Tuesday, December 5

On the value of diversity

So in what follows, I've assembled what seems to be an interesting conjunction of recent writing on diversity, specifically on what Walter Benn Michaels considers the false solace of our society's attention to racial and sexual pluralism to our inattention to issues of economic disparity. To wit, we have a new book by Michaels out on the topic. We also have the supreme court returning to the question of affirmative action in schools today. Finally, we have Christopher Hitchens on the eerie and sanctimonious way in which the media have decided that words like "nigger" shall not be uttered, in whatever context for whatever purpose.

Provisionally speaking, what seems to tie these together is the way in which our society has chosen to believe in education- rather than, say, labor unions or the socialization of industries, as in europe- as the promise for socioeconomic transformation. We basically want to believe that if we give children a level playing field, that innate differences in ability and willpower will allow the most worthy to rise in their station.

The problem is, of course, the persistent and undeniable evidence that our supposedly "universal" system of education does very little to compensate for the vast socioeconomic inequities into which a child is born. Thus the most elite private universities like Harvard are able to hand out free tuition to their impoverished applicants precisely because there are so few impoverished applicants with a prayer of getting accepted in the first place.

This allows us, as a society, to play a little game with ourselves - we get to feel morally and ethically righteous about our committment to overcoming prejudice and celebrating diversity, even while the vast and increasing chasm between the "haves" - destined to reproduce themselves in wealthy high schools and colleges - and the "have nots" - destined to continue on in the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Like the Lotto jackpot winner, we pick out the crazy longshot who manages to triumph despite incredible odds, and present him or her as evidence that the system is not totally disfunctional. And we use the time-honored tradition of blaming the messenger: as when John Kerry was crucified by all right minded people for having the timerity to suggest that those with high education and career potential - read, the "haves"- seem to disproportionally avoid getting shot at in other parts of the world, while making several times as much money without a hint of personal danger.

Why don't we get rid of race based affirmative action altogether, as well as private schools, and exchange them both for a system of class-based affirmative action? Since research has repeatedly shown that children from poor families need MUCH MORE individual attention and better teachers than children of middle-class families, why don't we bus all the poor students to the schools in the best parts of town and let the kids from the wealthest families make due with the rest?

If even the suggestion of such a change is anathema, it is difficult to see how we, as a nation, are seriously committed to an idea of equal opportunity for all. We seem, much more, to remain a nation of haves and have nots. A more color- and gender-balanced nation of haves and have nots.

-Andrew V. Uroskie