositional edges smoothed down to suit the times. Who doesn’t want to be a winner?
Wow. Michaels: “I agree that getting rid of affirmative action won’t help much.”
I should have put it more strongly: Michaels, and people like him, who think that getting rid of affirmative action in America tomorrow would generate and strengthen a mass 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--they’re living in a fantasyland, lost in the Gamma Quadrant, afflicted with a bizarre combination of Leninist longing to make matters worse now so they can become better in the future, and of shoddy functionalism.
Michaels defense under the “English teachers’ book” heading still labors under a profound assumption, one that would require argument and not mere assertion: namely, that the free market system is inherently unjust. I agree with him, but a *scholar* cannot simply brush Hayek and others under the rug.
Are America’s poor poor because they were born poor? Are they poor because the System is unjust? Are they poor because their culture (that is, their values, beliefs, behaviors) breeds poorness?
If the answer to that last question is anything but a wholesale “No,” then Michaels’ idea of wealth redistribution will not work. They will help the poor, but they won’t make the poor leap up the class ladder.
(And then there’s his continuing equation of “affirmative action” with “affirmative action at elite institutions and businesses.” Affirmative action has helped redistribute wealth when you examine its effects in the civil service, in the military, in state colleges, in business across the board. Sure, hiring a middle class black academic isn’t doing much. But hiring tens of thousands of black managers at companies that once hired *no* black employees, well, that’s something.)
Luther, it takes argument (and quite an argument it would be) to demonstrate that our America has a “free market system” in any meaningful sense of the term.
Okay, I see it’s safe to leave you guys alone.
Jonathan, that doesn’t change the point: WBM’s argument—for it to be an argument—would require some thorough attention to the economy and the causes of class difference.
And the US has about as free a market as there’s ever been.
That’s doubtful, no matter what obscurantist definition of a “free market” you’d choose to employ. By “economic freedom” measures, of course, there’s Switzerland and Singapore, and by comparative lack of corporate mercantilism, perhaps the Scandinavians.
Does it really matter whether one calls it a free market system or not? I think that a more important point is that education, in economic terms, is only an aid to social mobility. If a good education was available to all, and if education was an important factor determining employment, then presumably the best students would be more likely to get the best jobs. That merely makes neoliberalism more efficient, in the same way that diversity programs do.
So education can’t really be a method of wealth redistribution at a societal scale. If the same jobs exist at the same comparative pay rates, then educating the poor makes no difference in terms of what percentage of the society remains poor, because as some individuals rise, others have to fall.
Solutions to income inequality generally take two forms; the socialist, which tries to equalize income directly, and the liberal, which tries to redistribute income once acquired. I still have no idea which of these general paths WBM favors. And that’s really what I think that many people do complain about. It’s not just “the idea that because The Trouble with Diversity doesn’t make lots of policy recommendations, it’s an “English professors book” that can’t possibly make any difference”. It’s that it doesn’t seem to have a larger political narrative beyond tearing something down.
Many people are under the misconception that diversity is the reason for affirmative action. In fact it is the other way around: affirmative action is the reason universities say they believe in diversity. The word “diversity” was never heard on college campuses before Powell’s opinion in Bakke. (Powell was also the justice who ruled that unequal education funding and sodomy laws were Constitutional). And as WBM only hints at, the logical contradictions and hypocrisies that arise in the name of diversity are legion.
I think the policy that best illustrates Michaels’ case are the university legacy admission standards, the affirmative action policy that got George Bush into Yale. There are few policies that are more anti-egalitarian and anti-diversity than the notion that preference ought to be given the sons and daughters of alumni and the policies are often cited as a justification for affirmative action. In the Michigan undergraduate case, alumni kids were granted 4 points, a preference that probably affected at least as many admissions decisions as did the 20 points given to minorities.
What makes Michaels case, however, is that these policies have only been challenged and eliminated in states that have gotten rid of affirmative action: California, after proposition 209, and Georgia after it lost and affirmative action case. To see the connection, consider this resolution from Maryland:
Legacy admission policies are widespread, John Edwards is one of the few politicans to come out against them:
I think that Brad is touchy because Michaels’ criticism of affirmative action strikes personally at him and others like him who take comfort in affirmative action.
Did Michaels actually say that “getting rid of affirmative action in America tomorrow would generate and strengthen a mass 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”—or anything like that?
Isn’t it his message that affirmative action allows us to think we’re doing something when we really aren’t? And also that, historically, the rise of multicultural consciousness everywhere coincided with a collapse of egalitarianism?
It’s harder for the average student of any race to finance a college education now than it was 25-35 years ago, and students at every level leave college with more debt.
I haven’t been able to follow this debate as closely as I wish, but one issue that needs stressing is that by now education more or less defines middle class status. From a class point of view, bringing a few minorities up into the middle class does little or nothing for those who remain behind, and the gap between the middle class and everyone below them is growing.
