Whither Diversity?

January 10, 2007

In my experience it's a rare college faculty meeting where someone fails to speak out on behalf of cultural diversity, multiculturalism, or "inclusiveness," often but not exclusively in terms of racial diversity within the student body and the larger society.

As a privileged white male working at an expensive private college, I readily acknowledge the need for diversity. And for fifteen years I've offered a senior level seminar on The Politics of Personal Identity, in part a history and affirmation of various racial, ethnic, religious, gender, cultural, and other self-identified groups.

I've also entertained doubts about certain aspects of this societal project. Now a book has appeared that crystallizes some of my misgivings in a manner that insures both wide readership and lively debate.

Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of English at the University of Illinois , Chicago , has written The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. A short review can't do justice to his highly accessible, trenchant and often witty argument. In essence, Benn Michaels contends that socio-economic diversity has been neglected in favor of identity issues. And many otherwise progressive people have been seduced by this initiative.

For example, I support affirmative action but at many elite colleges and universities it's simply joining wealthy white faces with additional well-to-do faces of color. Like other institutions, they may look more like a microcosm of America but this is only cosmetic. So-called need-blind admissions whereby all qualified applicants receive aid are also less than meets the eye. Given our entrenched class system, the poor and working class -- black, white and Latino -- are excluded virtually from birth as viable applicants. By contrast, Ivy League applicants start the race near the finish line, making a sham of "equal opportunity."

The problem, according to Benn Michaels, is that "We love race -- we love identity -- because we don't love class." That is, the upper income groups in society, including many liberals, prefer to believe that a fair and just society can be realized primarily by celebrating and embracing diversity -- but excluding class considerations.

Economic difference is not the same as sexual, racial and other difference. Get rid of prejudice, you get rid of discrimination based on race and sex. And while all identities should be equal in a democracy (gay/straight, male/female, black/white, etc.) rich and poor are not equal and this can't be ameliorated via diversity programs.

Why? Because unlike a feel-good acceptance of Native-Americans, lesbians and Latinos, the solution to economic difference requires serious wealth redistribution and an admission that we live in a class society. Also, celebrating cultural diversity is a no-cost substitute, distraction, and excuse for not addressing inequality.

Virtually everyone today recoils at intolerance, bigotry and prejudice. It's an agenda even the far right can own. Rich Republicans, elite colleges, and corporate affirmative action officers can eagerly embrace a society free of racism, sexism, and homophobia. It's even good for business! They don't need to give up anything. And they can boast, "We're now an inclusive society."

Best all, we can then pretend that in the absence of any identity-based discrimination, everyone gets what's coming to her or him, strictly by virtue of merit and hard work. But in truth, this new diversity has only masked a far deeper class-based inequality. In a perverse way, it even lends it a certain legitimacy. In this new world, all the poor, no longer victims of various "isms" might even be respected. But as the author puts it, how does a poor person benefit from respecting his poverty? Perhaps as in "I love what you've done with your shack!"

Finally, are the goals of diversity and equality mutually exclusive. No. We should do both. But I fear the diversity issue is threatening to obscure and trump the most life determining and if understood, the most politically clarifying division in our country. Our poor are still poor, workers are still exploited and family incomes continue to stagnate or decline. All these newly "respected" identities continue to suffer the humanity denying indignities that flow from egregious income and wealth inequality.

Gary Olson,Ph.D.is chair of the Political Science Department at

Moravian College in Bethlehem , PA. Contact: olson@moravian.edu