5 min

The trouble with diversity

Is celebrating all the stripes in the rainbow enough?

I knew the man as well as any of the other commuters. He stood outside a Chicago el station selling, for a dollar each, copies of StreetWise, the weekly city paper written by homeless people. He gets to keep a percentage of the price. The idea is that, by buying StreetWise, you give a homeless person a chance to learn skills that he might use to get jobs.

My finances changed when I became a freelancer, and I struggled to pay my bills. I was hard-pressed to spare that dollar. Yet, I persisted in guiltily handing him one every time I passed him; paying for something I could not afford. I never thought of myself as like the man outside the el. My education and sundry other factors–like the roof over my head–meant I could never see myself as poor like him.

And then one day he made what seemed like a nasty personal comment–not salacious or creepy–just mean. That comment became my reason to stop buying the paper.

My real reason for not engaging in our usual transaction was that I couldn’t afford it. But acknowledging that would have meant acknowledging that I shared a class identity of sorts with him. The truth is that I just didn’t want to admit to my poverty.

This is how inequality and poverty are lived in the US. Nobody claims “poor” as an identity, despite the fact that there are larger numbers of us every year and that the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider. Forty-seven million in the US, the world’s largest industrial and military power, live–and often die too early–without health care. As Walter Benn Michaels puts it in his new and important book, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Henry Holt & Company, $30), the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. Americans today work more for less than ever before, leaving many of us perennially exhausted in multiple dead-end, often part-time jobs, with no benefits.

But comfort beckons in the form of identity. You can claim any number of racial, gender, sexual, and ethnic identities when job hunting, but you can never simply state that you’re poor, really poor, in deep financial hell, or desperately hoping you’ll win the lottery or American Idol and quickly leap out of your penury. All of which might actually be better reasons for wanting a job in the first place.

Sure, we might proudly celebrate the culture of the working class, as is the wont in some political and academic circles. We might emphasize the dignity, hard work, values, the saltiness and saintliness of the working class. (We’re less likely to refer to them as “lower class”–horrors, there are no hierarchies here!) Reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina might be sufficient proof that you know what it’s like to be poor and queer.

In the US, diversity mandates have proliferated to the extent that there is an entire industry around diversity training. You can hire people to come to your expensive law firm or school and teach you and your employees how to be nicer and more sensitive to people of colour, the disabled, women, queers, and so on. Create a world without prejudice, we are told, and we can approach something like full equality for all.

Michaels isn’t buying that argument. Instead, he demonstrates that the rise in economic inequality in the US parallels a rise in the discourse of diversity. The Trouble With Diversity lays out the ways in which economic disenfranchisement has not only been obscured by the commitment to diversity, but actively enabled by it.

Even talk about class has become another way to turn the stark economic differences between people into factors of identity, avoiding any analysis of the systemic inequality that divides them. The sheer genius of the US-based mandate to diversify is that it turns even class inequality into an identity category.

Michaels writes about the New York Times series, Class Matters, which “started treating class not as an issue to be addressed in addition to… race but as itself a version of race, as if the rich and the poor really were… different races, and so as if the occasional marriage between them were a kind of interracial marriage.”

Hurricane Katrina was supposed to have opened our eyes to inequality, and it did show us the immense racialization of poverty in the US. But besides the occasional story about the victims not getting their money or their houses back, it’s a story whose real implications have vanished. In fact, it’s far more likely that the eyes of people in Vancouver, Calcutta, or Jakarta were opened to the depth of inequality in the US, while ours have remained shut to it. Meanwhile, we’ve persisted in thinking that race was the primary problem in Katrina, not poverty.

Kanye West said to the cameras at a telethon following the disaster, “George Bush hates black people.” Actually, there’s little evidence for that; his is in fact the most diverse cabinet in history. Some of Bush’s best friends seem to be people of colour, but they are certainly not poor people.

As Michaels writes: “We like blaming racism [for Katrina], but the truth is there weren’t too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so… This doesn’t mean, of course, that racism didn’t play a role in New Orleans. It just means that, in a society without any racial discrimination, there would still have been poor people who couldn’t find their way out.” Whereas, he argues, in a society without poor people (even a racist one), there wouldn’t have been.

In contemporary American gay politics, nothing signifies inequality more than the inability to get married. The problem with gay marriage as a monomaniacal focus of organizing in the US is that it so blatantly affirms that those who choose not to marry–or are in civil unions or domestic partnerships–simply don’t deserve the right to health care or benefits. Or, as one snippy young dyke once said to me at a party, “Why shouldn’t I be rewarded for my commitment to my life partner?” Her arrogance took my breath away.

So, when the gay marriage movement people go on endlessly about how Canadians and assorted Scandinavians and, oh yes, Spaniards, have gay marriage rights, and that this is proof of their advancement, they miss the point. If you’re a Canadian queer who gets divorced, you don’t lose your health care. If you’re a queer in the US whose loving life partner suddenly takes a shine to the prettier, younger thing she met at the bar while you were taking care of your baby, you’re up Shit Creek without health care, benefits, money, or possibly even a roof over your head. Take heed, snippy young dyke.

Consider a country where the gay marriage problem is solved. When gays got the right to marry in South Africa, queers everywhere rejoiced. But 40 percent of South Africans live in dire poverty and the rest are not exactly well off. Thirty percent of pregnant women in South Africa have HIV/AIDS. Nearly 30 percent of the country’s citizens, male and female, are HIV-positive.

“In 2006, 900 people died every day of AIDS-related illnesses because they did not have access to antiretroviral medicines,” writes Zackie Achmat, South Africa’s most prominent AIDS activist. Achmat has refused to take antiretrovirals until they are made available to the general public.

The South African constitution does not guarantee health care and access to free or affordable medications. In this context, giving queers the right to marriage means, well, nothing, given the scale of economic and medical inequality.

In fact, the disconnect between the symbolic generosity of the state toward inevitably middle and upper-class queers and its material stinginess to the poor has fuelled resentment against gays among ordinary South Africans.

And that’s the trouble with diversity; it’s often a social, cultural, and emotional response to economic problems which allows us to live in blissful ignorance of the inequality that surrounds us. It allows us to believe that expunging bigotry or prejudice, or granting extra access to a few, encompasses the entire field of social justice.