Phi Beta Cons

Anti-Racism Obscuring Poverty?

Walter Michaels, literary Critic and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is about to publish his “first non-scholarly book” the Chronicle reports in its latest issue.

In The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality Michaels argues that the American fixation on race, and its perception as the principal mode of societal organization obscures the deeper division endemic to American society, which is economic. Sure, we’ve heard this before. The curious thing about Michaels’ argument is his suggestion that this is a function of neoliberalism. He spoke, in the Chronicle interview:

Anti-racism is a form of legitimation of neoliberalism. The neoliberal model is the model in which the market is the essential agent of social as well as economic injustice. … My book is not an argument for communism or even for a return, exactly, to socialism. There is no doubt that markets are powerful forces, and often powerful forces for good. … Anti-racism makes markets function much more freely and efficiently. You don’t want people kept from running your corporation just because they’re black or because they’re women or because they’re gay or because they’re whatever they are. You want their ability to run your corporation to be the issue.

The academic model is doing exactly what you might imagine: It’s training an elite regardless of race and gender to function efficiently in a neoliberal economy by getting rid of these false and irrelevant obstacles.

Alright, occasion for applause then? No, this had ceased being an accomplishment, and become, it seems, an insidious distraction He continues later:

The argument is that anti-racism today performs at least one of the same functions that racism used to — it gives us a vision of our society as organized racially instead of economically — while adding another function — it insists that racism is the great enemy to be overcome. But all the anti-racism in the world won’t take any money away from the rich and won’t give any of it to the poor.

Anti-racism, a capitalist veil drawn over poverty? Huh? Oh, and he talks about books also; books like Beloved? “if there ever were a neoliberal novel, Beloved is it. Why? Because it valorizes identity and choice, “precisely the two things that matter most to neoliberalism.”

Toni Morrison? Keeping spiritual company with multinationals? I wonder if Arundhati Roy’s heard about this.


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