Tuesday, December 5

Love Me, I Celebrate Diversity

An Academic in America

So I am driving to work in my '98 Cherokee and in front of me is a gleaming, late-model BMW that must have cost more than I make in a year. The driver is a golden-coifed woman in sunglasses yakking on a cell phone. The rear window has a sticker: "Good neighbors come in all colors."

I get the message that driver is trying to convey: "You in that old car behind me. I am morally superior to you because I celebrate diversity, and, therefore, my wealth is deserved, as is your poverty." Somehow I doubt there is much diversity in her gated community, or her kids' school. I wonder if she thinks good neighbors come in all classes, too?

Let me be clear about my meaning here: I am not questioning the value of inclusiveness in higher education, employment, or housing. As an Americanist, I am familiar with the long history of slavery, genocide, and sexual inequality that has scarred our history right up to the present.

But I am also familiar -- by education and experience -- with our nation's history of class exploitation and the way that immigrants of nonmajority cultures and religions who are nominally "white," still bear the legacy of unequal treatment. My purpose here is to argue that academe can deal with its avowed concerns with social justice more effectively and honestly than it presently does and, in the process, it might be able to save affirmative action.

Sometimes white people (and some are much whiter than others) think that the rhetoric of "diversity" has talismanic power, as if it drives away suspicion of unmerited privilege the way crosses are supposed to scare away vampires.

By now every Babbitt in America has learned to celebrate diversity. People do so to signify that they are a good person, and, what's more, that they are hip, trendy, and "down with the program," even if the program is 10 years out of date. The head of the local chamber of commerce might even make air quotes with his fingers while talking about "changing the paradigm of white hegemonic domination." The rhetoric of diversity has become so pervasive that it is little more than another form of white noise.

So what happens to "diversity" when it loses its oppositional stance and becomes a ritual profession of faith at the core of the establishment?

As Walter Benn Michaels observes in his recent book The Trouble With Diversity, "Commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position that prevents us from putting equality at the center of the national agenda."

In academe, the word "diversity" still functions as a rhetorical trump card, always uttered with the tonal implication that the speaker is taking some kind of brave moral stand. But, these days, saying you support diversity has all the merit of standing up proudly, folding your arms on your chest, holding your head high, and saying, with a resolute air, "I don't know about you people, but I, for one, am opposed to terrorism." The speaker usually casts his or her eyes about the room, looking for the person who is not humming and head-bobbing with enough enthusiasm.

Such moments make me feel the way I imagine that people did in the McCarthy era when a speaker would ask listeners to stand up for America against godless Communists. You knew it was self-aggrandizing and oversimplified, but you didn't say anything either. After all, Stalin had killed millions. And racism is real.

One does not wish to oppose diversity, any more than one wants to have a nuanced conversation about pedophilia. To raise issues with diversity has become grossly déclassé. And that's the real source of its power.

Earnest concern about diversity, among affluent whites at least, has always struck me as more about class than race. Even 20 years ago, when I was just starting out in college, the theoretically inflected rhetoric of multiculturalism always seemed to me like an upper-middle-class affectation, like speaking French around the servants. What I learned as a working-class outsider with no relevant experience, is that, in academe, you had to speak a certain way and visibly approve of certain things to belong to the presumptive middle-class culture. If you didn't conform because you knew in your guts that the moral posturing was aimed directly against the interests of your class, you probably played along or kept silent because the price of the slightest misstep on issues of race would mean social and professional ostracism, particularly if you had aspirations to work in higher education.

Could you imagine someone with openly complicated views on affirmative action -- not conservative opposition, mind you, just ethical conflictedness about race preferences -- getting a job in any elite university in the last two decades? If so, that person probably had to fly under the radar until receiving tenure.

It seems strange to see people conform so absolutely to the academic establishment in a profession that celebrates subversion and resistance. But it doesn't take much theoretical sophistication to recognize power. All you have to do is think about what you are afraid to say. What kind of questions must not be asked? What kind of projects must not be undertaken? Whose interest does that serve?

Consider the recent allegations that the Educational Testing Service suppressed research that might have enabled admissions committees to identify "strivers" -- people who have overcome adversity -- which would have included large numbers of minority students (though of different economic backgrounds). Such a method certainly does have the potential to change the economic diversity of entering classes as well as racial diversity. It seems that higher education would prefer to see race-based preferences be shot down state-by-state rather than introduce selection processes that would aid poor Americans of all backgrounds.

Anyone who has ever been on an academic hiring committee has heard people say things like: "The last thing we need around here is more white males." Or, "We have to make sure that we don't accidentally interview any white males." And academic job advertisements usually reflect that position. As if there were not a vast range of diverse people simplified to the derisive category of "white." As if males could not have dependents who are women. As if there are not a great variety of ways a department can be diversified beyond the appearance of racial difference.

In any case, I have heard such remarks uttered by people whose elite status seemed beyond question to me (though perhaps -- if I had had more experience -- I would have seen that some of them were just exuberant conformists). But should I nod and hum in affirmation when people essentially say that I am not welcome (even if I do not regard myself as equally white), as if I didn't have to go through a long and uncertain struggle to get a foothold in academe? As if class, language, appearance, and religion, among many other variables, were not serious barriers that should be considered along with race?

It has always seemed clear to me that white elites have outsourced the hard work of their ethical positions to non-elites of all colors. To put it in Marxist terms, they are expropriators of moral capital. I would be impressed if one of them said, "I will step down from my position as a Highly Paid Professor to make room for three new assistant professors of diverse backgrounds." But to my knowledge no such offer has ever been made. In effect, white elites say, "not my job, not my school, not my neighborhood. Let the real work be done by someone else, but give me the moral credit. And if anyone disagrees, call them racist."

Maybe I am misreading that lady in the BMW, just as I might have misread some members of my profession. But when people who claim to be in favor of diversity actively help economically disadvantaged people of all colors; when they count people from China, Iran, Lithuania, South Boston, Camden, and Appalachia, as "diverse"; when they support the constitutional rights of people who disagree with them on ideological grounds, or on matters of faith; then I will believe that they mean what they say about diversity.

Instead, what I see is that race has become a proxy for all the forms of diversity that elite institutions can't, or don't want to, include.

I think most Americans of all races would agree that individuals of talent, who work hard but lack inherited privileges deserve some help, even if they do not belong to preferred minority groups. Any effort to truly diversify an educational setting has to take many variables into account, particularly class, or it will, in the end, become a magnifier of social inequality and a source of inter-group antagonism.

But perhaps that is the real purpose of higher education as it is currently organized, or at least that is how it looks to growing numbers of excluded people. And that's what people are voting against in states such as California and Michigan. It's about class.

In my next column, I will try to explain why I believe class matters, in addition to race and gender, for individuals hoping to enter higher education.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education