Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Walter Benn Michaels: What Matters

What Matters
Walter Benn Michaels
London Review of Books


But it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

An obvious question, then, is how we are to understand the fact that we’ve made so much progress in some areas while going backwards in others. And an almost equally obvious answer is that the areas in which we’ve made progress have been those which are in fundamental accord with the deepest values of neoliberalism, and the one where we haven’t isn’t. We can put the point more directly by observing that increasing tolerance of economic inequality and increasing intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia – of discrimination as such – are fundamental characteristics of neoliberalism. Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics. The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by – they aren’t even addressed by – anti-racism or anti-sexism.

My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.

The recent furore over the arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ of Henry Louis Gates helps make this clear. Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too. The problem, as a sympathetic writer in the Guardian put it, is that ‘Gates’s race snuffed out his class status,’ or as Gates said to the New York Times, ‘I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere.’ In the bad old days this situation almost never came up – cops could confidently treat all black people, indeed, all people of colour, the way they traditionally treated poor white people. But now that we’ve made some real progress towards integrating our elites, you need to step back and take the time to figure out ‘who you’re messing with’. You need to make sure that nobody’s class status is snuffed out by his race.

In the wake of Gates’s arrest, among the hundreds of people protesting the injustice of racial profiling, a white cardiologist married to a black man put the point best when she lamented that even in the ‘diverse area’ where she lives (Hyde Park, Obama’s old neighbourhood) she’ll hear people nervously say, ‘Look at those black guys coming towards us,’ to which she replies: ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ ‘You have to be able to discern differences between people,’ she went on to say. ‘It’s very frustrating.’ The differences she means, of course, are between rich kids and poor kids, and the frustration she feels is with people who don’t understand that class is supposed to trump race. But while it’s easy to sympathise with that frustration – rich black kids are infinitely less likely to mug you than poor black kids or, for that matter, poor white kids – it’s a lot harder to see it as the expression of a progressive politics.

Nevertheless, that seems to be the way we do see it. The neoliberal ideal is a world where rich people of all races and sexes can happily enjoy their wealth, and where the injustices produced not by discrimination but by exploitation – there are fewer poor people (7 per cent) than black people (9 per cent) at Harvard, and Harvard’s not the worst – are discreetly sent around to the back door. Thus everyone’s outraged that a black professor living on prosperous Ware St (and renting a summer vacation ‘manse’ on Martha’s Vineyard that he ‘jokingly’ calls ‘Tara’) can be treated with disrespect; no one’s all that outraged by the social system that created the gap between Ware St or ‘Tara’ and the places where most Americans live. Everyone’s outraged by the fact that Gates can be treated so badly; nobody by the fact that he and the rest of the top 10 per cent of American wage-earners have been doing so well. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Liberals – especially white liberals – are thrilled by Gates’s success, since it testifies to the legitimacy of their own: racism didn’t make us all this money, we earned it!

To Read the Entire Essay


New Left Review: Walter Benn Michaels - Against Diversity

No comments: