The Trouble with The Trouble With Diversity, and the Trouble with That, to Boot

In n+1, Bruce Robbins reviews Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, which is followed by a reponse and counter-response.

Yes, there is trouble with diversity. But there’s also an obvious flaw in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, and it’s in the subtitle. Behind the blandness of that “and,” Michaels suggests over and over that the relationship between identity and inequality is somehow causal. We still have so much inequality because we decided to work for diversity instead. Or we worked for diversity in order to evade the issue of inequality. Or in order to feel ok about evading it. Or something like that. If and only if P, then not Q. One example of Michaels’s shifty sense of causality will stand for many. Affirmative action at universities like Harvard, Michaels suggests, “functions to convince all the white kids that they didn’t get in just because they were white.” Every white kid at Harvard knows lots and lots of other white kids who didn’t get into Harvard. Do they really need to be convinced that they didn’t get in just because they’re white?

According to Michaels’s reading, The Great Gatsby teaches that we are “divided into races rather than into economic classes.” This is despite the valley of ashes that divides the haves of West and East Egg from the have-nots of Queens. “We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty” (my italics in both). There’s a choice between two options, and we, like The Great Gatsby, have made the wrong one. As an historical account, this “rather than” formula is somewhat unpersuasive, to put it mildly. Michaels offers no evidence that if we had not chosen to champion diversity, this would have had any effect at all on inequality. Are we supposed to imagine that a powerful egalitarian movement was rumbling inexorably forward and no doubt would soon have triumphed had it not been tragically diverted at the last minute by a sudden passion for diversity?When and where? These are the sorts of choices (if you had to choose between X and Y…) that are offered to students in textbooks of philosophy. In history they don’t happen.

If you are thinking about historical reality, you will ask, though Michaels does not, about Other Countries. They too seem to have fallen short in the equality department these days, yet in most cases without throwing themselves wholeheartedly into a misguided diversity crusade. Recent history suggests that in the U.S., as elsewhere, there are probably much more potent reasons for lack of equality than an infatuation with diversity.