ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lian is a sophomore majoring in Biomedical Engineering and minoring in Sculpture. She is the Mechanical Lead for USC Aerial Robotics and works in a research lab studying the regenerative properties of zebrafish hearts. She is an avid soccer player who also coaches a middle school girls’ soccer team in the USC neighborhood. She plans to go to graduate school and work in the field of engineering developing medical devices.
Strong beliefs can be a dangerous thing. While some beliefs can create hope, others act as invisible barriers preventing forward progress. With regards to issues such as race and poverty, unquestioned ideas halt society in its tracks. For example, the “American Dream,” the mentality that anyone can get rich with hard work and perseverance, is an accepted idea that actually prevents the poor from getting the help they need to move out of poverty. Although success can sometimes be gained through hard work, there are other unaccounted-for factors that determine one’s achievements and it is not always easy to pinpoint what these factors are. Although most people, mainly white, well-paid Americans, do not like to admit this, race does play a role in defining what one can attain. However, it can also be argued that this connection does not exist and, furthermore, that emphasizing race prevents society from dealing with the real issue of poverty. In The Trouble with Diversity, Walter Michaels advocates the latter way of thinking, in addition to the idea that, while celebrating diversity can aid the fight against racism, focusing on race is ultimately detrimental when applied to other issues. While his arguments are valid, Michaels fails to acknowledge the more complex connections between race and poverty, as well as how blame factors into society’s willingness to assist the poor.
Given that people of different races are still not treated equally, racism can arguably be fixed by a change in people’s attitudes, resulting in an acceptance of differences. This change is “the concept of diversity… the commitment to [which] became deeply associated with the struggle against racism” (Michaels). This advocacy of diversity posits that, to alter racist ideas, a person need only change their own individual beliefs, rather than bring change to society as a whole. This makes race easier to deal with, given that stereotypes can be countered with increased understanding. However true this may be, the idea that racism stems from ignorance deems a celebration of diversity the best solution to racial inequality. What Michaels overlooks is that even though fostering an understanding and appreciation of other races is a positive step toward ending racism, it does not solve the entire issue. Race is still an issue today, regardless of peoples’ seeming lack of racist mentalities, evident in the fact that one race holds the majority of the power in our government, makes more money for the same job, and can afford schools of better quality than can people of different races (Desmond & Emirbayer 186). Because of this, Michaels’ assertions that we should move on to more pressing issues because racism is close to being solved, if not already, is invalid.
To truly celebrate diversity, all traits that make one diverse must be equally desirable, with race being just one of such traits. Michaels brings up the problem that, in commemorating our differences, we make the assumption that one characteristic is not better than the other and that such an assumption can be made with regards to race. On the surface, it is accepted that all races are equal and, therefore, such characteristics can be celebrated and viewed as a source of pride. In reality, however, people of different races are not treated the same; therefore, “celebrating the diversity of American life has become the American way… of accepting inequality” (Michaels). Michaels proposes that all of society’s focus on the positive aspects of diversity creates a blind spot regarding the underlying problems that revolve around a challenging change of attitude. Considering the flaws in implementing diversity as the solution to race, it is clear that this strong belief, especially when applied to other issues like class, can only be detrimental.
With the blind acceptance and excitement for celebrating differences, other problems are being forgotten. While Michaels does not deny that acknowledging racial identity can have a positive effect on society, he brings up the question of how far one can and should go in simply accepting how things are. He points out the extreme cases, emphasizing that “we don’t think black people should want to stop being black; why do we assume the deaf want to hear?” (Michaels). Furthermore, when this concept is applied to poverty, it suggests that we should not assume that the poor do not want to be poor. It also implies that having poverty will contribute to society, because we can all learn from each other’s differences. However, unlike race, being poor and being rich are not equal. Michaels conveys the idea that poor people want to “minimize their contribution to [diversity] – they want to stop being poor,” showing that, while someone may be proud to represent their racial culture, most people would not be happy being the token poor person.
While diversity can be beneficial, teaching people to blindly accept all differences implies that diversity is unquestionably good, which suggests that there should always be poor people or society would lose a unique point of view. This, in turn, creates an incentive to avoid the issue of economic inequality. Michaels goes to the extreme, suggesting that a “commitment to diversity is at best a distraction… that prevents us from putting equality at the center of the national agenda” (Michaels). In society’s love of diversity, it is easy to forget about differences that are not so easily fixed. Furthermore, Michaels treats race and poverty as two separate entities, rather than seeing that one often affects the other. For example, Caucasians are the majority of people who graduate from prestigious universities and hold jobs that require such degrees (Desmond & Emirbayer 181). Given that education level usually correlates with salary, this links employment to race. It has also been shown that, for the same job, nonwhites make less money than whites (Desmond & Emirbayer 178). In addition, since poverty, unlike race, stems from a variety of complex factors, the solution cannot be pinpointed to one controllable source.
