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Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough

Addressing inequality requires more than consciousness raising.

If you’ve consumed liberal media at any point over the last two decades or so, you’re likely aware of the growing attention to (and outrage over) the lack of racial diversity in: Hollywood movies, tech, journalism, Washington, Young Adult books, modeling, college course syllabi, Forbes’s annual list of billionaires, socialist organizations, museum curators, museum exhibitions, the faces on U.S. currency, podcasts, Trump’s Cabinet, luxury brands, the cannabis industry, and so on. In a multiracial America that’s forecast to become majority minority in a few decades, critics have pointed out, it’s shameful that so many business sectors and cultural venues—and in particular, the most prestigious of them—remain disproportionately white.

Bold Type Books, 272 pp., $27.00
Beacon Press, 192 pp., $16.00

Growing public outcry over the whiteness of these fields and others has pushed university deans, studio executives, and corporate boards to adopt a battery of diversity initiatives, inflating a cottage industry that—between anti-bias and cultural competency educators, consultants, workshops, and trainings sold to companies, schools, and other institutions—is today worth close to $8 billion. Diversity training is currently mandated at most Fortune 500 companies and about half of all midsize firms in the United States. In addition, nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities use diversity trainings, and about 30 percent require their faculty to attend them. And, of course, in the wake of race-related public relations disasters, it’s now standard practice for corporations to conduct nationwide company sensitivity trainings, like the ones hastily rolled out by Sephora and Starbucks after instances of racial profiling at their stores.

Despite this rapid growth, today’s diversity industry has largely failed to usher in the diverse workplaces and schools it promises. A growing number of empirical studies suggest that anti-bias training (also known as implicit bias training) and other diversity initiatives don’t work. A recent study by sociologists Frank Dobbin at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev at Tel Aviv University, surveying more than 30 years of data collected from over 800 firms, found that diversity programs not only failed to increase workplace diversity, but in many cases even reduced diversity or exacerbated participants’ biases. A 2016 meta-analysis of nearly 500 studies on implicit bias interventions similarly found that while such sessions sometimes briefly and slightly diminished participants’ implicit biases, they had no significant long-term effects on people’s behavior or attitudes. And in 2019, another study of diversity training programs by a team of behavioral scientists further confirmed that onetime interventions designed to reduce implicit bias—the type used by the vast majority of employers and institutions—tend not to change very many minds at all.

How, exactly, should we reconcile the vast sum of money and energy poured into diversity training with its lackluster results? Two recent books argue that a more thoroughgoing accounting of racism is needed to correct our society’s deficiencies. In Diversity, Inc: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, NYU journalism Professor Pamela Newkirk argues that diversity is likely to remain elusive until we address the larger context of our nation’s history of racial segregation and violence. This kind of reckoning is also the subject of White Fragility, a runaway hit that has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list and amassed an array of favorable reviews since its 2018 release. In the book, author Robin DiAngelo—a sought-after speaker and former professor who’s worked for decades as an anti-bias consultant—describes the phenomenon of “white fragility,” a condition that renders white Americans unable to discuss race and racism without succumbing to defensiveness and emotional distress, and that thereby perpetuates our racial hierarchy. Overcoming this hostility, DiAngelo argues, requires sustained self-reflection, humility, and vigilance from white people.

Although Newkirk is critical of the diversity industry, whereas DiAngelo works squarely within it, both authors view altering white consciousness as the key to social transformation. And while this is a perspective that has found quite a bit of traction, it strikes me as the type of righteous-sounding injunction that poses little actual threat to current, historically high levels of inequality. The rich are perfectly capable of embracing the vocabulary of racial justice while simultaneously segregating schools, union-busting, and rending the social safety net. A politics of introspection does not work toward policies to combat any of this. Which suits our current economic order—and the diversity industry that operates within it—just fine.

