The Trouble With Diversity:

This is a very interesting book, written by a man of the Left (Professor Walter Benn Michaels) arguing that the current focus on "identity" and "diversity" has stripped the Left of its willingness and ability to fight economic inequality. He certainly has a point; the book brought to mind recollections of my days at Yale Law School, where many students spent immense amounts of time and energy on trying to encourage "diversity" policies at the law school, all of which would benefit the already privileged, while pretty much ignoring the rampant poverty surrounding them every day in New Haven. I also more generally noted a distinct lack of interest more generally in the sorts of "bread and butter" issues that would have occupied liberal students' forebears in prior generations. Regardless of whether one thinks that diversity policies are a good idea or a bad idea, it would be hard to argue that they haven't distracted the American left, especially at the elite level, from the socialist (or merely redistributionist) project.

The Drill SGT (mail):
Economic afirmative action gets a lot more support than racial AA does. Far more people feel that college admissions departments ought to give more preference to a poor white student or a Colin Powell (son of immigrants) than to Colin Powell's son (son of a General).
10.20.2006 9:21pm
WBM is certainly right, but what he bemoans isn't really the left's fault. It's the Supreme Court's fault for, in Bakke and beyond, only accepting "diversity" as a compelling enough government interest to justify affirmative action. (This is why Stanford Law's Rich Ford says that the diversity argument is one that the left was "backed into.") What's sad, to me, is just how *bad* the diversity argument is. There's just NO evidence that a racially diverse torts class (or contracts class, or corporations class, or water law class, or civ pro class, or admin law class, and so forth) has a richer discussion than one that's racially homogenous. And when class discussion is truly and necessarily perspectival (as it rarely is in law school), plenty of nonminority students are there to offer precisely the perspectives that we'd expect minorities to offer (e.g., that racial profiling is unjust and ineffective). Sure, there are instances in which it's actually nice to have a racially diverse classroom; I can think of no more than two over the course of my entire law school career. The virtue of diversity is incredibly exaggerated.
10.20.2006 9:54pm
Bottomfish (mail):
My impression is that the "diversity thing" didn't approach its contemporary intensity until the late 80's. This was at the same time that the Reagan administration demonstrated the value of conservative economic ideas, current welfare programs became discredited, and the general failure of socialist economies, most notably the Soviet Union, became apparent. Perhaps leftists, sensing the limitations of welfare statism and socialism, felt that a new tack was necessary, especially one that would buy a lot of votes. The diversity thing also lets a leftist discredit opposition thinking as "traditionalist" or "Eurocentric" or "dead white male" or even "racist" without having actually to disprove it. What the left really needs is an economic theory of its own.
10.20.2006 10:12pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
How can diversity in a state law school be a "compelling government interest" when some states have no state law schools at all? Obviously a state government can survive very nicely without running a law school.
10.20.2006 10:26pm
luispedro (mail) (www):
In many ways today's left is the old right. The old Left would be for a colour-blind society. The new left is more attached to culture, which is seems as sort-of hereditary (like the old right did).
10.20.2006 11:24pm
clinical student:
Not completely fair to accuse "many" students of Yale Law School of agitating for race-based preferences while ignoring the poverty of New Haven. There are a good half-dozen clinical opportunities, which occupy a majority of students, that focus on poverty in the city without regard to race. The supreme court advocacy clinic, the capital assistance project, and green haven prison project, for example, care not a whit whether you are lily white or darkest dark. They just think of these as being "vulnerable" communities. Some of these clinics could even be called "conservative endorsed," such as the community non-profit clinic and community business clinic, which help the small fry get incorporated, fend off excessive regulators, and get credit. The immigration clinic helps people of all stripes against the bureaucratic behemoth. Again, the focus is on helping the little guy against the state and multinational corporations, which used to be a goal the conservatives approved of. I have not read the diversity book: but I can assure readers that for liberals vulnerability is as viable a clinical topic as race these days at Yale and I would presume most law schools.
10.21.2006 12:01am
Scott Eric Kaufman (mail) (www):
For those who want to read more of Michaels, I created a reading list prior to The Valve's book event on The Trouble With Diversity (which Michaels himself participated in).
10.21.2006 12:14am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Clinical, I went to YLS from '88 to '91. There were certainly some clinics at least somewhat related to poverty issues (including at least one, the landlord-tenant clinic, that made things worse overall for the poor by discouraging anyone from developing or maintaining lowincome housing), but (1) the content of these clinics was faculty, not student driven; and (2) that doesn't negate my point that many of the students most concerned with "diversity" issues didn't seem to care much about income inequality, as such, unless there was an "identity" hook.
10.21.2006 12:53am
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
Athough much of WBM's criticism of "diversity" is shrewd, a great deal of what he himself says regarding race decidedly isn't, as I argue here and here.
10.21.2006 1:51am
Ilya Somin:
Regardless of whether one thinks that diversity policies are a good idea or a bad idea, it would be hard to argue that they haven't distracted the American left, especially at the elite level, from the socialist (or merely redistributionist) project.

