Monday, April 12, 2004

'What Skin Color the Rich Kids Should Have': Benn Michaels on Affirmative Action

Walter Benn Michaels has a new piece in this week's New York Times Magazine.

The gist of the article is as follows: America's elite universities have been falling all over themselves to achieve ethnic diversity, but they have shown almost no interest in admitting large numbers of students who come from economically average or below-average backgrounds. Those students are a drag on university funding (Harvard recently announced that students whose family income is less than $40,000 will not be asked to pay any tuition at all -- a noble gesture, but one Benn Michaels feels is "irrelevant") Meanwhile, schools like the University of Illinois-Chicago, where Benn Michaels has been teaching for the past three years, have substantive ethnic diversity, but are chronically underfunded by their state governments:

Seemingly every piece of literature that U.I.C. distributes about itself announces that we have been ''ranked among the Top 10 universities in the country for the diversity'' of ''our student body.'' And that diversity, the literature goes on to point out, ''is one of the greatest aspects of our campus.'' The bad news about our current condition is that you may be jammed into a classroom so full that you can't find a place to sit. But the good news is that 46 percent of the people jammed in there with you will be Caucasian, 21 percent will be Asian, 13 percent will be Hispanic and 9 percent will be African-American.

[...] Students, faculty members and administrators often prefer to speak of their cultural identities. Unimpressed by the objection that -- speaking the same language, wearing the same clothes, reading the same books -- they all seem to me to belong to the same culture, my students speak proudly of their own cultures and respectfully of others'. Some might be taller than others, some might be smarter than others, some might be better-looking than others, but all belong to cultures, and all the cultures are worthy of respect. And that's the advantage of the idea of culture: it gives us a world of differences without inequality.

The last sentence is the key to Benn Michaels' reading of current campus multiculturalism. For him, it is superficial at the nation's best universities, and a pathetic lie at places like UIC, where lack of funding is the real scandal. This leads Benn Michaels to these damning lines: " When student and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have. Diversity, like gout, is a rich people's problem. And it is also a rich people's solution."

There is no question that Benn Michaels is pointing to a real problem with affirmative action as it is currently conceptualized by left-leaning academics. But what Benn Michaels doesn't, or won't, address is how to realistically respond to the problem of economic disparity.

To begin with, he himself is well aware of the fact that the there is a correlation between the ethnic diversity at UI-Chicago and its relative poverty. So his attempt to lable ethnic diversity "false" and class diversity "true" strikes me as a little thin.

Another issue that Benn Michaels does not address is that of the 'flagship' campuses of state universities. These schools (examples might be U-Mass Amherst, UI-Urbana Champaign, UNC-Chapel Hill, Rutgers-New Brunswick, etc.) are often highly selective and very well funded. And yet they are relatively affordable for in-state students. They are diverse, but the vast majority of them practice some form of affirmative action. Why do they need to do this? Why are the campuses actually located in big cities (UI-Chicago, Rutgers-Camden, Rutgers-Newark, UM-Baltimore, etc.), campuses which are ethnically diverse, so profoundly underfunded, while the flagship campuses (in small towns, out in the country), remain healthy? I wonder if affirmative action at public universities could be made irrelevant at a sweep if the funding discrepancy between UIC and UIUC were erased.

An obvious solution (to the larger problem) is to use multi-variable affirmative action, whereby wealthy universities would aim to achieve both economic and racial diversity, preferably not with the same students (i.e., admit wealthy students of color and poor caucasian students). In fact, some version of this is already widely (but quietly) practiced at elite universities, and it doesn't affect their overall elitism. It's a slightly bizarre set-up: there are lower-limit quotas for students from underprivileged backgrounds, while universities are forced for their own financial survival to institute upper-limit quotas for students to be admitted who will need substantial financial aid. It's completely logically inconsistent, and it seems to fulfill what Thomas Sowell calls "proliferation."

So the only logically consistent way to eliminate economic inequality would be to socialize the post-secondary educational system.

Sorry, but I don't see it happening. Call it false consciousness, but most Americans (and many people abroad) have a great deal of pride and awe about the wealthy universities, precisely because they are so powerful and elitist. Economically and politically, these universities have never been stronger and more influential -- and that includes the university where Benn Michaels himself taught for many years, the very wealthy and elitist Johns Hopkins University.

The system may be ugly, but it is surprisingly healthy.

BTW, Here is a great affirmative action bibliography from Elisabeth Anderson.