Diversity's False Solace

New York Times Magazine
April 11, 2004

The university where I have taught for the last three years -- the University of Illinois, Chicago -- is a large, increasingly underfinanced public university. Our classrooms are overcrowded. Our physical plant is deteriorating. Many departments cannot afford to hire any new professors.

But as we, like other universities around the country, send out our final admissions letters this month, there is at least one bright spot, one area where we have done well and are poised to do even better. Seemingly every piece of literature that U.I.C. distributes about itself announces that we have been ''ranked among the Top 10 universities in the country for the diversity'' of ''our student body.'' And that diversity, the literature goes on to point out, ''is one of the greatest aspects of our campus.'' The bad news about our current condition is that you may be jammed into a classroom so full that you can't find a place to sit. But the good news is that 46 percent of the people jammed in there with you will be Caucasian, 21 percent will be Asian, 13 percent will be Hispanic and 9 percent will be African-American.

It is often said that Americans don't like to talk about race, but no remark is more false. The eagerness of other schools to produce their own versions of U.I.C.'s diversity figures makes it obvious that, in fact, we love to talk about race. And we not only talk about it, we also write books about it, we teach classes about it and we arrange our admissions policies to take it into account.

It is true, however, that we don't so much like to call it race. Students, faculty members and administrators often prefer to speak of their cultural identities. Unimpressed by the objection that -- speaking the same language, wearing the same clothes, reading the same books -- they all seem to me to belong to the same culture, my students speak proudly of their own cultures and respectfully of others'. Some might be taller than others, some might be smarter than others, some might be better-looking than others, but all belong to cultures, and all the cultures are worthy of respect. And that's the advantage of the idea of culture: it gives us a world of differences without inequality.

And the enthusiasm for such differences is widespread. When I asked a group of Harvard literature students about what distinguished them from a parallel group of literature students at U.I.C., they were prepared to acknowledge that the U.I.C. students might be even more diverse than they were, but they were unable to see the relevance of the fact that the U.I.C. group was also less wealthy. And this is equally true of the students at U.I.C. who identify themselves as black, white, Arab, Asian and Hispanic and not as poor or working class. After all, your ethnicity is something you can be proud of in a way that your poverty or even your wealth (since it's your parents' wealth) is not.

But the real value of diversity is not primarily in the contribution it makes to students' self-esteem. Its real value is in the contribution it makes to the collective fantasy that institutions ranging from U.I.C. to Harvard are meritocracies that reward individuals for their own efforts and abilities -- as opposed to rewarding them for the advantages of their birth. For if we find that the students at an elite university like Harvard or Yale are almost as diverse as the students at U.I.C., then we know that no student is being kept from a Harvard because of his or her culture. And white students can understand themselves to be there on merit because they didn't get there at the expense of black people.

We are often reminded of how white our classrooms would look if we did away with affirmative action. But imagine what Harvard would look like if instead we replaced race-based affirmative action with a strong dose of class-based affirmative action. Ninety percent of the undergraduates come from families earning more than $42,000 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) -- and some 77 percent come from families with incomes of more than $80,000, although only about 20 percent of American households have incomes that high. If the income distribution at Harvard were made to look like the income distribution of the United States, some 57 percent of the displaced students would be rich, and most of them would be white. It's no wonder that many rich white kids and their parents seem to like diversity. Race-based affirmative action, from this standpoint, 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 and that it's virtually essential not to be poor.

Hence the irrelevance of Harvard's recent announcement that it won't ask parents who earn less than $40,000 a year to help pay for their children's education. While this is no doubt great news to those financially pressed students who have gone to great schools, taken college-prep courses and scored well on their SAT's, it's 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.

In the end, we like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism but because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve. And the reason we like the problem of racism is that solving it just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more -- it might require us to give up our money. It's not surprising that universities of the upper middle class should want their students to feel comfortable. What is surprising is that diversity should have become the hallmark of liberalism.

This, if you're on the right, is the gratifying thing about campus radicalism. When student and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have. Diversity, like gout, is a rich people's problem. And it is also a rich people's solution. For as long as we're committed to thinking of difference as something that should be respected, we don't have to worry about it as something that should be eliminated. As long as we think that our best universities are fair if they are appropriately diverse, we don't have to worry that most people can't go to them, while others get to do so because they've had the good luck to be born into relatively wealthy families. In other words, as long as the left continues to worry about diversity, the right won't have to worry about inequality.

Walter Benn Michaels is professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago.