Saturday, December 30, 2006

fighting the man (which man?)

Regular readers will note that the last few days have been particularly fruitful ones for this blog, in terms of quantity (apparently, no one wants to comment when I brag about my mad crossword skillz). This is, of course, in no way correlative to the dearth of e.r.c.'s social life; my days at my grandparents' house are filled with activities, including, but not limited to: reading back issues of Good Housekeeping, playing electronic yahtzee, watching Man Vs. Wild, eating saltine crackers, spending hours deciding whether or not its worth my effort to put on pants. It usually isn't.

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.
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.


Kate said...

double trouble indeed! WBM responds in the current n+1 piece.

JD said...

So I agree with you and BRobbins (n+1) and am pretty unsatisfied with WBM's response. . .E.g. Should the people interested in Black studies be the same ones charged with protecting economic equality? Should we really say that any women's studies program that doesn't operate as some sort of thinkaction tank for women's rights and instead focuses on, for example, women's literature is *detracting* from the fight against sexism? Of course, he isn't committed to affirming this, but is committed to faulting such a program if, in the mind of the university, it obscures an analogous economic equality problem. But this would surely be no fault of the women's studies program itself; rather, that program would continue to serve an important, if separate, purpose. It is bizarre to start with Black studies programs in his discussion of misplaced energy (college sports?) and wrong to fault such programs if they have been exploited by a university as a way, as he says, of legitimating economic inequality. In addition to considering the work, as you say ("considering the relation"), such programs do, he should also be aware of the line between what the programs themselves should be expected to achieve and what should be expected of "diversity rankings"/admissions/recruitment, etc. And other problems. . anyway. .