Over-rating Diversity

When Survivor first announced they were organizing their tribes this season by race, everyone was outraged. But it was a little hard to see why. Americans love race. Every college and corporation in the country can tell you the racial make-up of their employees or their students. And everybody starts feeling a little defensive when it turns out they're missing their racial numbers - only last week a bunch of New York advertising firms agreed "to set numerical goals for increasing black representation on their creative and managerial staffs" (NYT 9/8/06). So it makes more sense that the outrage over Survivor using race has now turned into outrage that they didn't start using it sooner, as when, here on the Huffington Post, Eric Deggans complains about how long it took Jeff Probst to understand "the value of diversity" even though people like Deggans "had been trying to convince him of its usefulness for years."

Well, Deggans is right. Diversity is useful. But what it's mainly useful for is selling people a bill of goods, the main one being the idea that as America becomes an increasingly unequal society, everything will be OK if all the rich people - like the stars of TV shows and the executives on Madison Ave -- come in the right colors. Right now America leads the developed world in income inequality and the top 1% of American families is richer than the bottom 90% -- would those facts be less disturbing if the 1% were black and brown as well as white and yellow? If we live in a society where the rich are getting richer and where their wealth is coming out of the pockets of the people who work for them, why should we - especially we liberals - care what color they are?

Mark Burnett, Survivor's producer, likes to call the show a "social experiment." Maybe next season he should go back to two tribes instead of four, the Rich and the Poor, and the Rich get to bring all their stuff with them to the Island and carry on about how they deserve their wealth because they worked hard to get into good colleges and the colleges were fair because they practiced affirmative action, etc. And the poor start thinking about how the colleges are mainly made up of rich kids (as Richard Kahlenberg says, "You're twenty-five times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor student" at places like Harvard and Duke), and it occurs to them that maybe the Rich don't deserve all their wealth and they start thinking about ways to redistribute some of it (OMG! Class warfare!) and then.... well you can imagine it for yourself.

But of course in the U.S. today, this experiment seems so unrealistic that it won't meet even the very generous criteria of either Reality TV or realpolitik. Which is to say that the Democratic Party hasn't shown any more interest in it than Survivor has. But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Who knows? It might work. Forget diversity. Try equality instead.