Diversity, Inc. surveys the state of chronic racial underrepresentation across several elite spheres, including Hollywood, academia, and corporate America—historically racially homogeneous sectors that, to this day, have struggled to diversify their ranks. In Hollywood, for example, a recent industry report on the top films of the last 10 years found that only 4 percent of directors were women, only 6 percent black, and around 3 percent Asian. Just under 4.5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs today are black, Hispanic, or Asian, though those groups make up a combined 38 percent of the population. And, at colleges and universities, supposedly liberal bastions, whites continue to hold 83 percent of full-time professorships.

Newkirk proposes that diversity initiatives have met so little success in these areas because they diverge in ideology and intent from civil rights–era programs that sought to put the nation on a track to racial equality. Rather than agitating for social reform, today’s massive diversity industry functions instead to shield institutions from discrimination litigation and public scrutiny. Diversity training might be expensive, Newkirk notes, but requiring employees to take an hour-long online anti-bias course or even hiring trainers to conduct in-person seminars still costs significantly less time and money than a discrimination lawsuit, like the one that cost Texaco $176 million in 1996 or the one that cost Coca-Cola $192.5 million in 2000.

According to Newkirk, for-profit companies, higher education, and cultural institutions alike will only achieve true and sustained racial diversity following a broader cultural shift in which Americans, particularly white Americans, come to terms with the nation’s history of white domination, which began with the enslavement of Africans and the displacement and mass murder of Native Americans, and continued through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries via exclusionary immigration laws and imperial excursions abroad. In Newkirk’s view, even most of the scholarly research on the shortcomings of diversity training—such as Dobbin and Kalev’s study—fails to capture the way the diversity industry has come untethered from a larger project of accounting for this ugly history. “While many recent studies raise legitimate concerns about diversity practices,” she writes, “most have overshadowed the extent to which these initiatives ceased to be seen as a moral imperative linked to centuries of systemic racial oppression.”

By contrast, she argues, Great Society programs such as the Civil Rights Act and Higher Education Act led to significantly increased numbers of African Americans in many public schools that had once been almost exclusively white, as well as within colleges and universities. Though that’s true enough, it’s also here that her diagnosis of the diversity industry’s deficiencies falters. Simply put, while Lyndon Johnson and other architects of Great Society reforms may have sought to create a “racially just and inclusive nation,” as Newkirk puts it, the actual measurable successes of those programs weren’t the result of a “moral imperative” so much as they were the result of public policy. And the former without the latter, which is essentially what Newkirk offers, poses little threat to today’s ineffective diversity industry. In fact, the work of facilitating the broad “paradigm shift” Newkirk wants to see in lieu of the diversity industry’s empty “pledges, slogans, or well-compensated czars” is increasingly a central part of that very industry.

Encouraging white Americans to come to terms with both the country’s history and their own complicity in perpetuating present-day injustice is precisely the goal of Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, which was released to much discussion and acclaim last year. As it happens, DiAngelo has been a longtime facilitator within the diversity training apparatus that Newkirk critiques, and her analysis of white fragility is drawn largely from personal observations gathered during the workshops and seminars she’s run.

Over her years of conducting trainings on race, DiAngelo has observed that white people reliably (and usually immediately) erupt into defensiveness and discomfort when asked to consider the persistence of racism—a response that she calls white fragility. White fragility is itself a product of racism, namely a national history of segregation that has kept whites comfortably protected from the reality of the nation’s racial hierarchy; as a result, DiAngelo argues, most white people find it extremely difficult to talk about race. Examples of white fragility in action include workshop attendees who insist on their color blindness, bring up their own hardships, and even women who cry during discussions of racism. “These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium,” writes DiAngelo, “as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.”

Her book is a recent addition to whiteness studies, an academic discipline in which DiAngelo is a professor. While earlier works by W.E.B. Du Bois and other black scholars laid the ground for the development of the field, whiteness studies took off in the 1990s with the publication of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, and Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, among other influential texts. These works have provided critical historical interventions over the last 30 years, particularly regarding the construction and evolution of white identity in the United States; they were never imagined as manuals for the transformation of corporate America. From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

Indeed, the major shortcoming of White Fragility is that it offers almost nothing in the way of concrete political action. Though solving societywide inequality isn’t the goal of her book, DiAngelo notes—and, of course, it would be unrealistic to expect her to single-handedly accomplish such a thing—even her practical suggestions for what white people might do to combat racism amount to little more than personal introspection and self-improvement. That includes learning to cultivate feelings of gratitude and humility (even excitement) upon learning that one has done something racist, listening and “processing” in the aftermath of such an event, and a variety of other vague endeavors, such as challenging “our own socialization and investments in racism.”

