The Trouble with Diversity: Two Great Liberal Preoccupations-Our Celebration of Cultural Difference and the Fight against Inequality-Go Hand in Hand, Right? Wrong. Incredibly Wrong

By Michaels, Walter Benn | The American Prospect, September 2006 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Diversity: Two Great Liberal Preoccupations-Our Celebration of Cultural Difference and the Fight against Inequality-Go Hand in Hand, Right? Wrong. Incredibly Wrong


Michaels, Walter Benn, The American Prospect


"THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME" IS a famous remark supposedly made by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, although what made it famous--or at least made Hemingway famously repeat it--was not the remark itself but Hemingway's reply: "Yes, they have more money." In other words, to Hemingway, the rich really aren't very different from you and me. Fitzgerald's mistake, he thought, was that he mythologized or sentimentalized the rich, treating them as if they were a different kind of person instead of the same kind of person with more money. It was as if, according to Fitzgerald, what made rich people different was not what they had--their money--but what they were, "a special glamorous race."

To Hemingway, this difference--between what people owned and what they were--seemed obvious. No one cares much about Robert Cohn's money in The Sun Also Rises, but everybody feels the force of the fact that he's a "race conscious ... little kike." And whether or not it's true that Fitzgerald sentimentalized the rich, it's certainly true that he, like Hemingway, believed that the fundamental differences--the ones that really mattered--ran deeper than the question of how much money you had. That's why in The Great Gatsby, the fact that Gatsby has made a great deal of money isn't quite enough to win Daisy Buchanan back. Rich as he has become, he's still "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere," not Jay Gatsby but Jimmy Gatz. The change of name is what matters. One way to look at The Great Gatsby is as a story about a poor boy who makes good, which is to say, a poor boy who becomes rich--the so-called American Dream. But Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is. Or, more precisely, it's about someone who pretends to be something he's not; it's about Jimmy Gatz pretending to be Jay Gatsby. If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it's not because she's rich and he isn't but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only "passing" as rich. "We're all white here," someone says, interrupting one of Tom Buchanan's racist outbursts. Jimmy Gatz isn't quite white enough.

What's important about The Great Gatsby, then, is that it takes one kind of difference (the difference between the rich and the poor) and redescribes it as another kind of difference (the difference between the white and the not-so-white). To put the point more generally, books like The Great Gatsby (and there have been a great many of them) give us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes. And this vision has proven to be extraordinarily attractive. Indeed, it has survived even though what we used to think were the races have not. In the 1920s, racial science was in its heyday; now very few scientists believe that there are any such things as races. But many of those who are quick to remind us that there are no biological entities called races are even quicker to remind us that races have not disappeared; they should just be understood as social entities instead. And these social entities have turned out to be remarkably tenacious, both in ways we know are bad and in ways we have come to think of as good. The bad ways involve racism, the inability or refusal to accept people who are different from us. The good ways involve just the opposite: embracing difference, celebrating what we have come to call diversity.

INDEED, IN THE UNITED STATES, THE COMMITMENT TO appreciating diversity emerged out of the struggle against racism, and the word diversity itself began to have the importance it does for us today in 1978 when, in Bakke v. Board of Regents, the Supreme Court ruled that taking into consideration the race of an applicant to the University of California (the medical school at UC Davis, in this case) was acceptable if it served "the interest of diversity. …

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