January 08, 2007

Culture and race don't matter?

A book review of The Trouble with Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels:

Race obscures real problem

Economic inequality should be addressed, not cultural diversityAs convincing as Michaels’ conclusion is, his arguments sometimes leave a lot to be desired. The very slipperiness of the ideas of race and culture might suggest that these concepts are more than concepts--they are realities. Culture and race matter a lot to people who have both of them, and the argument that they either don’t exist or aren’t important is an argument that has often been made by people who don’t belong to a so-called racial or ethnic minority. This reader would have liked Michaels to analyze what counts as culture instead of jettisoning culture altogether.

Michaels fails to see how cultural death is tied to economic disenfranchisement. For instance, American Indian tribes were robbed of culture-–religion was banned and children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and they were whipped for speaking their tribal languages-–to fold Indians into the American workforce at the bottom as laborers. And the Indians who fight to hold on to tribal languages and traditions are not subscribing to the agendas of the rich but attempting to define themselves on their own terms with the ultimate goal of recapturing cultural and economic self-sufficiency; the two often go hand in hand. And it is not a myth or a ruse that poor American Indians are 10 times as likely to be victims of violent crime as their poor white neighbors, and that most of the violence visited on Indians is perpetrated by whites. This suggests that race still exists as an important category.

1 comment:

Rob said...


Walter Benn Michaels is a literary theorist, known as the author of Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism and The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. He is currently the Chair of the Department of English, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a position he has held since 2001.

Michaels is a renowned teacher. His article "Against Theory," co-written with Steven Knapp, is included in the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism.

He is often but incorrectly identified with the following quotes/ideas: "race does not exist" and "race is a cultural construction."