The Trouble With Diversity

In the last post I mentioned a book titled The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels. It was recommended to me by my sociology professor in the spring, and it made some very thought provoking reading. As I said in my comment of the last post, the book’s point is that by focusing on racial diversity we lose our focus on diversity of class. In other words, by trying to alleviating racial inequalities we end up concealing class inequalities, which then go on unaddressed.

Michaels argues that those who advocate for racial diversity are usually those that are well-off, and they like to make sure they have people of color around to make them feel better about their sense of social justice. However, the problem with this is that the people of color are simply those of the well-off sort. As an example, he cites the enrollment at Harvard University. The vast majority of the student body is made up of children of wealthy parents, most of which are white. It certainly meets its color quotas and affirms the quality of a racially diverse classroom, but the students of color are mostly those that too are well-off! In the end, what you have is a racially diverse student group that made up of a homogenous class, specifically the wealthy. And if the anecdote spoken of in Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is representative of the Harvard experience, bigotry towards the poor is common from wealthy students who get A’s on their ethics tests.

If you ever have been poor or worked with poor people you will know that racial diversity isn’t a very hard thing to achieve. It is true that there are large disparities between blacks and whites in the percentage of who falls below the poverty line. Everyone knows about the plight of African Americans in this statistical regard, and most would like to see it change. However, what is obscured by the statistic is that there are more white people than black people that fall below the poverty line, numerically speaking. To be white and poor is oxymoronic in our social consciousness. For black Americans there is at least an “awareness” of the problem that the higher classes have, though that doesn’t seem to matter that much in of and itself. The white poor have no voice that anyone really cares to care about.

I’ve experienced this in my job. Here at Minnesota Teen Challenge, we have a very racially diverse student body. Our choir trips every Sunday provide otherwise all-white churches around the metro area with a few black worshipers in their services for an hour or two. However, we still have far more students from the lower class white demographic than any other.

Contrast this with a friend of mine who is a manager at a large grain company outside the Twin Cities. According to her there is a push for a more racially diverse work force. Certain opportunities for traveling and advancement come up, and those that fall under the African American category are consistently favored. Yet the reality is the one “qualifying” candidate who comes up is an affluent person of African decent who has had numerous opportunities and benefits above and beyond any the other middle-class white co-workers!

The trouble with diversity then is that we create a hegemony far more homogenous than we started with. The poor stay poor and the rich feel better about themselves.

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5 thoughts on “The Trouble With Diversity

  1. Chad says:

    Interesting summary Adam… Did the book give any ideas to possible solutions on how to change ? Of course, it may be something that can’t be changed and there is just value in being able to recognize the problem. I’m not sure…

  2. Well the mechanisms are in place to give people affirmative action (AA). The point of the book was to persuade those who do AA to prefer class factors over and above racial ones.

    However, there was some lament over the fact that poverty’s dibilitating effect on people. Even if AA placed them in Harvard, not very many poor people would have the skills to compete there, because what has been previously invested in them doesn’t give them the skills to compete.

    The point of the book was to take our eyes off of the relatively simple moral problem of racism to the more complex one of poverty. What is interesting about the author is that he is no conservative. He is a liberal who argues for economic equality as being part and parcel to a just society. What you think about that will largely determine what you think about the solution.

  3. Elton says:

    I think the concept of “economic equality” is actually futile because we are in a system based on differential incentive for the different types of work. This concept also vastly discounts the sinful nature of man where a tangible incentive is required to magnify himself more than he would on his own . Thus, social systems constructed to guarantee “economic equality” are usually enforced on a society by an autocratic ruling class.

    The promotion of social economic improvement, and the solutions therein, should allow an individual to choose to work harder for the additional incentive, rather than placing an arbitrary minimum incentive. The end result is not economic equality; rather, it is a process opened to everyone who wants to improve their economic status and settle at an economic level of their choice.

    Some are at their status due to injustice, others due to illness, natural disasters or war. Each of these reasons reflect the fact that we live a sinful world. We can set up private systems to allow people to get back up on their feet. I wouldn’t look to the government for this process since they can’t even run the DMV correctly.

  4. Adam said: “The point of the book was to take our eyes off of the relatively simple moral problem of racism to the more complex one of poverty.”

    I say: I don’t think you can disentangle racism from poverty or say one is more complex than the other. Although classism seems to receive less attention than racism, institutionalized racism is the underlying cause of much of the economic disparity (at least the disparity between whites and people of color).

    I agree with Elton that we should “set up private systems to allow people to get back up on their feet”, but I assume that people of color will get pushed back down pretty quickly one “on their feet”. Social mobility is a difficult for anyone, but because we live in a nation that systematically distributes privileges and disadvantages to people on the basis of skin color, I’d imagine social mobility is harder when you’re not white. The issue of racism cannot be addressed solely on an individual basis, while ignoring the underlying structure. (It’s like saying “let’s help people of color beat the odds and make it in a nation that’s not set up for them”…vs. “Let’s change the set-up of this nation so that all people can thrive here. )

    But back to your book, it does seem silly that diversity is sometimes about adding a special ingriedient to the mix, in order for a priveledged white harvard student to have a more complete educational experience. (Although currently that’s the only arguement that seems to stand up in court in cases about affirmative action in college admissions policies). But I suppose it’s true. Racial diversity (even without socioeconomic diversity) exposes people to diverse perspectives, increases their capacity for critical thinking, increases creativity, and generally benefits everyone in the organization. Of course this totally ignores the issue of justice.

  5. Elton says:

    Becky said:

    “I agree with Elton that we should “set up private systems to allow people to get back up on their feet”, but I assume that people of color will get pushed back down pretty quickly one “on their feet”. Social mobility is a difficult for anyone, but because we live in a nation that systematically distributes privileges and disadvantages to people on the basis of skin color, I’d imagine social mobility is harder when you’re not white.”

    I think I need to let commentators on Adam’s blog know that I’m a person of color (Asian) who arrived at this country as a poor immigrant in 1982 when I was 12 years old. I remember using food stamps as a teenager for groceries. We got off the food stamps within 18 months but stayed on a Medicaid for health care. My mother never made more than $6.25/hour. My father worked a small carpet cleaning and house painting business until 1990 or so, at which time, the business was undercut by other new immigrants so much so that it wasn’t worthwhile to continue. The most memorable job I worked on was to clean up after a 93 year old man who died in his apartment (blood, feces, urine, etc.)

    You can move up through hard work and nobody can tell you to not do so. I went into the health care industry and was able to achieve an income level over several years where I am now able to work 0.6 FTE. My wife is an MD who never worked full time and is currently working less than I. Her family story is similar to mine. We now spend more time with our twin two-year old boys then working. We already have the kids’ college tuition put away, own our newer cars out right, have a substantial IRA and yet live debt free except for our primary home mortgage. No, I didn’t win the lottery, didn’t cash in on the Internet bubble, didn’t robbed the bank, or had no rich uncle.

    I wonder if there may be studies on the disposition of Japanese American families who lost everything while being interned during WWII. I know more than a handful of families who had to completely over in farms or work menial jobs, and eventually worked out of poverty.

    Again, the point is that you cannot beat back hard work and the ability to save money systematically. Nobody (except for yourself) can tell you to not work hard. You may not get what you want right away but you may end up in surprisingly good places.

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