Our ability to deal with economic inequality is partially hindered by the American ideal that anyone can be rich if they only try hard enough. While this strong belief gives hope to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, it is a false hope because social mobility in America is rare (Desmond & Emirbayer 174). Furthermore, implicit in this belief is a message that poverty is self-perpetuated. Blame creates a sense of resentment towards the poor, as they are perceived as unworthy of receiving help because it is believed that they have done nothing to improve their situation. Michaels furthers this issue of blame by narrowing the problem, noting that people “think of inequality as a consequence of our prejudices rather than as a consequence of our social system.” While this is true, it fails to acknowledge the role of race in such prejudices as well as the stereotypes that link race and poverty. The poor are sometimes seen as freeloaders who lack a strong work ethic; the consequence of which is that society feels no accountability for resolving poverty so it continues unchecked (Desmond & Emirbayer 192). Much of the resistance to dealing with economic inequality deals with blame, which, Michaels argues, results from how we have dealt with race. Historically, race relations have been less than ideal; between African-Americans and whites alone, the past is full of turmoil. Therefore, it can be reasoned that “the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or justify it,” (Michaels). This reinforces our desire to believe in the feasibility of the “American Dream,” which, in turn, disinclines us from wanting to help those in need, given the belief that people who are poor deserve to be so. People like to believe that they are solely responsible for their own success, that nothing was handed to them and that their wealth is a result of their hard work. The other side of this argument is that those who are not well off are poor because they are unmotivated and therefore their poverty is justified. This blame, in addition to the blind acceptance of how things are, masks the real issues related to economic class.
While the diversity approach to race is ineffective for addressing poverty, the two are connected because of race-influenced economic standing. If we, as a society, truly acknowledge the economic issues, significant actions would be required. However, the true sources of the problem are often unclear. Being wealthy can be attributed to many different sources: class, as determined by a person’s wealth, is clearly affected by a person’s job, which in turn is dictated by a combination of opportunity and education. For example, one’s family could be rich or someone could have a high paying job; the former is inheritance, whereas the latter is usually the direct result of a good education, which is becoming increasingly difficult to afford if your family is not economically advantaged. In trying to combat poverty, all of these factors must be taken into account. Furthermore, the support system that one does or does not have also plays an important role in helping to keep people from slipping into decline. Frequently, having these types of support structures relates to race. A key flaw in Michaels’ argument is his claim that racism and poverty are separate entities. Given that the majority of people in positions of power are white, they are in the best position to offer jobs to their friends and family, who are usually also white (Desmond & Emirbayer 181). In addition, the issue of race even plays into the general process of being hired for entry-level work. Minorities are hired less often than whites due to employers’ stereotypes about their race (Desmond & Emirbayer 180). Based on this strong connection between race and economic standing, it is clear that the two are intertwined and can therefore not be viewed in isolation.
Even though diversity and poverty are related, addressing one does not solve the other. Making the assumption that working to end discrimination will also end poverty inadvertently reinforces the stereotype that all minorities are poor. Since this is not true, targeting racism also does not completely deal with economic inequalities, although it may help. Programs like affirmative action that have been implemented to help minorities tend to only assist those that are already at the top of their minority group (Desmond & Emirbayer 198). This gives the false impression that, because race and poverty can be linked, a diverse student body at a university means that everyone has equal opportunity regardless of class. This is a tokenistic idea that assumes that, because some individuals “made it,” all minorities have the same opportunities to do the same. While race and poverty are undoubtedly related and must be examined in this light, the solutions to one may be ineffective for addressing the other, given their different notions of equality.
It is clear from everyday life that race and poverty are still prevalent issues. As Michaels argues, while the tool of diversity can be effective in combating racism, it is detrimental when addressing economic injustice if one does not also acknowledge additional factors that contribute to poverty. Michaels falters in his assertion that only one of the two can be focused on at a time, forgetting that they are, in fact, very much interrelated. While much progress has been made, society still lacks the understanding needed to effectively deal with racism and economic inequality. However, by gaining deeper insight into the flaws of our current understanding, the benefits of the solutions we present will inevitably enable progress.
Desmond, Matthew, and Mustafa Emirbayer. Racial Domination, Racial Progress. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
Michaels, Walter. “The Trouble With Diversity.” The American Prospect, 13 August 2006. Web. 21 February 2013.