Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

One Trouble with "The Trouble with Diversity"

It is somewhat odd. You would think that I would be an aggressive cheerleader for Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble with Diversity. After all, if you proposed to take six ladder-faculty slots from Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Department and move two of them to Economics, two of them to Sociology, and two of them to the business school to hire people to really study the workings of the labor market, the intergenerational transmission of inequality, and compensation patterns within organizations--I would say that that would be a wonderful idea, and that it would make Berkeley a better university and the world a better world.

If you were to ask me who did more for the American minorites who are underrepresented at elite universities, and gave me a choice between (a) all the diversity deans in America and their staffs or (b) the neoliberals on the Clinton economic policy team who pushed through the 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit that boosts the collective incomes of poor Americans by what is now some $30 billion a year, I would have no hesitation in coming down on the side of Bill Clinton and his team--including, in a minor spear-carrying role, me--who changed in our own minor way not social consciousness but social being back in 1993.

I ought to be part of this book's core constituency.

But, instead, The Trouble with Diversity raises my hackles.

Let's dip into it. I flip it open, and land on page 85:

p. 85 ff: But the greatest value of diversity is not primarily in the contribution it makes to students' self-esteem. Its real value, as the widespread acceptance of affirmative action shows, is in the contribution it makes to the collective fantasy that institutions like Harvard and UIC are... meritocracies. For if the students at Harvard are appropriately diverse, we know that no student is being kept from Harvard because of his or her race or culture.... How, then, do some students end up at Harvard and some at UIC? Since the differences between them that produce this divergence are not (indeed cannot be) cultural (remember, cultures are equal), they are attributed instead to the merit of the individual....

This helps explain the popularity on campus... of affirmative action: it is a powerful tool for legitimizing their sense of their individual merit.... Affirmative action guarantees that... the white students on campus can understand themselves to be there on merit because they didn't get there at the expense of any black people. The problem with affirmative action is..,,, that it produces the illusion that we actually have a meritocracy.... [I]magine what that Harvard classroom would look like if we... [made] the [parental] income distribution at Harvard... look like the income distribution of the United States, over half the [current students]... would be gone.... Its no wonder that rich white kids and their parents aren't complaining about diversity. Race-based affirmative action... is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn't help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich....

Hence the irrelevance of Harvard's 2004 announcement that it wouldn't ask parents who earn less than [$60,000] a year to [contribute anything to tuition].... While this is no doubt great news to those financially pressed students who have gone to top high schools, taken college-prep courses, and scored well on their SATs, it is bound to seem a little beside the point to the great majority of the poor, since what's keeping them out of elite universities is not their inability to pay the bill but their inability to qualify for admission in the first place....

[...]

We like diversity and we like programs such as affirmative action because they tell us that racism is the problem... that solving it requires us just to give up our prejudices. (Solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more; it might require us to give up our money.)...

[...]

So on the one hand, we get affirmative action in universities, which solves a problem that no longer exists. It's their lack of family wealth, not the color of their skin, that disproportionately keeps blacks out of elite colleges.... The injury done to the poor... has taken place long before anybody gets to Harvard. But this doesn't mean that these solutions to fake problems serve no purpose. The purpose they serve is to disguise the real problem. We need, as I've already suggested, to believe that poor people aren't kept out of our elite universities in order to also believe that the economic advantages conferred by going to them are earned and so are justified. If going to Harvard is more a reflection of your family's wealth than it is of your merit... then, of course, the legitimating effect disappears. So the real point... the function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard...

I find that I cannot help but be annoyed by this.

I am annoyed by the shoddy sloppy neo-functionalist false-consciousness sociology. Perverse functionalist consequences that are asserted without supporting evidence are the "real" "purpose" of affirmative action programs. That's simply wrong in fact, and illegitimate in argument. It's taking 1970s-style cultural Marxism and eliminating the rational kernel while retaining only the mystical shell. Get rid of affirmative action in America tomorrow, and I guarantee that there will not be a great movement to tackle and repair the educational and other inequities and barriers that are driven by our Second Gilded Age distribution of income and wealth.

The primary purpose of affirmative action at elite universities is to partially--partially--counteract the steep differences in wealth distributions across races and ethnicities that our ancestors passed down to us, and give us as a society a chance to make full use of the talents and capabilities of the most fortunate and lucky slice of the rising generation of African-Americans, Hispanics, et cetera--not just of whites and Asians. The primary purpose is not to make the current cohort of students sleep more soundly.

The argument that Michaels is making is, I think, a version of what Albert Hirschman calls "the argument of the perverse effect" in his little book on The Rhetoric of Reaction: the claim that one's intellectual adversaries, are not just directing their efforts at low-value targets, but are doing positive harm. I see this argument every year when I teach Malthus. In Malthus's formulation, the argument is:

You Enlightenment liberals think your attacks on Throne and Altar are liberating humanity from the chains of superstition and ignorance. Fools! Break those chains and you will find humanity enslaved to its sexual appetites, population will rise until checked by famine and epidemic, and life will become even nastier, more brutish, and shorter than before.

Michaels's argument seems to me to have the same structure:

You twenty-first century diversity liberals think that you are reducing inequality. Fools! The more you reduce race, ethnic, and cultural inequality the more you legitimate and reduce pressure on the big enchilada, economic inequality.

I do think there is a difference between Malthus and Michaels. Malthus makes arguments and presents evidence. To counter Malthus's arguments--and I think that for the post-1500 period they can be countered--you have to engage him on the substance. Michaels, by contrast, makes assertions--where is the evidence? How can you respond? By saying, "Your father was a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries. Now go away, before I taunt you again"?

And Harvard's "irrelevant" policy of not asking for money for parents making under $60,000 a year? I think that there are 1,000 families today for whom that policy is not "irrelevant." It's $2 million a year.

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