Cases in point on “affirmative action”:
In my department at my doctoral school multi anni fa the person holding down the department chair (alas!--they gave him a job, too!) decided that grad assistants “of colour” should have a term off with pay while only Caucasians were required to work for their stipends. One of the embarrassed beneficiaries of this openly racist favouritism was a student both of whose parents were prosperous physicians; one of my other friends, the daughter of an immigrant European farmer and career hospital janitor was among the “targets” of the dept. chair’s decree (a former college football player who himself received a scholarship for merely participating in the corrupt gangland-style underworld that is college sports and who obviously played football too long without a helmet). A former girlfriend (quite dark in complexion) in nursing school lost her scholarship when it was discovered that she was Portuguese by ancestry, not “Hispanic”. By the way, we lost the first example and friend partly over shame for this unwanted advantage given to her. E basta!, though there are more examples I could cite here. Let those wishing to redress past grievances (especially senior faculty) through programmes of “affirmative action” resign their positions first (presumably they’ve gained most from the real and imagined advantages Caucasians had); but then, their chairs ought to be filled by the most qualified, regardless of race. And where are schools serious in any way about removing unfavourable age discrimination and unfair bias against war vets?
I praise Mr. Ward Connerly, Ms. Jennifer Gratz and Professor Carl Cohen of the University of Michigan for promoting an end (at least on paper) to this vicious, corrupt and divisive policy in the state.
Thanks to Walter Benn Michaels for attempting to change the conversation. I’ll admit I haven’t read *The Trouble with Diversity*, just Michaels’s post here, but from that, I would be inclined to say that some of those posting responses to his work seem to protest too much. That several posts admit the writer is a “natural” audience for Michaels’s argument and then go on to find various excuses for not agreeing with Michaels—he pisses the writer off, for example—suggests to me that Michaels is correct: both “diversity” and “affirmative action” are conservative in effect if not intention, and both serve the interests of an academic, not to mention, social elite. He is correct: in practice, race/gender vs. class/economic inequality is a zero-sum game. And what’s more important, as Michaels observes, is that “the commitment to diversity in general has taken the place of the commitment to equality.” And since we are unlikely to change the commitment, he is correct to suggest that “getting rid at least of the professions of virtue” that accompany our discussions of and efforts on behalf of diversity and AA would be a very fine thing indeed. (If I may self-promote shamelessly, for my take on these issues, see my *Class, Critics, and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars* (Michigan, 2000). And if you don’t believe an English prof., or even two, please read sociologist Randall Collins’s *The Credential Society*, a book published in 1979, which even in “Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities,” published in 2002, Collins refers to and defends as current and apt.)
In addition to the self-promotion, what I’d like to add to this conversation is this: you all focus on elite institutions, their efforts to diversify, and the effects of those efforts on students, whether white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. This is not surprising, of course. Discussion of these issues is dominated by elites, who have the time and the brains and the connections to do it. What they don’t have, as Michaels himself attests, is much sense of what professional life is like in non-elite institutions of higher education, where “affirmative action” is moot, but diversity most certainly is not. What are effects on non-elite institutions of “diversity,” of our nation’s having tried to fix social problems primarily through a vast expansion of education opportunity? What are the effects of nearly universal access on the students who make up those institutions, on whose behalf it was putatively launched?
The effects are numerous, and in my opinion, not satisfactory. I shall assert three, a couple of which Michaels also makes or alludes to, and comment a bit on one, #4 (which comments also, however, allude to all the rest).
1) Nearly universal access is creating a society in which the bachelor’s degree is the threshold credential for employment. This is credential inflation. Alternatively, from the consumer’s—er, student’s—point of view, this is a bill of goods.
2) Nearly universal access is deforming the university’s intellectual mission, as financial pressures invite us to retain-—and, indeed, graduate—-students regardless of their academic accomplishments.
3) Nearly universal access is fracturing the status homogeneity of the profession itself, such that some professionals of high status do research and others, of much less (and perhaps even of no) status, teach.
In English departments, which, as you all know, carry an enormous service burden, the fracturing of the status homogeneity of the profession is clear. Within sight is the institutionalization of subordinate statuses within the professoriate—departments composed of those who teach and those do research. Once acknowledged to be temporary for all (one taught comp as part of one’s apprenticeship; later one would be able to emulate one’s professors and think and write and do research), such status must now be acknowledged as permanent for most. Why? Democratized access to higher education requires cheap labor. 15 million students currently engage in higher education, which is a lot, but the current President promises to leave no child behind, presumably so that each one can go to college and therefore lead the “middle-class lifestyle” once available to a unionized factory worker. Former President Bill Clinton informed us during his tenure that “every American needs more than a high-school education….A college education is not a luxury.” I am inclined to agree: “a college education is not a luxury” if it is obtained in a shopping mall. And I would add that higher education better not be a luxury, because no society can afford the kind of higher education—small classes, research professors in the classroom, and a curriculum based in the liberal arts only vaguely related to the workplace—that it once provided to, say, 5% of the college-aged population (and still does provide to that segment and that is, arguably, what we professors of English have in mind when we talk about education). My point is not that we should pony up, but that institutionalized inequality in the profession is part of the price we pay for pursuing egalitarian dreams in the society at large. The situation is ironic, to say the least.
Thank you for allowing me to engage in this discussion.
>we can do both. diversity and equality. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true—they’re not logically contradictory. But the point is that we aren’t doing both (diversity’s been increasing while equality’s been declining) and that, historically, this has been pretty much a zero-sum game.
Walter Benn Michaels is bargaining with himself. The republicans aren’t offering equality in exchange for diversity. They don’t want either.
College isn’t an effective tool for equality. Even in the ideal case, it sharply divides those with certain skills from those without them. The more equitable US from 1945-1970 had good jobs for those with a high school education. You didn’t need to go to college. Letting poor people into Harvard isn’t going to help things much.