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The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

reviewed by Jeff Sapp - July 18, 2007

coverTitle: The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality
Author(s): Walter Benn Michaels
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.), New York
ISBN: 0805083316 , Pages: 256, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

There is something about Walter Benn Michaels’ The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned To Love Identity And Ignore Inequality that reads and feels right when you begin the short introduction. Michaels believes that Americans love to talk about race and identity because they don’t like to talk [about], or even acknowledge, class. To distract themselves, Americans celebrate cultural diversity rather than address the difficult issues surrounding economic inequity. I like the short introduction. It’s the rest of the book that is problematic.

Michaels attempts to deconstruct current race theories that declare race as a social construct. He believes that we misunderstand race by making it synonymous with culture or identity. Culture doesn’t work because it relies on race. And what is identity? It is simply “acting” a certain way, for instance “acting black” or “acting white.” No, Michaels is sure that race is biological.

Michaels is perplexed by why the United States has a Holocaust Memorial Museum because the Holocaust wasn’t an American phenomenon. The reason, he says, is that Americans are fixated on crimes against identity and we see genocide as the ultimate hate crime against identity. He believes Jewish people are our favorite victims and this is evidenced by the many groups that do everything they can to emulate the Jews’ victimhood. To prove this he gives five examples: African Americans feel that slavery was a holocaust, Native Americans experienced a holocaust at the hands of Europeans, “the holocaust of women” involved witches in medieval Europe, AIDS activist Larry Kramer refers to AIDS as a holocaust, and last of all the cochlear implant, which may cure deafness, is referred to by deaf activists as a “cultural genocide.”  

This infatuation with victimhood leads to ludicrous things, in Michaels’ opinion, like anti-hate rallies on university campuses. Why are these ludicrous? Because in Michaels’ world it commits us to opposing a position that no one holds. “Why, in a world where most of us are not racist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racism is rare but that it is extinct), do we take so much pleasure in…attacks on racism?” (p. 73). The author believes that conflicts today aren’t over racism as much as they are over two kinds of antiracism. On the left we have multiculturalism that seeks to celebrate and honor our diversity. On the right we have Americanism that seeks to celebrate and honor the only identity that should truly matter to all of us, our American identity. What this ongoing battle does, though, is keep us from the real issue of economic inequality. The proof of this is that there is a U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian Institution has now approved plans for a National Museum of African-American History and Culture to be built near the Washington Monument. What we don’t have, says Michaels, is the National Museum of Lower-Income Americans.

What Michaels seems to miss is that genocide, unfortunately, does not belong to any one nation. Places like those Michaels mentions above are places where we remember inhumane behavior and memorialize those whose lives were cut short. They are about the human experience and they serve a purpose, that of urging us to action so that these crimes will not ever happen again. Am I not supposed to care about Darfur because it is not in America? Am I not supposed to act against this atrocity because it is not happening on American soil?  

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project monitors domestic extremism and has been doing so for several decades. In a recent article, Senior Writer Heidi Beirich (2007) exposed a California State University, Long Beach psychology professor as an anti-Semite and white supremacist. Professor Kevin B. MacDonald’s three-volume set of books on Jews and their destructive economic tactics are considered as important as Hitler’s Mein Kampf in white supremacy circles. Michaels’s naïve notion that “most of us are not racist” and that racism is rare in academia is simply not true.

The author doesn’t think race-based affirmative action programs for colleges and universities are effective either. Once again, Michaels believes that increasing racial diversity on campuses is just another way to make us all feel good about ourselves without really tackling issues of class:

We like diversity and we like programs such as affirmative action because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve and 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) (p. 89).

Besides, a university can’t actually bank on the diversity produced by poor students and that is why there isn’t a poor people’s history month, no special dormitories for the poor students, and no poor alumni reunions. The politics of diversity celebrated on campuses does nothing more than make people feel comfortable with their differences and feel better about their inferiorities. Affirmative action is a “solution to a fake problem” (p. 99) and serves to disguise the real problem of poverty.

