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Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

Metropolitan Books/Owl Books • 2006/2007 • 241 pages • $23.00 hardcover; $15.00 paperback

“Diversity” has become a true sacred cow to many on the political left. The extent of the worship was displayed in the September 29, 2006, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which featured a 40-page supplement devoted to diversity on American campuses. At Washington State University, for example, there is an official bearing the title “vice president for equity and diversity.” The annual budget for his office is $3 million, and he has a staff of 55. No doubt about Washington State’s commitment to diversity.

The Supreme Court fell for the diversity pitch in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, saying that states have a “compelling interest” in obtaining the educational benefits that diversity supposedly provides.

A few people have stuck their necks out to criticize the diversity mania. Peter Wood, for example, took an unflattering look at it in his book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. He and virtually all other critics have been on the right. In The Trouble with Diversity, however, author Walter Benn Michaels attacks from the left. Michaels, a professor of literature at the University of Illinois-Chicago, isn’t so much upset with the infatuation with diversity per se as he is that its advocates have, in his view, been seduced into the pursuit of a false idol. Michaels is an old-fashioned egalitarian, and he sees the diversity crusade as a terrible distraction from what ought to be the central, overarching goal of the left—redistribution of wealth.

Here is how Michaels puts his argument: “Giving priority to issues like affirmative action and committing itself to the celebration of difference, the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity. So for thirty years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities—as if the problem of poverty would go away if we just appreciated the poor.”

Michaels isn’t arguing, therefore, that the push for diversity is harmful in itself, but only that true leftists ought to be out demanding more taxes on the rich and programs to help the poor. There isn’t anything in the book on the problems caused by our diversity obsession—such as how it undermines performance standards and breeds contempt for its supposed beneficiaries.

The book does manage to land a few good punches, especially Michaels’s well-supported argument that there really is no such thing as “race.” He also makes it clear that most of the people who are favored by diversity policies are not the least bit needy. The problem is that, for the book to succeed, it also has to carry two additional points: that government policies can significantly reduce economic inequality and that the pursuit of greater equality ought to be the supreme goal of people on the left. Sadly, the author makes almost no effort on either.

Like all utopian dreamers, Michaels assumes that the only cost of redistributionist policies is that the “fat cats” will have quite a bit less money so that the suffering poor will have more. Can it be that, viewing the world from his office in the English Department, he is unaware of all the work showing that welfare programs change the incentives of people in ways that undermine all the good intentions of their advocates? Perhaps so—there are no references to Charles Murray, for example. Nor do we hear anything about the consequences of income redistribution where it has been national policy. Britain relentlessly pursued egalitarianism after World War II. By the mid-1970s, that country was heading for economic ruin as both human and financial capital fled. The Trouble with Diversity, however, ignores all about the troubles with egalitarianism.

Furthermore, even if the leftist reader at whom Michaels aims the book agrees that diversity is the wrong goal, why should he agree that equality is the right goal? If someone thinks that the most important social change to work for is peace, for example, there’s nothing in this book to change his mind. It doesn’t seem to occur to Michaels that people on “his side” might conclude that his egalitarianism is just as quixotic as the diversity crusade.

Lastly, Michaels makes himself Exhibit A for the long-standing contention that many leftists care about people only in the abstract. He is honest enough to admit that when he sees homeless people in Chicago, he doesn’t give them assistance but just wants them to go away. It’s the government’s job to solve that problem, you see.

The only lasting impact of this quirky book will be to make its wealthy, leftist author somewhat more wealthy.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.