Liberals and diversity

Zack Beauchamp has a piece at Vox about how diversity is bad for economic justice. Normally I would ignore a piece like this, but it is part of a broader trend I’ve spotted within the liberal thinksphere after Trump that is worth discussing.

Why liberals might be interested in this story after Trump is pretty obvious. The narrative that has emerged from Trump’s win is that nobody could have beaten the stupendous Whitelash that elected him. Clinton couldn’t do it. Bernie couldn’t do it. Nobody could do it. This exempts Democrats from any criticism of the party’s support of Clinton over Sanders.

The problem with blaming the win of Trump on angry whites is that white people did not support Trump in any larger numbers than they usually support Republicans. The white share of the electorate was smaller in 2016 than it was in 2012 and Trump got a smaller share of the white vote than Romney in 2012 (I, II). The only racial groups Trump did better with than Romney, according to the exit poll, were Blacks and Latinos.

Putting aside the specifics of the Trump win, it is useful to consider the emerging liberal consensus on the problem of diversity. Here’s Beauchamp:

The upshot is that a significant shift to the left on economic policy issues might fail to attract white Trump supporters, even in the working class. It could even plausibly hurt the Democrats politically by reminding whites just how little they want their dollars to go to “those people.” One can only imagine what Trump would tweet. […]
The uncomfortable truth is that America’s lack of a European-style welfare state hurts a lot of white Americans. But a large number of white voters believe that social spending programs mostly benefit nonwhites. As such, they oppose them with far more fervor than any similar voting bloc in Europe.
In this context, tacking to the left on economics won’t give Democrats a silver bullet to use against the racial resentment powering Trump’s success. It could actually wind up giving Trump an even bigger gun. If Democrats really want to stop right-wing populists like Trump, they need a strategy that blunts the true drivers of their appeal — and that means focusing on more than economics.

The argument, offered by this text and some nice graphics in the piece, is that diversity leads to racism, which leads to lower support for the welfare state, and thus creates widespread economic immiseration at the bottom of society. Beauchamp does not explain why exactly he thinks this is, but other liberal commentators, such as Ned Resnikoff, have attributed it to the “ancient, tribal section of the human brain.”

What follows from this particular argument is pretty clear: you can have diversity or you can have economic justice, but you can’t have both.

Traditionally, this has been the arch-conservative position, especially when you bring in the biotruth of the human lizard brain. It is conservatives who say that we cannot mix different kinds of people, lest we increase social distrust, disharmony, and distance. It is conservatives who say that we need to monitor diversity levels in immigration to ensure that the immigrant share of the population does not get too high and to ensure that the immigrants who do come in are aggressively assimilated so as to erase the differences they initially bring with them.

Not keeping diversity down and different groups separated from one another, conservatives maintain, will destabilize society, turn politics into a dangerous racialized contest for political power, and immiserate people in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it’s not just white conservatives who say this either. The black nationalist/separatist movements also hold these views. This shared political vision is how this iconic photo of the American Nazi Party at a Nation of Islam gathering came about:

More and more, it seems like liberals in The Discourse agree with this basic conservative assessment of how diversity affects society. But, despite that underlying agreement, they somewhat bizarrely resist the conservative conclusion. Despite telling you that they think increasing diversity will result in children going hungry, as well as the mass incarceration and widespread discrimination of minority groups, they nonetheless support it.

If liberals are going to adopt the conservative view on how diversity operates in society, then they really do need to also work out what they think the implication of it is. Conservatives are very clear: diversity has all these problems and so it should be restricted. But the liberal view — that diversity has all these problems and yet it should be expanded without restraint — is just incoherent on its face.

When I was coming up back in the day, this was not the liberal view on diversity, at least not the one I saw. The view then was that racism is a historical development, not an impenetrable feature of the tribal human brain. On this view, human beings are fundamentally the same and socially constructed categories used to divide them (whether race in the US, religion in Ireland, or caste in India) can be overcome by uniting around what human beings have in common.

On this view (which I share) there are obviously frictions caused by difference, especially when a particular difference has been historically weaponized to subordinate people, but those frictions can be overcome by organizing along lines that cut across those differences. The clearest candidate for that is organizing along economic lines that aim to unite working class people of all stripes into political and civil institutions together. But it is also conceivable to organize people along ideological or subcultural lines as well.

If you think that view is wrong, then you should actually explain what you think the consequences of it being wrong are. If diversity and justice really are at odds with one another, then which one should you pick and why? For myself I strongly support both, do not believe they are mutually exclusive, and understand this to be the standard left position.

Beauchamp’s article gives a clue as to where liberals will go with this. Since they believe 1) diversity is incompatible with justice, and 2) that diversity is important and good, they will reach the conclusion that 3) justice should be sacrificed in order to “beat” right-wing populism. As Beauchamp notes, pursuing a more economically just society “could actually give Trump an even bigger gun” because it flies in the face of the immiseration of racial minorities that majority groups in diverse societies necessarily demand. Thus, it would seem the only way forward is to give in to the bloodthirst a bit in order to stave off an even bigger atrocity.

Of course, we’ve seen what this looks like before. It looks like Bill Clinton executing a mentally handicapped black man, promising to lock up blacks in huge numbers to keep down crime, and agreeing to starve black mothers and their children. That is what the pragmatic centrism that gives in some to the supposed difficult challenges of a diverse society actually looks like: a racist wet dream.

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