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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, Freedom, and Moral ResponsibilityAging, 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Seemingly, there is a consensus across the spectrum that diversity is inherently virtuous. Initially, it had a niche market of professors and independent filmmakers. Then the appeals broadened to more mainstream culture. Now the most pro-corporate administration and anti-labor corporation insist on having anyone who is not a White male, front-and-center, when their policies demand advocates.
On the surface, this phenomenon may appear as nothing more than recycling what 40 years ago was dismissed as tokens. Walter Benn Michaels in his book, The Trouble With Diversity, suggests that it's more complex. He contends that the focus on diversity distracts from addressing poverty. The author is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Near the building in which he resides, he regularly crosses the path of a homeless man. While not hostile, Michaels admits he does not even make symbolic gestures to acknowledge him, let alone help him. To those who suggest he is hypocritical, the author insists that the issue is not to convey respect for the homeless culture. It is to provide people with homes.
Michaels has three general goals presented in 200 pages across six broad chapters. The first is that the "repudiation of racism and biological essentialism" has been misguided. The second is that, by accident or design, obsessive focus on 'culture' distracts from differences that we are less comfortable with, such as why some of us are much wealthier than others, or at the other end, far less educated. His last goal is an attempt to shift the focus from cultural diversity to economic equality with the hope that it will eventually lead to something more fair and just.
References to how and why we are endeared to culture are sprinkled throughout. Some are literary references by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Phillip Roth. Others are historical, such as how courts and the general population have defined race, like the profoundly influential rule of 'one-drop'. Most are contemporary. These include how, or if, the disabled should assimilate (Some with impaired hearing are opposed). Assimilation issues also apply to whether the United Nations should make attempts to preserve 'indigenous' cultures and languages. He also observes that Gay Pride parades are better attended than ones are on Labor Day. He seems to surmise that, unlike union wages, same sex marriage will never raise prices at The Gap.
Subsequently, he strongly distinguishes "identity" from "ideology". The former relates to how we define ourselves, such as race, nationality or some other patriotic allegiance ('My country! Right or wrong!'). The latter relates to a belief system, such as lifestyle or the kind of society we value. Ideology also includes beliefs about economics, politics, and religion. He adds that there is generally less sorrow attached to a loss of beliefs than cultural identity (". . . changing one's beliefs irreducibly involves the sense that the new beliefs are better than the old ones-- after all, the new beliefs are ones that now seem to you right and the old ones seem wrong; that's why you changed them--it makes no logical and not much emotional sense to mourn the passing of the old beliefs."). He believes that one's race or gender, in which there is little choice, are less likely to predict behavior of those in power than religion. Adhering to the Bible, Koran, or self-help books can influence policies related to distribution of condoms, stem cell research or whether government officials feel morally obligated to provide shelter for all their citizens ("So although it's no doubt true that we shouldn't hate anyone, treating Christians or atheists with contempt is not the same a treating black people with contempt; even if we hate Christians or atheists, we hate them for what they believe, not for who they are."). With more audacity, he questions whether all cultural traditions innately merit respect, such as ones romanticizing segregation in the South, or advocating genital mutilation, be they African tribes or the Jewish faith.
Michaels provides some useful history as to how the meaning and focus of diversity has shifted. Prior to the Supreme Court's Bakke decision(1978), there was a focus on how many college applicants should be selected from particular regions or communities(such as urban or rural). Thereafter, it "became associated with the struggle against racism." With the formal end of quotas, selection was ostensibly no longer a zero-sum game between various groups. Ironically, while Alan Bakke narrowly made his point and was admitted to medical school, the decision did not necessarily end race as an issue in admission. Rather, it compelled those who considered the relevance of race to be more sophisticated in their process of recruitment and selection. Therefore, while the immediate result was for Bakke's favor, this successful plaintiff led to an effect that was probably unintended: A color-blind society was no longer viewed as the panacea for racism. Rather, creating a diverse, color-conscious society was ("Instead of trying to treat people as if their race didn't matter, we would not only recognize but celebrate racial identity."). The decision also set the tone for hiring practices. On a broader level, it influences political advancement. For example, is Dennis Kucinich less qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Additionally, it affects how various groups are included and portrayed in advertising, and even who appears in the background of movie scenes.
In his own academic circles, he contends that it is not only taboo to suggest there are physiological differences between races, it is becoming equally forbidden to suggest that such a concept of race even exists. Therefore, how can diversity advocates support their cause at the same time contending that we are all the same, genetically or otherwise? He contends that they swerve around this by proclaiming all differences cultural. Consequently, it is not brazenly declared that Blacks are athletically superior or that Whites are intellectually superior. Instead, basketball is celebrated as a major aspect of African-American culture or the study ethic as an equal one in Jewish-American culture. Semantic gymnastics amuse him ("We can only say what counts as white or black or Jewish culture if we already know who whites and blacks and Jews are.").
Therefore, while celebrating identity/diversity may be touted as an extraordinary social achievement, it may not be much more than a cross-cultural code of etiquette that diminishes the will to do much of anything for those of all identities who are struggling in ways that are far from symbolic. It is as though there is a pseudo consensus that the "political commitment to equality involves not creating it (by redistributing wealth) but just insisting that it's already there."). The author suspects an unspoken agreement between 'conservatives' and 'liberals'. Conservatives no longer oppose laws addressing discrimination due to race, gender, sexual orientation or disability (Compliance with EEOC is a lot cheaper than providing health insurance). When enforcement is getting lax, the latter will simply call them on it. This is exemplified in the recent sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. The nation's largest employer is accused of paying women less than men for the same duties. If the suit is won, liberals will declare that they have ended the mistreatment of women, while conservatives will declare the issue "settled". There is another issue as to whether take-home pay of $1400.00 a month is sufficient for employees of either gender (or race, culture, etc.) to raise a family. But that one has been dramatically pushed off the table.
Obviously, Michaels questions whether women and persons of color as cabinet secretaries, on campuses, and in mutual fund ads is tantamount to a just society. While his remedies for an unjust society are not lengthy, some are notable. He focuses on the educational system and how it is funded, and suggests that school funding would be more equitable were it less dependent on property taxes. While Michaels challenges the premise of Whites keeping children of color from a quality education , he does not question one about affluent parents not wanting to subsidize the education of poor children, especially in someone else's district.
This book's sharp focus on poverty has some respectable forerunners, such as David Shipler, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Thomas Frank. However, Michaels is the first to contend that diversity and economic justice do not always converge, and sometimes diverge. The Trouble With Diversity is not for the impatient. The considerable (and sometimes obscure) examples used to support the thesis are presented in a casual and scenic fashion where the direction is not always certain. It could be helpful to also read it casually, and then reread for clarity. But this patience is rewarded, because the examples enliven us on their own, and most succeed in supporting the three goals previously mentioned. Michaels is proper in questioning whether all that ails us is due to the shuffling of identity cards, and whether the remedy is to simply reshuffle. While the alternatives provided are limited, this may compel readers to develop their own proposals to help others based more on what they need, and less on what they are called.
© 2007 Eric Lindquist
Eric Lindquist, LCPC, CADC has worked in mental health for 18 years. His employment has included a group home and psychiatric hospital. For the past 12 years, he has worked in an outpatient setting in Chicago, where he also resides