13 December 2006

On The Trouble with Diversity

Robbins vs. Benn Michaels

December 6, 2006

Dear Editors,

Bruce Robbins doubts the causal connections between the increase in economic inequality and the increased commitment to diversity, but it’s the disconnect between equality and diversity he should be worrying about. There is nothing about the celebration of diversity—there is nothing even about the struggle against racism—that makes any contribution whatsoever to the struggle for economic equality. Slavery and its racist legacy have left black people in the U.S. disproportionately poor. If we managed to get rid of that legacy, we would also get rid of the disproportionality. But not the poverty. We’d just have more poor whites and Asians. Why? Because it’s capitalism not racism that produces economic inequality (racism is just a selection mechanism), and when you’ve got a left that, confronted with the increase in economic inequality, rushes to give you more examples of racism, sexism and homophobia,1 you’ve got a left that is more interested in reapportioning inequality than in eliminating it. So yes, there’s a causal connection between diversity and inequality. The connection is not that diversity produces inequality, and it’s not just that the time spent fighting for diversity is time not spent fighting against capitalism (although that’s true). It’s that fighting for diversity has increasingly become a way of legitimating inequality.

Here’s an obvious example. A left that was worried about inequality would spend its time trying to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. A left that was worried about diversity would spend its time trying to make sure that the rich came in the right races and sexes. Which one have we got? Robbins begins his review by complaining about my critique of affirmative action. But the students at elite universities really have become wealthier as they’ve become more diverse. And it’s a mark of how far economic equality has been from the left’s agenda that these universities-populated almost exclusively by rich people and devoted almost entirely to guaranteeing that those rich people will continue to be rich-should now be both celebrated and criticized as bastions of liberalism.

But it’s not just the academic elite that look to diversity for legitimation. The newspapers the past few days have been filled with criticism of law firms for not promoting enough African Americans to partner, as if the money that goes to rich lawyers would be justified if only some more of them were black. And (sticking with lawyers) the New York Times yesterday reported on the phenomenon of some heterosexual couples refusing to marry until gay people have the right to marry, quoting a recently engaged U.C. Davis law student who says, “I wouldn’t go to a lunch counter that wouldn’t allow people of color to eat there, so why would I support an institution that won’t allow everyone to take part.” Robbins (and everyone else) is fond of claiming that there’s no need to choose between diversity and equality, but I haven’t heard of many law students refusing to take one of those $135,000 starting salaries until everybody has the chance to get one. The Trouble with Diversity doesn’t argue that there are no more victims of discrimination but it does argue that the victims of discrimination (as opposed to exploitation) are the ones capitalism likes. And they’re certainly the ones-right down to the African American “from a comfortable upper middle class background” who gets looked at “in a certain way” on the street-that Bruce Robbins likes.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t oppose racism and sexism and homophobia1. But it does mean that economic inequality really is a more “fundamental” problem. It’s more fundamental because in a society without economic inequality, the harm of racism and sexism would be significantly mitigated, whereas in a society without racism and sexism, economic inequality would be untouched. “Michaels talks,” according to Robbins, “as if unions had no history of demanding equal pay for women and as if women had no history of supporting strong labor movements.” But the obvious (I thought) point of my Wal-Mart example is that in the U.S. today, the demand that men and women get paid the same wage has a lot more traction than the demand that they get paid a decent wage-which is what you would need the strong union for. And, more obvious still, the demand that hourly workers at Wal-Mart get paid something more like professors and lawyers has no traction at all.

In fact, you don’t really feel the force of contemporary American feminism until you see how useful it is in protecting the men as well as the women of the upper middle class from what we might call a more universal egalitarianism. But Robbins thinks that the real problem with The Trouble with Diversity is its “radical individualism,” not its universalism. He apparently believes that the only alternative to races and cultures is individuals, and, while he acknowledges that there is a lot of “drivel” written about memory, heritage, etc. (no kidding), he also believes that it’s a mistake to criticize them because such criticism threatens the “trans-generational identification” we need in order address issues like global warming. What will become of the environmental issue, he asks, if we don’t “recognize ourselves and our interests as exceeding the present moment?”

This question was a clarifying one for me. Robbins apparently believes that we only do things in the service of our own interests and therefore, if we’re to act on behalf of other people, we have to rig up some mechanism (call it culture, call it heritage) to convince ourselves that at least some of the others really are us and so their interests really are ours. And I’m the individualist! Here’s an alternative thought. Let’s preserve the environment not because we’ve found some way to pretend that it’s in our trans-generational interest but because it’s the right thing to do. Let’s start redistributing wealth for the same reason. And let’s stop supporting a version of progressive politics that functions more as a defense of neoliberalism than an attack on it.

Sincerely,

Walter Benn Michaels


Bruce Robbins replies:

The legacy of racism, Walter Benn Michaels concedes, has produced disproportionate poverty among blacks in America. But doing something to compensate for that legacy would do nothing whatsoever to aid the struggle for economic equality. “We’d just have more poor whites and Asians.”

This little sentence is, to pick up one of Michaels’s terms, clarifying. It shows what anyone who has been faithfully reading Michaels’s literary criticism would already have known: to him, capitalism is magical. If black people were somehow raised up, say by reparations for slavery, he assures us that capitalism would wave its magic wand and presto, an equal number of people who are not black would be impoverished by an equal amount. Watch carefully. The level of oppression remains absolutely undisturbed. Not a single drop of suffering is lost.

