Color vs Class:
Interview With Walter Benn Michaels

by v3rsus (June 2008)

v3rsus: Why are people so accepting of economic inequality?

WBM: Itís probably because people who are involved in the issue arenít themselves victims of inequality. The people who set the agenda for discussion in American politics are very much people from the top quintile of American wealth, whether they are in the media or the universities, or the politicians themselves, and they in fact benefitted from the increasing inequality over the past years. From one standpoint people whose own economic situations are not imperiled are uninterested in the centrality of the economic inequality issue. The striking thing about American politics though is, as many people point out, that even the people who are victimized by the inequality are less concerned by their victimization. But I think there is a more fundamental chord to that; Until recently I donít think that the vast majority of people in the US had been aware of the degree to which they have fallen farther and farther behind the wealthy. That is one thing that has to change and there has been an attempt made by a lot of people in the past three or four years to make the fact of an increasing inequality more visible to the world at large. People have fallen much farther behind and they have been victimized by the very economic technologies that appealed for growth in US economy. The current situation is unjust, and the current situation actually works to the disadvantage of the overwhelming majority of the American population. Once you convince people of that truth you can probably convince them to begin voting, if not for their sense of justice, at least for their own economic interests. That would make a difference. I donít think that will actually happen short-term. The one thing that makes it more possible are the extraordinary problems with the American economy over the last year. If they get worse, it will make economic issues increasingly central.

v3rsus: Do you think that the identity focus in American culture has to do with what's been perpetuated in media in the past 10 years?

WBM: No, I think itís been a perpetuation over the past 30 years. There is just a story about the US that Americans have and that they are committed to tell, and that is a story about an essentially racist and sexist country striving to become, with a greater or lesser degree of success, less racist and less sexist. That story has been told exclusively and overwhelmingly to the detriment, and during the same years weíve been fighting racism and sexism weíve not been fighting what has actually happened: The increase in inequality. Yes, I think the media has had no interest in that, but you can hardly blame just the media. The American education establishment has had no interest in that. The American universities have had no interest in that. American politicians themselves have had no interest in that. Nobody has had an interest in that story, except for a few people on the far left and occasionally an economist who, while noting the advantages of globalization and of growth in the US, has also paused to take note of the increasing inequality. What has happened over the past four years is that the increase in inequality has become so intense that people have begun to take notice of it. Itís still very minimal. For the last three months I was in France, where the inequality is less, but the worry about it is greater. That makes more sense to me. The goal of left politics in the US today should be precisely to do that; to make people begin to worry about it, or to help people to begin to focus on the problem of inequality. Diversity is not a way of rendering that. You only make sure that the right number of your rich people is black, or women or Asian American or whatever. The media has part of the problem, but I wouldnít, by any means, just blame the media. The US has a story and itís been told for a very long time. Itís the story of the American Dream. The vision of the US as a place where you can rise from the bottom to the top. And if we could just eliminate the things that get in your way, things like racism and sexism, then everybody will be free to pursue the American Dream. But the truth is, as youíve been eliminating racism and sexism the American Dream has become more and more elusive. In fact right now social mobility is greater in what President Bush likes to call ďOld EuropeĒ than it is in the US. Iíve been telling audiences the last few months: If you were born in the Westside of Chicago and you are born poor and you want to live the American Dream, what you ought to do is learn German and move to Berlin, because now there is in fact greater social mobility in Germany than there is in the US. The problem is that you have this long established narrative, the American Dream, which everybody has bought into. Itís not just the media. Every aspect of society is lured into it. But the American Dream, while it may exist as an ideal, is in fact extinct as a reality. What you have instead is a society which keeps congratulating itself on making the American Dream more available, because we are not as racist and sexist as we used to be, though we are still pretty racist and still pretty sexist. But itís neither racism nor sexism that is competing with the American Dream; Itís capitalism. Until you recognize that capitalism and not racism and sexism are the issue you canít possibly deal with the problem. We have to bring the problem of capitalism back to the center of American political discourse. That doesnít necessarily mean to advocate socialism. What it means is to recognize that while capitalism provides many goods - all the things that go with free markets in terms of technological progress, new kinds of products, and a certain kind of flexibility, all the things we know well and understand well -, at the same time capitalism causes inequality. We put ourselves in the position where until recently we were unable to recognize inequality.

v3rsus: How do you see the fall of communism in Eastern European countries in relation to that? Did that create a void?

WBM: Since the late eighties there has been kind of a void, but it depends on the way you perceive that. Itís not as if their societies were so successful that anybody outside of Eastern Europe wanted to emulate them. But it is true that socialism used to be an imaginable alternative for many years until the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the things you see happening in Europe, especially in Germany with the rise of Die Linke, is a left that is committed to some of the virtues of socialism while it is extremely aware of some of the vices of government socialism. I think in Germany you begin to see the possibility of a new left. In the US on the other hand it used to be the case that even talking about inequality was immediately diminished as a form of class warfare, and thatís still true. One of the upsides of the fall of the Soviet Union is that young people are not haunted by the specter of communism. Young people now are haunted by the horrors of the idea of class warfare. What you want to be able to do is to suggest to these young people that a little bit of class warfare is appropriate and that they ought to start thinking about what class difference in the US means, and about the ways it may be justified to overcome that difference. Of course the things you need to do to overcome class difference have nothing in common with the things you need to do to overcome the problems of racism and sexism. To overcome the problems of racism and sexism, all you need to do is to get rid of prejudices. That may be hard, but itís proven to be not so impossible. To solve the problem of class difference you actually need to redistribute the fundamental goods of the society. There needs to be money taken away from some people and money given out to other people. Thatís a much harder thing to do, but it promises to be a much more effective thing to do when you are dealing with an economic problem.

v3rsus: The opposition to government involvement seems to be a fundamental part of the US mentality. Do you think this kind of change would be possible in America if it means more government regulation? Would people be willing to do that?