I think that David is probably right, but that this "distraction" is actually a good thing!
10.21.2006 3:17am
Kovarsky (mail):
it's extraordinarily unfair to characterize yale students as being relatively indifferent to the plight of the urban poor that surrounds the university.

i know one yale law clinic orchestrated one of the largest class action lawsuits against a hospital in history based on (this is my recollection) yale-new haven's (hospital) insurance processing protocols for low-income claimants. it was a pretty well-reported incident, because it was yale suing yale.

yale has also made a conscious decision NOT to withdraw from the surrounding community by closing off the university, despite having readily available justifications for doing so.

perhaps the argument can be made that the yalies' focus on the school's internal diversity is in disproportion to that issue's importance, but that's quite a stretch from "ignoring rampant poverty." new haven is the subject of case-study after case-study in urban decay, from the failed urban redevelopment efforts of the '50s and '60s to the infamous church-street housing projects. and even before that, new haven was economically devastated when the invention of the automobile allowed more affluent families to move to various suburbs along the merritt and route 95.

the point being, the poverty in that city is overwhelming. and while the internal diversity-seeking agenda of many yalies may be offputting, taking yalies to task for not pumping enough energy into the community is not the way to go about addressing it.

by the way, i agree with the thesis of the book. i do think more superficial activity displaces effort that might be better spent doing other things. what i respectfully disagree with is the specific analogy.
10.21.2006 3:22am
Xanthippas (mail) (www):
I think the idea that the left focuses on identity politics and diversity is somewhat dated. That was certainly true going into the 90's, but I think 6 years of Republican dominance at all levels of government has focused not only Democrats, but the left in general. And if you look around the "blogosphere" you will see considerable talk about income distribution and inequality that involves little or no discussion of race. I think liberals have learned that you won't win many Americans over trying to get them to feel sorry for ethnic groups that are in general poorer than they are; rather, you'll will them over by making them feel sorry for themselves.
10.21.2006 11:27am
Garet Jax (mail):
Prof. Bernstein,

I love you man, but is there anything you wouldn't blame on diversity? Is it possible that our focus on diversity is keeping us from finding the promised WMDs?

10.21.2006 4:20pm
Houston Lawyer:
I wonder if the "man of the Left" recognizes the damage that has been done to the social fabric of the poor by prior government programs designed to eliminate poverty. The "diversity" tack is now a way to permanently write racial discrimination into the law and to perpetuate racial grievances. The diversity mavens count numbers based on race just like the Africaners used to do, and with the same level of good faith.
10.21.2006 5:27pm
Bored Lawyer:

It's the Supreme Court's fault for, in Bakke and beyond, only accepting "diversity" as a compelling enough government interest to justify affirmative action.

Where in Bakke or any of its progeny is there any hint that economic affirmative action -- by which is generally meant giving extra points to someone from an economically deprived family, or from a poor school district, irrespective of race -- is Constitutionally problematic?
10.21.2006 9:30pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Jax, as Ilya pointed out, the left's distraction from Socialism is a GOOD thing.
10.21.2006 9:55pm
Commenterlein (mail):
Socialism == State or collective ownership of the means of production.
10.22.2006 12:29pm
dick thompson (mail):

Socialism therefore essentially means ownership of the people since with no means of production, the people cannot live. That is where socialism falls down because the people do not fit easily into all those nice little pigeonholes that the socialists try to put up there. that leads to conflicts and extreme differences in how the people are treated and eventually to things like gulags and concentration camps for all dissidents. Then you have the little problems of trying to do the state planning at a national level when the environmental differences and transportation differences and climatic differences are not properly applied so that you end up with spoilage and droughts and trying to plant crops where they do not grow well. All in all a real disaster for everybody.

Even when you try to apply socialistic tendencies to democracies they don't work out so well. All you have to do is look at the unemployment figures in Europe to see the results of that one.
10.22.2006 1:25pm
Commenterlein (mail):

"All in all a real disaster for everybody."

Absolutely no disagreement with that statement, or with anything else you said.

And because socialism is such a miserable system, and such a tragedy for the people trapped in it, it annoys the heck out of me when people like DB casually throw the "socialist" label around. Calling people who favor more government support for the poor "socialist" is simply wrong, it is emotional propaganda, and it should have no place on an academic blog.
10.22.2006 5:51pm
Based on my observations over several decades, I think that "diversity" is the best strategy ever for people who want to maintain a certain leftist chic without questioning their own advantaged position at all. This is particularly obvious among lawyers, many of whom seem to care deeply about how many minorities become law firm partners but who don't ever seem to ask whether law firm partners are overpaid relative to their contribution to society. (The fact that I bring this up at all should tell you what I think.)

The logic of the diversity position works if you think promoting a few members of a minority group into the elite somehow helps the group as a whole, either by establishing role models or through some more direct assistance mechanism. The case is less compelling if your social goal is levelling towards the middle -- trying to alleviate poverty at the bottom of society while simultaneously trying to reduce the excesses at the top. (I'm not just complaining about consumption excesses, either. The concentration of political and economic power in this country bothers me more than McMansions in New Jersey.)

The left does try to alleviate poverty in some ways, even if their grand theory about doing so has taken a beating in recent decades. It's their challenge to the top that seems to have vanished, not surprisingly now that so many are living there. And so we get diversity politics, which leads to a multicolored elite and an equally multicolored, but thoroughly alienated, lower middle class.
10.23.2006 10:52am
Person (mail):
I don't think the premise of this books is valid. The single group that suffers the greatest economic disadvantages in U.S. society is blacks. Race is used to conceal the essentially class character of U.S. society.
I believe that race and class are inextricably linked.
10.23.2006 9:12pm