Questioning Authority: Walter Benn Michaels on Diversity

Author Walter Benn Michaels was on campus March 7 to talk about his new book, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Questioning Authority caught up with Michaels and asked him about diversity as it pertains to higher education.

QA: In a nutshell, what is the trouble with diversity?

WM: Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has become an increasingly unequal society. And as the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider, the commitment to a vision of social justice that preaches respect for difference as the fundamental virtue has become more intense. But the poor need money, not respect. The trouble with diversity is that it calls upon us to celebrate differences that don’t matter at the very moment when we should instead be working to eliminate the one that does.

QA: Institutions--like this one and countless other colleges--corporate America, and government at every level have invested millions of dollars to promote diversity. Have they wasted their money?

WM: No, I think corporations are getting what they’ve paid for; you don’t want racism or sexism or homophobia to stand in the way of finding the best people to make you the most money. From the neoliberal perspective, in other words, it makes a lot more sense to give up your prejudices than to give up your profits. Of course, colleges are a little different because they’re more interested in virtue than in profit. But neoliberal virtue works the same way as neoliberal efficiency--it too requires rich people to give up their prejudices instead of their money.

QA: You call American universities “rich people's malls.” Why?

WM: Because, over the last 30 years, as they’ve become more inclusive racially (or, as we prefer to say, culturally), they’ve also become more exclusive economically (which we don’t like to say anything about at all). Mount Holyoke is a happy exception to this rule, but in general, our elite colleges and universities today function as pass-through systems for inherited inequality--rich kids in, rich kids out. And the fact that the rich kids come in different colors just functions to legitimize the system, as if inequalities that aren’t produced by prejudice are okay. But they’re not. We should spend less time trying to diversify our elites and more time trying to reduce the gap between them and everyone else.

QA: How is higher education reacting to your claims that the working class is being denied a viable chance at attending college?

WM: Well, academics are very attached to diversity so I tend to get a lot of outrage. But the truth is, this isn’t a problem that higher education can easily solve. Most Americans are excluded from our best schools not because they can’t afford to pay for them but because they haven’t had the kinds of primary and secondary schooling that would make it possible for them to get in or to do the work if they did. So disconnecting the funding of public schools from property taxes would be a good start--as would a guaranteed minimum income and universal health care. But elite colleges and universities could also make a contribution by redirecting the financial aid they currently offer to rich families. Why should households making over $150,000 a year get more than $15,000 worth of aid from schools like Princeton, as they now do? Why shouldn’t that money--which comes from a tax-exempt endowment--go to fund poor schools instead of rich people?

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