Let’s take a look at Walter Benn Michaels’ point of view on economic and social inequality in the modern American society, which he talked about in, “The trouble with diversity”, an essay he wrote in the New York Times Magazine back in 2004. It seems like a long time ago but considering America is transitioning under a new regime, it’s only wise we acknowledge the ideologies, perspectives, the point of views that gave rise to populism and nationalism.
One such ideology is the idea that diversity is not helping us. It is a distraction from the real and actual problems in society, such as economic inequality.
Michael argued that focusing on diversity has kept our eyes off the real problem; economic inequality. He emphasized that liberals in America have masterfully distracted the concerned public from the economic inequality present throughout the country by promoting and celebrating diversity as a means to addressing discrimination towards minority groups.
Lets agree, first and foremost that Michael has made a very critical point.
America still has not done enough to address economic inequality, which is an ever growing problem that is negatively affecting the greater portion of the country’s population.
And even though we are discussing America, this is a problem globally, country-by-country. But Michael believes that it is predominant in America mainly because we are distracted.
Michael basically took a risky approach; though he made mention of it, he failed to acknowledge the seriousness of America’s problem with prejudice and discrimination. Prejudices pose serious challenges to the American public and unless you are affected or have an invested interest, you are probably not going to think too much about it. But to ignore these concerns, undermines the significance of these issues and is insensitive at most.
But we’ll look at both concerns: the economic and social problems we have to deal with.
Firstly, let’s look at some Michael’s strongest arguments to address economic inequality. He pointed out in his essay that race does not exist to start with. This has been a proven scientific fact but according to Michael, the very people who embrace this premise (liberals) are also quick to highlight that race exist, instead as a social entity. From this standpoint, many in society have included diversity of identity and especially race, in every aspect of social institutions, from schools to corporate enterprises. Michael hinted that we have taken a greater interest in the ideas of race, sexual orientation, religion, just to name a few, than we have in the ills of class division and economic inequality. We have become oblivious to the fact that a small portion of the population is getting richer and richer while the mass is descending into greater poverty. Michael also stated, “But class are not like races and cultures, and treating them as if they were- different but equal- is one of strategies for managing inequality rather than minimizing or eliminating it.” (Michael, 677). To build on this point, Michael stressed that we are urged to be respectable to the poor and to stop thinking of them as victims, since to treat them as victims is condescending – it denies them their “agency.” … and so we can focus our efforts of reform not on getting rid of classes but on getting rid of what we call classism. (Michael, 681) The trick, according to Michael, which is intertwined in our modern social culture, is to view poverty as a respectable entity rather than something that needs to be eradicated. And one final point brought forward by Michael, that justifies his perspective is based on his claim that we have become much of an identity conscious society to the point where we leave little or no room to recognize the cause of economic prosperity. He said that the closest thing that we have to a holiday that addresses economic inequality instead of identity is Labor Day. He further elaborated that even the very purpose of Labor Day, which was originally intended to figure out how to build a stronger labor movement and make the dream of economic prosperity a reality, has been suppressed to the point where it merely marks the end of summer. These socially acceptable attitudes, in Michael’s perspective, has allowed the phantasm of respect for difference to take the place of that commitment to economic prosperity.
While Michael’s standpoint is agreeable in many instances, his approach is quite frankly, insensitive.
But let’s explore why Michael’s claim is nonetheless valid. Economic inequality is undoubtedly a general problem that is affecting the entire demography of the American population. Moreover, many Americans who are living in poverty belong to minority groups. This premise does make a good argument for addressing the problem of economic inequality. So entirely disregarding Michael’s position would be a mere shortsighted response.
But it is fair to hold him accountable, and others who support his view, in areas where he ignores the deeply rooted hate and prejudice that scourges the outlook of American society. Gays and Lesbians can still be legally fired in 28 states in the United States of America because of their sexual orientation and African Americans face the highest level of unemployment of any racial group. These problems bring to question, the credibility of our fight for equality.
If much of our population still cannot access the basic entity to economic mobility – Jobs – then we still have not worked on our economic foundation.
Discrimination is a bigger concern for more American who continue to face prejudice than economic equality is and while private and public institutions are taking an interest in bringing these issues to the forefront – however they see fit – their attempt should not be seen as a matter of liberal identity politics. Economic and social inequality are equivalent problems that are affecting the American population and as such they require an equal amount of interest. Minorities stand to greatest to lose in any plan for economic prosperity because they are still battling to secure their basic human rights. Until justice is served to marginalized groups, America stands a meager chance of accessing economic advancement, through equality and prosperity on a large scale.
With that being said, much needs to be done in areas of social equality before we can fully address the issues of economic inequality. Understanding economic equality based on different sectors of America’s demography offers greater insight into the root causes of our economic downfall, rather than disregarding altogether the specific problems or identity based concerns that continues to affect certain groups. But as we know, we have a long road ahead before much of our social problems can be addressed, especially when we have a government that could careless about us. Somehow we have to start building those grass-root organizations that demands change (and practical change), or else, the next four years may just turn into another eight years in just the blink of an eye.