Tuesday, October 03, 2006
The Trouble With Diversity: Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?
Walter Benn Michaels writes that our devotion to diversity has enabled liberals and conservatives alike to ignore our country’s larger problem of class. He points to the American university which now brags about its multi-cultural student body – this part white, that part black, that part Asian, with a dash of some other groups. We pat ourselves on the back for mixing this cocktail perfectly and then walk away from the bar. The problem with the martini is that the liquor is all top shelf. Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?
According to Michaels, we’ve brought in the different races, as if there really is such a thing as race, renamed it as culture, and not touched the economic imbalance that exists in our country.
Our devotion to diversity, especially at the university level, has its absurdities, and Michael deserves credit for pointing out its hollowness. For me, its silliness came home last spring, when an op-ed writer in Times wrote that universities were excluding women in order to keep a proper ratio of men and women at campuses. Now men were the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action.
Sure, it’s nice that colleges want a 50/50 gender split on campuses. After all, part of the purpose of college is to find an economically compatible spouse, along with all the learnin’ stuff. It’s also nice to have different groups in class. The rich black kids add a lot to the mix, as do the other rich ethnicities and sexual identities. Wouldn’t it also be nice if there was a diversity of ages, IQ, and political ideology in the classroom? The diversity principle can be quickly taken to the absurd.
The diversity principle doesn’t even achieve what it was intended to achieve, since poor students don’t have the SAT scores to get into Swanky School. Diversity doesn’t lead to the social revolution that Michael desires and in fact, may be a distraction from dealing with the real problems.
Well, Affirmative-Action wasn’t really aimed at bringing about a full scale social revolution. It was aimed at overcoming discrimination. It tried to bring in the black guy with the same or slightly lesser scores into the university and do an end-run around the racist on the admission board. Michael seems to think we’re in a post-racist, post-sexist, post-anti-Semitic society. I don’t know for sure if overt discrimination is a thing of the past or not, but I do know that race and gender are not independent of class. After all, the face of poverty is highly likely to be a single black, poorly educated woman with a couple of children in tow.
Perhaps Affirmative Action was more significant a generation ago, when it helped a group of black and minorities reach middle class status. Their children, beneficiaries of all the advantages of middle class, are now part of the minority cocktail in the university. But now that we have a big enough group in the universities and the suburbs, diversity programs don’t help move more minorities to the posh suburbs.
Should the university be the place for a full scale redistribution program? It’s a little unfair to pick on the universities for their diversity programs, when the problems that lead to inequality start much earlier. He touches on this point briefly when he talks about the impact of the property tax on school quality. Poor kids are already so short changed that by the time they reach college, any program aimed at giving them a hand is too late and a dollar short.
Other higher education programs with similar aims, like the community college system, have also proven to be ineffectual. My husband taught geography for a couple of years at Bronx Community College. Those kids had been so deprived of a proper educational foundation that they couldn’t identify the Pacific Ocean on a map. Some couldn’t distinguish between land masses and water. Most couldn’t identify where the Hudson River was on a map, even though they could see it from the windows of their classroom. College was too late to help these kids.
While he tears down diversity as a means to achieve economic change, Michaels has no remedies for how to create a real system of equality of opportunity, other than a quick mention of equalizing school funding. If you talk to education reformers, they say that school funding is but one of many issues that must be addressed, but the problems in poor neighborhood are so extensive that schools alone can’t make a difference. Michaels doesn’t offer any other solutions.
At the tail end of the book, Michaels points out the silliness about shedding tears for dying cultures. It’s ideology that matters, he says.
I have probably have more sympathies for this argument than others. My grandparents and great-grandparents gladly dropped their language and customs when they left Ellis Island. What mattered most was blending in, so that they could get the jobs in the steel mills of Chicago and the restaurants of New York City. Two generations later, we speak no Italian and aren’t really sure what Osso Bucco is. The only Celtic that we know is a couple curses that my dad once taught us when my mother’s back was turned. Actually, I’m not sure if I’m saying them properly. The generational version of the telephone game may have garbled them beyond recognition, so instead of saying “go to hell, you son of a bitch,” I’m really saying “my hair smells like dog.” I’ve got one second cousin, who is trying to return back to the old ways and trots her kids around to Celtic dancing contests, dies her hair red, and adopts a lilt to her voice. But we all think she’s daft and secretly mock the Lords of the Dance.
Culture is fine. It’s nice, but it’s not enough. My grandparents shed their culture like yesterday’s gym clothes. What really mattered to them was putting food on the table. Michaels understands that culture and diversity doesn’t bring us closer to a society with true equality of opportunity, he just doesn’t give us anything else in its place.
Laura, you’ve pointed out another example of the Benn Michaels “shell game” rhetorical strategy.
His chapter on universities is actually ridiculous. The logic goes like this:
Large public universities are diverse and underfunded. Elite universities have used affirimative action to admit largely middle and upper class blacks. So you see, it’s not effective.
But what about the first statement: the part about large public universities? Benn Michaels acts as if the only route to class mobility is admission to an Ivy League University. But that’s simply stupid. A fifth-rate med school will still get you a GP practice and close to $100,000 a year. A bottom-of-the-barrel law school will allow you to do contracts, home closings, traffic court, wills, and so on—and still bring in close to $100,000 a year. (A good friend of mine, a former drug dealer, went to a small state college, a bottom med school, and now does mental health for a large salary.)
Now, we can argue if affirmative action helped a lot of poor minorities at state colleges (I’d guess the numbers were a lot higher than at Harvard, which is WBM’s *only* example).
But WBM’s shell game involves using Harvard to present an either-or: either we redistribute wealth so that everyone can go to Harvard (a non-sequitor in any case), or we force children to wallow in poverty.
