Several years ago while prowling the shelves at the campus bookstore across the street from my work I spotted a book with the provocative title The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. I quickly made a mental note of the book, vowed to read it, and then about 20 minutes later, promptly forgot about it. Then lo and behold, last week while stalking the shelves at my local public library there it was. Without hesitation I grabbed the book and took it with me. After finishing it last night I wish I could say the 2006 book by Walter Benn Michael was a great book, but to be honest, I can’t. Right now I’m scratching my head trying to decide if I liked it or not. And you know, I’m not really sure.
Instead of writing a political diatribe, fortunately Benn Michael’s takes more of an analytical “big picture” approach similar to what one might find in Freakonomics or the books of Tim Harford and Malcom Gladwell. According to Benn Michael’s, a professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago, our efforts to create a more equitable society by promoting “diversity” do nothing to address a more pressing problem in America, one not of race or ethnicity but one of class. A system as rigid as it is unacknowledged, class divides America between rich and varying degrees of “not rich” more than any racial differences in hair style or skin tone, or ethnic differences of language, musical tastes or cuisine. What good is an affirmative action program at an elite university such as Harvard when only the richest families can afford the best private high schools, the best tutors, the best PSAT and SAT prep classes and access to the best extracurricular community service activities that one needs just to be accepted at such an institution ? What good is it when agencies entrusted to fight domestic abuse are located disproportionately in more affluent communities, while studies have shown that poorer communities report seven times the rates of abuse ? In short, to quote the book’s author, “We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality”
Benn Michaels also raised a good point regarding religion in a diversity context. If we agree that religion is part of one’s culture, and to be truly multicultural one must agree that all cultures are equal, then what do we do when religions such as Christianity and Islam proclaim that they alone are the one true faith ? And what about atheism ?
While Benn Michaels raised a number of excellent points, and his writing overall is pretty good, for whatever reason or reasons, his book did not grab me. One must also keep in mind that while Tim Harford and Steven Levitt are trained economists and probably well-suited to critically analyze the world around them, Benn Michaels is a professor of English literature. One wonders if maybe he has strayed a bit outside his area of expertise. While I wouldn’t recommend his book, I wouldn’t advise someone to stay clear of it either. To me, the jury is still out.