I was meaning to post an article by Walter Benn Michaels several days ago, but, like most Chronicle of Higher Ed. pieces, the original article was only temporarily available to non-subscribers. Fortunately, you can read "Why Identity Politics Distracts from Economic Inequalities" here.
If you click on that wikipedia link, you'll see that WBM is an academic of the Todd Gitlin variety, convinced that identity politics have supplanted the greater problems plaguing this country--namely, class inequality. This is the anti-theory stance he repeatedly assumes, and one that he advocates in the Chronicle piece; Benn Michaels attempts to justify the article by grounding it in Princeton's recent decision to "build up its African American Studies program." While he agrees that department-building does attract some students of color and talented faculty, he argues that it fails to address the real causes underlying the racial disparity in America's top universities.
But there's a more-important sense in which even African-American studies is a kind of blackface, a performance not only of blackness but of race itself. Asian-Americans are overrepresented in elite colleges like Princeton; African-American students are underrepresented. But no one's as underrepresented in those colleges as poor people.His numbers--less than 16% of Princeton's class of 2009 came from family incomes of less than $50,000--drive an argument for need-based (rather than blind) admissions process. He adds, albeit unconvincingly, that ethnic studies programs are still necessary, as they have the potential to remind us of the "limitations" of race.
I agree with Benn Michaels on one count--I think admissions needs to grant more privileges to the financially disadvantaged (a piece I wrote last year). But, while I do agree that class is a significant issue in higher education that needs to be reconsidered and prioritized, I take issue with his insinuation that considering race (building departmental programs, promoting affirmative action) detracts from the fight against the financial inequality that plagues such institutions. His causal logic is inherently flawed, especially in a context (this nation and its education system) where race and class have been and continue to be so inextricably connected.
Benn Michaels claims that he wants to forge allegicances between the issues of class and race; this ambition reflects the situated diagramming I posted about last week. But his repeated valuation--his insistence that class supercedes race, and that both terms are inherently competitive--suggests a hierarchy rather than an coalition.
His argument reminds me of the brand of reductionist Marxism that Moyra Haslett critiques in Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories (my stocking stuffer--thanks, Mom!). While, like Benn Michaels, Haslett bemoans "the disappearance of class as an issue from contemporary commentaries," she admits that "one of the most significant problems with Marxist theories has been their insistence on the primacy of socio-economic class at the expense of other forms of social division." Marxist theory urges us to consider the way in which the ideological is determined by the economic, but it reminds us that the terms are far from mutually exclusive. Benn Michaels should, I think, consider this relation.