But poor kids (like me) can go to state schools or community colleges for next to nothing and get better jobs than our parents.
Again, I’m totally for various forms of wealth redistribution. But to use Harvard’s socio-economic makeup as evidence of the impossibility of class mobility in America is stupid. I agree that affirmative action should have been more about class than race. But then again, it’s a chicken and egg problem. Help the poor kids without addressing race, and I guarantee you’ll have a racist percentage of white poor kids in college (and black poor kids are WORSE OFF than white poor kids, even if, in the WBM women at Wal-Mart example, it’s only—only!—a matter of a few thousand dollars a year—which makes me say you have to be particularly rich to think an extra thousand dollars doesn’t matter much when it’s actually the difference between health care and none).
What WBM doesn’t suggest is that, if we are in a post-racist and post-sexist society, it’s *because* of all this lame diversity talk. What he also doesn’t suggest is that most of the diversity activists were also activists for the poor. What he doesn’t suggest is that you can’t blame the activists if America’s hegemonic powers realized you could do diversity fairly cheaply. What he doesn’t suggest is that scholars and activists have made his points countless times in the past—in education, we’ve been talking for two decades about the problems with “additive multiculturalism” that simply incorporates into the textbook a black capitalist alongside the white capitalist without ever making the curricula open to questions of class.
This is from Michael Berube’s interview with Free Exchange on Campus. I think it puts some of WBM’s claims in the university chapter in perspective:
“I can illustrate what’s at stake by looking back at my own degree-granting institutions: I was part of the last all-male cohort of Columbia University when I graduated in 1982. That’s right, Columbia didn’t admit women until 1983. Even more amazingly, my doctoral institution, the University of Virginia (a public school, though it often likes to imagine itself otherwise), didn’t admit women until 1970. It’s now one of the so-called ‘public Ivies’; before 1970, it was known widely as a place where the gentry learned to hold their liquor while cruising through the curriculum with the ‘Gentlemen’s C.’ Fred Barnes and Brit Hume both graduated from Virginia in the 1960s. Back then, white guys only had to compete with about 44 percent of the population for spots at U.Va. So think about that the next time a conservative writer tells you that affirmative action has led to a decline in academic standards, or the next time the College Republicans hold one of their charming little ‘affirmative action bake sales’ on campus.
“But at the same time, we’ve done a good deal of backsliding over the past twenty years when it comes to making college accessible for poor and working-class families. For too many Americans, elite universities are out of reach, and millions of students graduate with crushing debt loads. It’s time we began taking on Adolph Reed, Jr.’s suggestion for Free Higher Ed: a 50 to 60 billion dollar federal program to subsidize higher education throughout the United States. Would it break the bank? Not at all-it’s a pittance compared to the war in Iraq. And look what happened to Ireland after it decided to subsidize its citizens’ college tuitions: it’s now the Celtic Tiger, the economic star of the European Union. Ireland! Twenty years ago it was almost a third-world nation economically. Now it’s booming beyond belief. Celtic Tiger, indeed-it’s almost as weird as seeing the Detroit Tigers make the playoffs. And it reminds me that the greatest periods of American economic expansion, after the Civil War and after World War II, just happened to coincide with massive investments in American universities. I think there’s a lesson there for sensible Republicans as well as the entire Democratic party.”
WBM argues that we should have helped “poor people” rather than women or minorities. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that under conditions of extreme sexism (no admission to a public university until 1970!) or extreme racism, “poor people” MEANS “POOR WHITE MEN.” Before 1980, a class-centered politics that didn’t address racism and sexism was itself racist and sexist. WBM doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Of course he’s not sexist or racist. But his logic is.
Michaels understands that culture and diversity doesn’t bring us closer to a society with true equality of opportunity, he just doesn’t give us anything else in its place.
The thing is, if this were an academic book with no object beyond making a few points about culture, race, identity, and income, that would be neither here nor there. But this book is directed for a general audience and, I believe, is intended to have some effect on the conduct of politics. In that context the lack of more than a suggestion here and there toward a political program is rather more serious.
I absolutely agree that diversity isn’t the answer to our problems.
Many people consider themselves liberals or revolutionaries by standing up for blacks or women and whatnot. However, their efforts--although with good intentions and some admirable outcomes--ultimately justify the flawed system. Their efforts aren’t in fact liberal or progressive, only a moderate goal at best. I mean, even most conservatives can’t denounce diversity. Studies show that diverse communities in general accomplish more social goals.
The failure is this: when we convince ourselves that diversity can be achieved and promoted in a capitalistic society, we are essentially encouraging only small changes and establishing the lie that our current system can iron out the problems. Unneeded class struggles will always occur in a capitalist society, and no amount of diversity promotion will change that.
Some would argue that Ireland’s subsidising of Higher Education has little causal effect on its emergence as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. It’s attractively low Corporation tax is perhaps the much more obvious cause.
As for subsidies and Higher Education. As someone with direct experience at both UK and US bastions of learning, low fees and lower debts are very ‘nice’, but there are significant pros and cons. Cambridge, arguably one of the top two or three universities in the world, just about breaks even every year, while American universities have more cash than they know what to do with. Despite having fees of c.$5000 a year at Oxford and Cambridge, it is still populated by (admittedly very clever) products of private schools.
As countless other people have pointed out, if it is a choice of throwing money at universities in the form of bursaries and subsidies or spending the same money on improving US and UK state high schools, then the choice seems fairly obvious. The housing market, as well as culture, is destiny: rich kids are paying for better schooling through the back door- in higher house prices. This educational ghettoisation is much more of a scandal than Harvard’s lacklustre efforts to deal with the inequity tsunami that its admissions department faces every year.