by Jen Chau
Have you wondered why our society doesn’t address class with nearly the same frequency as it does race? I have, but I quickly answer myself — clearly, issues of race and diversity have been done so much (not necessarily done right, though) that it’s easier for people to talk about race than it is for them to talk about class. No one wants to really think about those issues. In the same way that perhaps it used to be taboo for you to mention that (god forbid!) you had a parent of color, the modern day passing might just be about class (as in passing as someone who has more than $100 in savings. :|). I had a recent conversation with a friend where we were talking about this — and how it’s an unspoken thing, that you can’t necessarily tell who is who, that the distinctions of social class are much more invisible. And that’s another reason why race is so easy for us to talk about. It’s seemingly more obvious to us. Or so people think.
Slate gives a scathing review of Walter Benn Michaels’ new book, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Michaels argues that we need to talk about class and get off the race tip. But apparently, he doesn’t really make his case.
Here are some examples of Michaels’ rhetorical excess. Cultural differences, including those involving race, are “lovable,” whereas class differences “are not so obviously appealing.” Affirmative action is therefore “a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality.” It is absurd to focus so much on affirmative action because “there are no people of different races.” It makes more sense to talk about concrete things, such as paying African-Americans reparations for slavery, than it does to engage in symbolic politics in which nothing really is at stake: “No issue of social justice hangs on appreciating hair color diversity; no issue of social justice hangs on appreciating racial or cultural diversity.”
Michaels, as these examples illustrates, belongs to the “shock and awe” school of political argument. First, you say something wildly implausible in the hopes that its dramatic counterintuitiveness will make it seem brilliant. Yet in the United States in which I live, race is an obvious fact of life, conversations about it remain awkward and uncomfortable, and both supporters and opponents of affirmative action are sincere in their convictions. It is true that saying such things would make for a very unoriginal book. But at least it would be an accurate one.
All that said, I do agree that we need to discuss class a much more than we are. But unless someone otherwise convinces me, I don’t think we can necessarily forget about race in that conversation about class. Race and class are inextricably linked (at this time).