“The Trouble with Diversity” by Walter Benn Michaels
The foremost thesis that is being explored throughout Walter Benn Michaels’s book The Trouble with Diversity, can be defined as follows: the current governmentally-endorsed policy, concerned with promoting ‘diversity’ in just about all spheres of America’s public life, is being conceptually fallacious, because the actual effects of this policy’s implementation stand in striking opposition to its indented aim of ensuring people’s equality.
Whereas, the ‘celebration of diversity’ policy is based upon the assumption that the particulars of people’s racial affiliation do not affect their chances to attain social prominence, the unsightly aspects of this policy’s practical implementation, such as the enforcement of ‘affirmative action’ in America’s colleges and universities, reflects policy advocates’ endowment with rather extreme racial-consciousness.
As it was pointed out by Michaels: “Why does racial difference remain so important to us when the racism it was used to justify is so widely condemned and when the basic idea about race that gave it its power – the idea that there are fundamental physical and cultural differences between people that line up with our division of them into black, while, et cetera – has been discredited? (49).
Hence, author’s main argument – the fact that, as of today, the process of designing America’s socio-political policies revolves around the ‘celebration of diversity’, is meant to divert citizens’ attention from a truly pressing issue – the continuation of an acute stratification between the representatives of different social classes.
According to Michaels, it is not ‘visibly ethnic’ people’s exposure to ‘subtle racism’, which hampers their chances of social advancement, but the fact that it is being assumed a natural state for these people to remain poor: “While the gap between rich and poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities – as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor” (56). In other words, those who speak the loudest on behalf of ‘poor’ and ‘underprivileged’, while invoking the notion of race, create objective preconditions for the socially disadvantaged representatives of racial minorities to never break out of the vicious circle of poverty – whatever ironic it may sound.
Michaels argues that it is not ‘racism’ but ‘classism’, which appears to be the America’s ‘little dirty secret’. He comes up with a number of examples of how people’s low social status prevented them from attaining a good education, from securing a well-paid job, and from being able to provide a quality-upbringing to their children.
According to the author, even though that formally speaking, the ‘celebration of diversity’ appears an essentially humanist policy on the outside, it has been designed to preserve the current status quo in America’s public sphere – when rich grow richer and poor grow poorer. The reason for this simple – the assumption that people’s ‘ethnic uniqueness’ invariably affects their existential modes is utterly unscientific. This is something in which racists believe.
Yet, in an absolutely paradoxical manner, this assumption serves as the foundation, upon which a number of currently enacted America’s social policies appear to be firmly based. Michael concludes his book by suggesting that, in order for the Americans to be able to realize their full existential potential, they must cease being subjected to racial discrimination, under disguise of ‘celebration of diversity’.
While proceeding with his line of argumentation, which has been outlined earlier, and while supporting the validity of his claims, Michaels refers to a number of different sources. For example, while exposing the inner motivations behind the advocates’ of ‘diversity’ tendency to scratch the issue of ‘racism’, Michaels widely quotes from David Brooks’ book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.
According to Brooks, the fact that many White representatives of America’s social elite (yuppies) are known for their ‘progressive’ socio-political attitudes, reflected by these people’s predisposition to continuously whine about ‘racial injustices’, is nothing but a sublimation of yuppies’ perceptional and cognitive inadequateness. After all, it does not make much of a secret that White yuppies constitute the bulk of ardent promoters of ‘diversity’.
This, however, is not because these people are being particularly open-minded, but because by blabbering about the benefits of ‘celebration of diversity’, they strive to retain their essentially undeserved high social status. While being perfectly aware of the fact that, in today’s America, it would prove quite impossible for just about anyone to be able attain social prominence, without being proficient in politically correct rhetoric, White yuppies never cease exposing ‘racism’. This, however, does not make them less racist. According to Brooks, this is the actual reason why these people prefer living in secluded White suburbia, and not because such suburbia features ‘safer streets’ and ‘better schools’, as they claim.
Another author, which is being widely quoted in Michaels’s book, is Samuel Huntington. According to Huntington, the specifics of people’s racial affiliation matter very little. What matters though, is whether these people associate themselves with the values of civilized/secular living, or with the dubious ‘values’ of often highly religious traditionalism. After all, according to this particular author, regardless of what happened to be the color of people’s skin, they can be classified as representatives of two globally defined opposing populations – the ‘agents of civilization, on the one hand, and the ‘primeval barbarians’, on the other.
Therefore, the currently enacted policy of ‘celebration of diversity’ cannot possibly be regarded as beneficial to American society’s well-being. The reason for this is apparent – in many cases, encouraging the representatives of racial minorities to celebrate their ‘cultural uniqueness’ means encouraging them to take pride in their ancestors being nothing but utterly primitive people. It is needless to mention, of course, that there can be hardly any positive effects to this.
For example, as it was mentioned by Huntington, it now represents a commonplace practice in Canada for ethnic Sikhs to be allowed to carry concealed ‘ceremonial’ daggers in public, simply because carrying huge daggers 24/7 is an essential part of these people’s ‘cultural identity’. As a result, the rest of Canadian society’s members strive not to socialize with Sikh immigrants (one can never know when they may decide to put their daggers to use). The ultimate consequence of this is that, even the children of Sikh immigrants continue to remain socially alienated, which in turn impedes their chances of social advancement.
While exposing the sheer fallaciousness of ‘celebration of diversity’ policy, Michaels also refers to the speeches of Malcolm X. Throughout the course of his life, Malcolm X never ceased promoting an idea that, in order for the African-Americans to be able to attain a true equality with Whites, they should never allow Whites to patronize them.
Therefore, there can be little doubt as to the fact that, had Malcolm X been alive, he would strongly oppose the implementation of the ‘affirmative action’ policy, because this policy is nothing but the most blatant example of how White people go about patronizing Blacks. After all, this policy is based upon the premise that the representatives of racial minorities are being in no position to compete with Whites fairly, which is why they need to be given a ‘slack’ – an extremely racist idea.
I think that the way in which Michaels engages with the outside sources, to support the legitimacy of his book’s main idea, can be best defined as rather effective. It is not only that he was able illustrate the counter-beneficial effects of ‘celebration of diversity’ policy’s implementation, but he also succeeded in exposing the essentially ‘classist’ roots of this policy.
However, there is one important shortcoming to the line of argumentation, deployed by Michaels throughout his book – the fact that, while suggesting that there is no such a thing as ‘race’, he never bothers to support this claim by making references to the relevant academic literature. In its turn, this undermines the overall soundness of Michaels’s arguments.
Obviously enough, it never occurred to him that; whereas, it does not make much of a sense to discuss the socio-political and legal implications of one’s racial affiliation, denying the validity of ‘race’, as biological concept, is being just as erroneous. After all, it has long ago been proven that one’s race is not being solely concerned with the color of his or her skin, but also with the specifics of how a particular individual tends to assess the surrounding reality. Therefore, even though Michaels’s book does represent a high discursive value, it would be wrong to suggest that The Trouble with Diversity should be read uncritically.
Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Print.
Huntington, Samuel.”The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (1993): pp. 22-49. Print.
Michaels, Walter Benn. The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006. Print.
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