WBM: What actually people are willing to do I donít know. Iím a little bit optimistic. When I first started working on ďThe Trouble With DiversityĒ nobody was interested in talking about economic inequality in that context, which was one of the reasons to do it. But even before I finished it you could see a lot of people beginning to talk about economic inequality. It began to become an issue, and it certainly is one now. So in a way the good news is that it turns out that issues like that can become central much more quickly than we would have imagined. The bad news is that all the things that would be required to actually do something about economic inequality are anathema to most Americans, and they are not being brought into the mainstream by Barack Obama either. So there is a fundamental problem. You might say that if the economic situation gets worse and worse, the good news is that it makes state intervention begin to look a little more attractive. The US did not have a powerful governmental apparatus in the 19th century, but The Great Depression brought The New Deal into existence, and The New Deal created a certain number of more or less effective technologies for producing a certain level of equality, and expanding a certain equality that had been there before. I suppose one can say, if things get bad enough now people might take notice that the state has a responsibility for assuring economic justice, or at least the state has a role to play in helping to produce economic justice. Yes, it is very unlikely and it goes against what has recently been the American grain, but on the other hand itís not impossible. It has happened here before, it could happen again.

v3rsus: Do you think media has a responsibility to address the real problems?

WBM: It would be way better if people in the media addressed the real problems. If they have a responsibility to, I donít know. Thatís a different story. I am a little bit wary of such a responsibility. I donít think people are being irresponsible. I think people do what they think is important or interesting. Obviously in TV news they do what they think most people will watch. There are people in media who certainly are responsible. People who work for the New York Times or the Washington Post or the LA Times are not being irresponsible. What they make is a mistake. They make the mistake of viewing the US through a lens which, if it ever was, is certainly no longer applicable. I had panels with journalists for ďThe Trouble With DiversityĒ, and they say ďNo, racism is still important. Sexism still is important. These issues are all important. Even poverty itself after all is influenced by race and sex.Ē So in fact they donít hold the kind of left view of what the situation is in this country. They hold the standard neoliberal view. The issue for me is not that they are responsible, the issue for me is that this is a mistake. Iím not the one to preach responsibility to the media. What you should do instead is convince people that they are seeing things the wrong way. They ought to see that there is a different way. If you make it an ethical issue, a question of ethical responsibility, you may be right in some sense. It is what they ought to be doing, but there is no imaginable mechanism to get them to do it that way. Worrying about the media seems to me even less productive than what I do. What I am doing is worrying about the fundamental structure of the economy. I think in the effort to get a lot of people to see things differently, you cannot rely on the local TV news to do that. Thatís not going to happen.

v3rsus: Isnít it a problem that media is in the position of shaping opinions but they fail to make a point of the real issues?

WBM: I think that is true, but the thing is that even if they address the real issues they do not see the real issues. Itís one thing if the local news starts with a fire every night, or to report on celebrities; Obviously thatís bad. But the truth is that it is not much better when the news gives you the latest reports on academic achievements in an entirely racialized form. The standard is that black kids are falling farther and farther behind white kids, which is actually deeply misleading. The alternative is to say that poor kids are falling farther and farther behind rich kids. That would actually begin to give you a vision of the world which is closer to the truth than it is when you racialize it. I donít have any mechanism to say, stop talking about Paris Hilton, or Lindsay Lohan, or whatever the flavor of the day is. My standpoint is, if you start talking about the serious stuff, actually at least get the serious stuff right. I am not more thrilled by the local newspaper or TV station when it does the serious stuff than I am when it does the unserious stuff. The unserious stuff, at least they are lies. If they lie they are only lying about Lindsay Lohan. Who cares? When it comes to the serious stuff, they are not really lying, but they are all perpetrating a deeply mistaken view of what is actually going on, in my view anyway. Thatís why I think the responsibility thing is kind of mistaken. When you say they are responsible to focus on the serious issues, thatís not the problem. What I want them to do is get the serious issues right. They donít have a responsibility to see the serious issues the way I see them. Thatís what the debate is about. So I think itís really important to have that debate, but I donít think itís an ethical failure on their part. My interest is in trying to get people to get it right, which in this case means to see it the way I see it. When you go on the internet there are serious websites, like the website for the Atlantic or the New Yorker. They are way more serious than, for example, Jezebel, but in my opinion they still get the fundamental social justice issues wrong. I donít have a problem with the Jezebel version; I have a problem with the more serious version, because they have the wrong analysis.

v3rsus: Do you think alternative media are important in order to change peopleís minds?

WBM: I think that media are important, but I also think a lot of things are important. Universities play an important role and high schools play an important role. The media certainly does have a role to play, but I donít think the media can make the difference by itself. In general I donít think that itís any more the mediaís responsibility than it is everybody elseís responsibility to get things right. We have to begin having a debate in the media, in the universities, in the high schools, and in churches. Last night I spent an hour talking with four people from the Unitarian Church about an event at their church. Thatís important too. You have the obligation to go out and show up wherever people gather to think about social issues of any kind, if you want to get your view out there.

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v3rsus 2009