The feudal mix

In an old installment of the literary weblog The Valve’s book event series — where different writers respond to a chosen book (this one being for The Trouble with Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels) — Laura Mckenna wrote an interesting piece called “Where’s the Colt 45 and Jack Daniels?” .   It begins:

“Walter Benn Michaels writes that our devotion to diversity has enabled liberals and conservatives alike to ignore our country’s larger problem of class. He points to the American university which now brags about its multi-cultural student body – this part white, that part black, that part Asian, with a dash of some other groups. We pat ourselves on the back for mixing this cocktail perfectly and then walk away from the bar. The problem with the martini is that the liquor is all top shelf. Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?”

To be clear, I haven’t read Michaels’ book, which I just found about it through The Valve.  This is a reaction to the ideas that Mckenna brings up in connection with it.   Once I got past the notion that a bit more perspective might have made for less murky people-as-alcohol metaphors, I found she had some valid points–the kind that are too complicated to linger in the popular conscious.  A crux of Michaels’ book seems to be that, on the elite university level (as embodied by Harvard), Affirmative Action has mostly benefited the more privileged members of a given race.  It helps people whom, if they’re not already from the same places as Harvard’s traditional populous, have at least one parent who’s given them a solid foothold in that world.  I don’t think that’s to the latter segment’s detriment, but nor should it be to the detriment of the minority parent who has no such foothold but tries to help get their child through a school system that, by itself, may be little more than a requisite box to be checked off.

As McKenna writes: “The diversity principle doesn’t even achieve what it was intended to achieve, since poor students don’t have the SAT scores to get into Swanky School. Diversity doesn’t lead to the social revolution that Michael desires and in fact, may be a distraction from dealing with the real problems.”

Again, for Michaels, the big problem is financial inequality, but McKenna isn’t so bold (as Michaels can be) to think we live in a society where race isn’t a problem anymore :  “I don’t know for sure if overt discrimination is a thing of the past or not, but I do know that race and gender are not independent of class.”  I agree with that, and it compliments the message that Michaels speaks to, which is that, at many of our most prestigious institutions, the diversity that is trumped up so much amounts to having exotic versions of more privileged people.  While this is a generalization (Obviously having or achieving more resources doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t care about equality.), what’s fairly hard to deny is that it’s hard to have a vested interest in  something you’ve mostly been separate from.  Celebrations of diversity are relatively empty when, despite what we’d like to think, those who are most disadvantaged are rarely helped.

Another one of the Valve-hosted essays written in response to Michaels’ book is  one by Eric Rauchway, who came to a few conclusions about The Trouble with Diversity, including these two:

“So long as Americans do not object to economic inequality, but only to discrimination, an awful lot of us will remain poor—certainly many more than, in justice, should.

So far as this goes, Michaels is surely correct. So what do we do? The only claim I’m sure he’s making is, we should stop talking so much about diversity and we should especially stop short of the idea—which apparently has some real support—that ‘poor’ is a kind of culture to be appreciated, rather than a misfortune to be alleviated.”

Rauchway then proceeds to wonder what we should do, then, instead of valuing what Michaels sees as a shallow veneer of appreciation for things like diversity and people who are poor.   He cites some interesting ways that Roosevelt encouraged equality in his speeches ( He made it into a sort of national aspiration.), but since real equality has never been really reached, they’re just another interesting look at ideals that fall short.  Things that fall short, in general, rarely stay in our collective memory for all that long.

Away from Harvard(s) and back to the world-at-large — one where, as Mckenna notes: “Poor kids are already so short-changed that by the time they reach college, any program aimed at giving them a hand is too late and a dollar short.” I’d like to be much more contrary on this point than I will be.  Not all poor students who go to colleges at the other end of the spectrum struggle academically, but, even for those that excel, what will be lacking are the networks that privilege can provide.  And, in this day and age, that means even more than it used to.


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