Other sections of the book are about reparations, English-only, and religion. These follow the same lines of thought as those described above. They are all only distractions to keep us from doing anything about poverty and, above all, help us to feel warm and fuzzy about having done something good by dealing with our personal prejudices. Michaels states, “the commitment to diversity has nothing to do with justice” (p. 169).  Distractions, distractions, distractions.

The Trouble With Diversity is a confusing read. One reason is that the author revels in discovering and revealing the most farfetched examples and, even more so, on lampooning them. For instance, he writes about a CEO of a diversity-management firm that celebrates “diversity of birth order” and “diversity of thought” (p. 13). Then, in an attempt to execute “lacerating prose and exhilarating wit,” as the book cover notes, he states, “If it’s a little hard to imagine the diversity of birth order workshops (all the oldest siblings trying to take care of each other, all the youngest competing to be the baby), it’s harder still to imagine how the diversity of thought workshops go. What if the diversity of thought is about your sales plan? Are you supposed to reach agreement (but that would eliminate diversity) or celebrate disagreement (but that would eliminate the sales plan)?” (p. 13). This excerpt identifies another element in the book, that of an obsession with asides (yes, like this one). The book is riddled with them, and they are distracting. The “lacerating prose and exhilarating wit,” seemingly meant to be cutting edge, simply comes off as sarcasm that doesn’t work well in print.  

In an odd conclusion, the author writes in third-person about himself and comes clean about making $175,000 a year in salary, a salary that puts him in the top three percent of the American population. And, further, he confesses that his total household income is close to $250,000, putting him near the top one percent. “But he wants more; one of his motives for writing this book was the cash advance offered him by his publishers. Some readers will be tempted to see a discrepancy between these facts and the arguments against economic inequality made in the preceding chapters. But they should remember that those arguments are true (if they are true) even if Michaels’s motives are bad, and they would be false (if they were false) even if his motives were good. Not to put too fine a point on it, the validity of the arguments does not depend on the virtue of the person making them” (p. 191). But, well, it kind of does.  

The entire time I read The Trouble With Diversity I was reminded of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s essay on “Dancing with Professors: The trouble with academic prose” (2000). Limerick writes that, normally, when a person doesn’t understand what someone is trying to communicate, the speaker attempts to clarify by saying it more clearly. But academic writing is a different animal. She gives this as the common academic scenario:

Reader. I cannot understand what you are saying.

Academic Writer. Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.

The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say: "This doesn't make any sense," for fear that the response, "It would, if you were smarter," might actually be true

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language (pp. 333-334).

The book is two hundred pages of whining and offers absolutely no ideas on how we should speak about or deal with poverty, economic inequality, and class issues. And Michaels whines right up to the very last sentences. “When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural differences but on reducing the reality of economic difference. That is the heart of a progressive politics” (p. 203).  

Yes, there is something about Walter Benn Michaels’ The Trouble With Diversity that reads and feels right. But after reading the book from cover-to-cover, one will be hard pressed to say exactly what that is. I do agree with the author that economic inequity is at the heart of injustice. And he says this in the introduction to the book and in the last paragraph of the book. The rest is, indeed, one long lament. And there is no suggestion whatsoever as to what to do about economic injustice other than rail against multiculturalism. Michaels might have added a chapter on civic engagement because the book is the worse for no rally cry to action. Writing about injustice is one thing. Acting for justice is another. And action, in my opinion, is what is at the heart of a progressive politics.


Beirich, H.  (2007).  Promoting hate:  California professor is font of anti-semitism.  Montgomery, AL:  Southern Poverty Law Center.

Limerick, P. N.  (2000).  Something in the soil:  Field-testing the new western history.  New York, NY:  W. W. Norton & Company.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14555, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:17:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeff Sapp
    California State University, Dominguez Hills
    E-mail Author
    JEFF SAPP is a Professor of Education at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. He teaches classes on literacy at the elementary and secondary levels as well as supervising student teachers in the greater Los Angeles area. His research and writing involve issues of diversity and antiracism and can be found at www.jeffsapp.com. His recently published children’s book, Rhinos & Raspberries: Tolerance Tales for the Early Grades, just won the prestigious Golden Lamp Award from The Association of Educational Publishers, its highest honor.
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