Diversity vs. Economic Justice

DIVERSITY vs. ECONOMIC JUSTICE….Walter Benn Michaels thinks that liberals have become too obsessed with “diversity.” Why? Because, he says, “celebrating diversity” is easy and makes us feel good ? we’re fighting racism! and sexism! and homophobia! ? while doing what we should be doing is hard and makes us feel tired.

And what is it that we should be doing? Reducing income inequality and helping the poor:

?The last few decades,? as The Economist puts it, ?have seen a huge increase in inequality in America.? The rich are different from you and me, and one of the ways they?re different is that they?re getting richer and we?re not. And while it?s not surprising that most of the rich and their apologists on the intellectual right are unperturbed by this development, it is at least a little surprising that the intellectual left has managed to remain almost equally unperturbed. 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 30 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 be solved if we just appreciated the poor. From the economic standpoint, however, what poor people want is not to contribute to diversity but to minimize their contribution to it ? they want to stop being poor. Celebrating the diversity of American life has become the American left?s way of accepting their poverty, of accepting inequality.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for this point of view. Partly, no doubt, this is because I’m a straight, middle-class white guy and have never had to personally worry about issues of race or gender or sexual orientation. However, despite the fact that in calmer moments I realize that $10 billion ? the number Michaels quotes as the size of the “diversity industry” ? is actually a fairly modest figure, it’s also true that it’s dispiritingly easy to dig up stories about the excesses of identity politics that are either absurd or horrifying, depending on your temperament, and I confess that I sometimes find them absurd and horrifying.

That said, though, the main reason I sympathize with Michaels is not that I’m seriously bent out of shape about identity politics. It’s because, like him, I’m pretty intensely convinced that our economic system has recently gotten way out of whack: for the past 30 years the American economy has grown robustly, but the fruits of that growth have been directed by the well-off almost exclusively to themselves. If we had done nothing more over the past three decades than simply grow everyone’s income at roughly the same rate, then the rich would be richer, the middle class would be richer, and the poor would be considerably less poor. Instead, the rich have gotten fantastically richer and everyone else has had to make do with flat-screen TVs and Lipitor. In a country with an economy as healthy as ours, the poor and the middle class should be getting richer, but they aren’t.

So I have some appreciation for Michaels’ thesis. Despite that, though, I have to confess that I don’t really see much evidence for his main point: that the reason liberals aren’t fighting very hard for economic justice these days is because we’re directing all our energy instead to promoting diversity. There are other reasons for this lack of attention (post-60s exhaustion, the fact that the middle class has stagnated at a pretty comfortable income level, and the “boiling frog” nature of increases in income inequality, to name a few), and I very much doubt that mere distraction has much to do with it. After all, liberals have managed to continue fighting a lot of other battles just fine during this time.

But hey ? I could be wrong. Maybe identity politics really has distracted us from economic issues. Over at The Valve they’re going to be discussing Michaels all week, so if you’re interested in this kind of thing go check it out. Next Monday I expect to see a complete game plan for putting income inequality back at the forefront of liberal politics.