"The importance of race and gender in the current us presidential campaign has, of course, been a function of the salience of racism and sexism—which is to say, discrimination—in American society; a fact that was emphasized by post-primary stories like the New York Times’s ‘Age Becomes the New Race and Gender’. It is no doubt difficult to see ageism as a precise equivalent—after all, part of what is wrong with racism and sexism is that they supposedly perpetuate false stereotypes whereas, as someone who has just turned 60, I can attest that a certain number of the stereotypes that constitute ageism are true. But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.
From this standpoint, the contest between Obama and Clinton was a triumph, displaying, as it did, both the great strides made toward the goal of overcoming racism and sexism, and the great distance still to go towards that goal. It made it possible, in other words, to conceive of America as a society headed in the right direction but with a long road to travel. The attraction of this vision—not only to Americans but around the world—is obvious. The problem is that it is false. The us today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but it is not a more just, open and equal society. On the contrary: it is no more just, it is less open and it is much less equal.
In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the us. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the us today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.
Why? Because it is exploitation, not discrimination, that is the primary producer of inequality today. It is neoliberalism, not racism or sexism (or homophobia or ageism) that creates the inequalities that matter most in American society; racism and sexism are just sorting devices. In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not." - Walter Benn Michaels, "Against Diversity", New Left Review 52