The Trouble with Diversity: how liberals still love diversity and ignore inequality

Dec 2016

Last week, I received a link to an interview in the Chicago Reader with political science professor: Walter Benn Michaels regarding the 10th anniversary of a book he wrote whose time has come! And this is one I'll definitely have to get a copy of real soon.

In The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Michaels informs us that liberalism's single-minded obsession with diversity is a tool used by elites to distract from the greater evils of worker exploitation and economic inequality. He argues that social justice is perceived as served if the top classes at Ivy League colleges contain a percentage of women, black people, and Latinos proportionate to the population—ignoring the lack of opportunity for those who don't go to college. Likewise, it's considered a victory if minorities or women become executives at Fortune 500 companies, whether or not workers at those companies are paid a living wage. In other words, liberals are OK with inequality so long as it's diverse inequality. Diversity, according to Michaels, is the moral alibi for the excesses of the winner-take-all nature of capitalism. The Democrats' emphasis on identity, he anticipated, would weaken the electoral viability of the party because it had so little to offer the working class.​

A decade later, Michaels's ideas played out in the flesh during the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders, a socialist like Michaels, put antibillionaire class politics and the redistribution of wealth at the forefront of his upstart campaign, while Hillary Clinton downplayed economics in favor of antiracism: "Not everything is about an economic theory, right?" she famously said on the campaign trail. "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism?" The Clinton campaign's focus on identity over inequality was enough to edge out Sanders in the primaries, but she lost the general election to Donald Trump. The shocking victory of a buffoonish demagogue who employed a combination of racist and populist economic rhetoric throughout his campaign has led to a lot of soul-searching on the left since November 8.​

In all honesty, Bernie Sanders is only socialist or social democrat on three core issues: raising minimum wage, universal healthcare and a return to free or low cost public university tuition fees...but, at least it's a start. And a start down a road the centrist Democrats like Clinton and Obama have long forgotten on their way to collecting on favors done for corporate leaders while in public office.

Michaels book also points out the toxic consequences of focusing on race and other identity issues, while having no language to describe class inequalities later in the interview regarding whether or not poor whites vote for Trump because they're racists:

I have no doubts that a lot of Trump supporters are racist. But racism doesn't come from nowhere. Racism isn't like some kind of moral failing; there's a political economy behind it. When people attempt to think about what's caused their own economic situation, they get a bad diagnosis of it.

As racism and antidiscrimination have become more central to the moral compass of the country, what you get is an increasing number of white people who are committed and convinced that they're the victims of racism. Among Republicans, it's something like the majority of them who think they're the primary victims of racism.​

That's something I hadn't heard described this way before...but it does explain why rightwing rags like Breitbart and Daily Caller focus so intensely on using counter-claims of white discrimination in their arguments....they have no language for economic class inequality either...cause it doesn't suit their purposes! So, we end up with right and liberal left applying racial arguments on economic issues cause they can't or don't want to talk about how a small class of wealthy elitists are consuming larger and larger shares of the wealth/while everyone else is stuck in place or is losing ground to them. No wonder liberal vs conservative arguments go nowhere! They're two sides of a coin that refuse to question or scrutinize the capitalist framework our entire economic system is built upon.