This style of whiteness training, Johnson writes, “encourages sharing one’s origin story, failings and sense of torment, but beyond charitable giving, it does not necessitate sharing resources at the level of redistributive public policy.” It is therapeutic rather than policy-based. In this sense, DiAngelo writes from the same lineage as other white anti-racist educators, including White Like Me author Tim Wise (who blurbed her book) and Peggy McIntosh, writer of the widely shared “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” pamphlet on white privilege. While ruminating on one’s internalized prejudices may require some psychological heavy lifting, there’s little evidence that it helps produce or sustain material change. And though whiteness educators like DiAngelo may employ the radical-sounding language of critical race theory, self-reflection is ultimately a much easier undertaking than working to build a durable political coalition that actually has the leverage to remake society.

For all their emphasis on discomfort, the kind of racial reckoning advocated by both Newkirk and DiAngelo today exists without much difficulty under capitalism. That is to say, it’s entirely possible—even easy—to advocate for racial diversity and white self-examination while simultaneously endorsing (or at least ignoring) economic inequality.

This conundrum was most famously articulated by the professor and critic Walter Benn Michaels in his controversial 2006 book, The Trouble With Diversity. “The commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position,” he wrote, to the horror of many on the left at the time. What he meant wasn’t that diversity in and of itself was bad or undesirable, but that the preoccupation with achieving it usually came at the expense of attacking economic inequality. For quite a few (if not most) people whose primary commitment is championing diversity, the underlying assumption is that our current lopsided distribution of wealth and resources would be justified so long as racial (and gender) disparities were eliminated. That is, it would be acceptable if the top 1 percent of the population reaped the majority share of economic gains and exerted undue influence on the political system so long as that 1 percent was 50 percent female, 14 percent black, 18 percent Latino, and so on.

This is the metric that allows Newkirk to praise Coca-Cola’s diversity programs—which managed to increase the number of African Americans at the senior executive level from one to 49 people over the course of a few years—as a model for corporations, while CEO James Quincey earns nearly $17 million annually, or over 1,000 times what the average employee makes.* It’s what allows Coca-Cola to proudly advertise its strides in “representation” while also backing Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, including publishing an interview in which chief financial officer Kathy Waller (an African American woman) praised the bill’s “potential to reinvigorate job growth and help U.S. companies be more competitive.”

Even more insidiously, the vocabulary of inclusion has lately been wielded to undermine or dismiss broad-based universal policies that would, ironically, disproportionately help people who aren’t white. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Hillary Clinton asked on her doomed campaign trail, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?” Strictly speaking, probably not. But as Michaels has written, “A serious and entirely race-blind transfer of wealth to poor people (even just the $15 dollar an hour minimum wage and even though the majority of people working for minimum wage are white) would do more to benefit poor black people than would the most rigorous and effective enactment and enforcement of every possible antidiscrimination law.”

Overturning our existing hierarchy—rather than just playing musical chairs with its demographics—depends on ending exploitation. The good news is that the kind of universal programs that Michaels and others advocate would go a long way toward doing just that, particularly for black Americans and other historically marginalized groups (recall Newkirk’s own assessment of Great Society initiatives), and they also happen to be relatively popular. The bad news is that powerful political actors—including the Democratic Party elite that just so happens to be quite well-versed in the rhetoric of diversity—are fighting such reforms tooth and nail.

The question, then, is whether you believe that people’s attitudes can be transformed through common struggle or you think that psychological transformation needs to happen before that struggle can take place. There are arguments for and against each possibility. But you can see why those who earn a paycheck informing people of their latent biases might feel compelled to insist upon the latter.

* An earlier version of this piece stated that Pamela Newkirk praised Coca Cola’s diversity program as a “gold standard.” She did not.