Sunday, April 11, 2004

Affluent Action?

Walter Benn Michaels' article in today's New York Time's Magazine, "Diversity's False Solace" argues that while universities have achieved some success in the area of racial diversity, they are lacking in terms of economic diversity.

He's a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the catalogues at U.I.C., boast about being "ranked among the Top 10 universities in the country for diversity."

"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 meritocracites 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 Harvard because of his or her culture. And white students can understand themselves to be there on merit because they didnt' 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.

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 requrie something more--it might require us to give up our money."

Keywords: Affirmative Action, ECO110, ECO336