Walter Benn Michaels Discusses Race, Anti-Semitism, and Poverty in American Literature

Professor and author Walter Benn Michaels led a discussion on anti-racism and anti-anti-Semitism the evening of October 27, 2005, drawing upon examples from American literature and contrasting the issue of discrimination with that of poverty in contemporary U.S. society. The event was hosted by the Department of English and American Literature and cosponsored by the Center.

Michaels is chair and professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of several works in the study of American literature and culture. He began his discussion with a look at Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America," which depicts a fictional America in which famed pilot Charles A. Lindbergh -- a Nazi sympathizer, according to some sources -- defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1940. The resulting society is one steeped in anti-Semitism.

Allowing that Roth's novel was a critique of all racism, not just anti-Semitism, Michaels wondered aloud at the fact that American society is so ready to condemn an evil that he sees as having one foot in the grave already. The larger problem facing most Americans today, he argued, is the gap between rich and poor that has been widening since the 1960s, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

"Attacking the problem that does not exist is a form of maintenance for the problem that does exist," he asserted.

The phenomenon is not a new one, according to Michaels. He referenced the 1901 novel "The Marrow of Tradition," written by Charles W. Chestnutt, which depicts a black doctor's struggle for social status and upward mobility in 1890's North Carolina. When told he would have to ride in the "black car" on a train, surrounded by sharecroppers and laborers, Chestnutt's doctor wonders why the train is divided by a race line instead of a money line. Though the novel spoke out against discrimination at a time when most did not, Michaels noted that it nevertheless tacitly defended a system that kept the poor from gaining wealth.

Part of the problem, Michaels contended, is a liberal academia that attempts to describe class in the model of race or gender, i.e. as part of one's identity and something to be respected in the name of diversity.

"Blaming the victim -- what the right does -- is a bad thing; but it's hard to see how congratulating the victim -- what the left does -- is any better," he said.

Michaels observed that the rise in inequality has paralleled the rise in the commitment to diversity in America -- and also the rise in the belief that, in America, an individual always has an opportunity for upward mobility, despite the fact that a poor child born in France or Sweden has a better chance of growing up to be wealthy than he does in America.

"A severe misrecognition is taking place," said Michaels. "We prefer crimes of identity. The problem is not that rich people regard poor people as inferior; the problem is that, with respect to money, they're right. The problem would not change if rich people started admiring the low educational and healthcare opportunities of the poor."