Academics will recognize this magician as a stand-in for the protagonist of the old New Historicism. A school of criticism that flourished in the 1980s and by the early 1990s had been declared old-fashioned, at least by its enemies, the New Historicism put forward a version of “total system” (I quote from a discussion of Michaels by America’s foremost Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson) that specialized in outsmarting any attempt to critique or resist it, revealing said act of critique or resistance “to have been yet another feature of the system itself . . . programmed into it in advance.” Michaels’s readings of Dreiser’s The Financier and Sister Carrie are classics of the genre, cleverly exposing the vain illusion (again in Jameson’s words) “that Dreiser’s work, which is immanent to the market system and its dynamics and deeply complicitous with it, could somehow ‘stand outside’ that, achieve a ‘transcendence’ with respect to it (normally even characterized as critical distance), and function as criticism of it, if not indeed outright political repudiation of it.”

Whatever you think of the plausibility of this vision, it’s a major problem for Michaels’s argument. A capitalism that can do magic tricks like this one would obviously have no trouble with any collective action, however race-blind, that tried to equalize life chances for the poor. Given his assumptions, Michaels cannot really expect any more from the trade unions whose weakness he claims to bemoan than from the feminism he mocks. For he has to assume that any gains the unions might wrench from the corporations would be instantly confiscated from other employees elsewhere. Ditto for raising the minimum wage. Its opponents maintain, anticipating Michaels, that this will only make the wages of others go down. (If that were true, the corporations and their representatives wouldn’t fight tooth-and-nail against raising the minimum wage.) The way Michaels writes about the struggle for racial justice knocks the legs out from under the struggle for any justice.

Obviously Michaels doesn’t really believe that corporations can never be forced to give up any portion of their profits, that there can be no redistribution of wealth until a messianic coming of the Revolution, that in the prolonged meantime nothing meaningful can ever be accomplished. Otherwise he would not revive such excellent proposals as pushing for a 100% inheritance tax or delinking school funding from local property taxes. The problem is that in his strange and overpowering compulsion to discredit the movement against racism and sexism, he draws on a model of total system-the adjective “paranoid” doesn’t seem too strong to describe it-that guarantees failure for everyone. And this despite his certainty that all we need, as he says, is to do what’s right. Those of us who are fighting racism or sexism because (in his words) “it’s the right thing to do” are supposed to stop short, no longer certain of what’s right. Why? Because Michaels himself is so certain that in pursuing our sense of what’s right, we are inevitably if deviously furthering the cause of neoliberalism. Which is it, total system or what’s right? Like divine omnipotence and free will, his two certainties collide. As I hope my review made clear, I really admire Michaels’s feisty secularism. But this is not secular thought. This is theology.

Here’s a striking example of this deification of capitalism. At one point The Trouble with Diversity spins out the counterfactual hypothesis of a future in which American workers would need to learn Hindi in order to get jobs in call centers. In that case, Michaels says in effect, let my kids speak Hindi and forget about English. The context is an argument against artificially preserving endangered languages. But the assumption behind the argument has to do with capitalism. What determines whether languages are worth learning, for Michaels, is whether they are well suited to the job market. If so, then his ultimate moral authority would have to be described as That Which Generates Jobs. Michaels nods to socialism as a desirable alternative to identity talk, but on this occasion, as on many others, he defers decisively to capitalism.

In this he is of course in good company. Most Americans remain believers in the capitalist system, and it’s their belief that offers a different and more compelling explanation than diversity for the persistence of inequality in America. When asked “what’s right,” Americans tend to think of freedom before they think of equality. Freedom, especially in its market-affirming variants, would clearly make a more productive object for Michaels’s reflections on why there is so little equality in America. In obsessing about diversity, he’s been barking up the wrong tree.

Still, his case for a strenuous egalitarianism is a good one. Despite the bizarre tie-in to diversity and the equally bizarre vision of capitalism. And despite its neglect of all the people who had been pointing their fingers at the scandal of inequality for years. (I wish there were an entry in Michaels’s index for, say, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. It was even published by the same press.) Since the cause is just, it’s a shame that it’s tainted by the moral strong-arming of “because it’s the right thing.” This is an excuse to stop thinking just where thinking is going to have to get more subtle and more ambitious. As the reader will have noticed, people tend to disagree about what the right thing is. Consider, if we’re in the business of raising the moral ante, that Americans constitute roughly 5% of the world’s population but consume roughly 30% of the world’s resources. In other words, the playing field at the level of the planet is even more racially tilted than it is at the level of the nation. How is giving poor American whites a better chance at $135,000 a year legal jobs (Michaels’s example) going to have any effect on that inequality?

1 Robbins’s account of what I say about “gay identity” is truly amazing. He says that I find it “less obnoxious” than black identity, but that my “either/or style certainly makes both seem equally expendable.” What I actually say is that there are no such things as black or white people, but that there are gay and straight people. And there’s not a single word in the book that suggests there is anything either obnoxious or expendable about them. Either (as I like to say), Robbins failed to understand one of the book’s basic arguments, or (as I also like to say) he preferred to misrepresent it. And while we’re on the topic of amazing remarks, Robbins seems to think that the substitution of identity for equality is a mainly American problem and that things would look very different if we took what he calls “Other Countries” into account. I urge him to reconsider this position, and I suggest as introductory reading Joseph Stalin on “Marxism and the National Question.”

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »

  • Bruce Robbins
    • On Richard Rorty

      Richard Rorty, who died in June, was a private public intellectual. He did not weigh in as often as possible on as many issues as possible. He had a minimalist homepage. More…