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.