Diversity is for white people

The big lie behind a well-intended word

“Diversity” sounds polite and hopeful. It’s how we talk when we can’t talk about race, or when whites get nervous.

by Ellen Berrey Salon


Our country is convulsing over the issues of diversity and race. As an academic, I have spent more than a decade investigating this enigmatic term: What do we mean by “diversity” and what do we accomplish when we make it our goal?

Using first-hand ethnographic observation and historical documents, my research has taken me from the U.S. Supreme Court during debates about affirmative action to a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood to the halls of a Fortune 500 global corporation.

Here’s what I’ve learned: diversity is how we talk about race when we can’t talk about race. It has become a stand-in when open discussion of race is too controversial or — let’s be frank — when white people find the topic of race uncomfortable. Diversity seems polite, positive, hopeful. Who is willing to say they don’t value diversity? One national survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents said they valued diversity in their communities and friendships.

The term diversity has become so watered down, it can be anything from code for black people to a profit imperative. Consider the cringe-worthy experience I had sitting in on a corporate diversity training, where initiates learned that diversity could mean our preferences for working at daytime or at night, or our favorite animal. As a Deloitte study showed, many Millennials take it to simply mean one’s unique culture and perspective. (Apparently they are listening to their diversity trainers).

However much it might feel good, though, diversity talk is not enough. At this paradoxical time, when we are at once commemorating fifty years of civil rights gains while questioning racism in policing and prisons, it allows us to sidestep persistent, alarming racial inequalities. Its appeal makes it downright pernicious. It lets white people off the hook from doing something about our own culpability in the problem — like our inclination to live near people like us (i.e. white) or to put in a good word with the boss about our friends (i.e. probably white).

Even in the hands of the well-intended, diversity leaves us without a language for making sense of ongoing racism or deliberating effective policy responses. A rigorous study by sociologists at University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University and University of Minnesota shows corporate diversity trainings are especially counterproductive, despite being the most popular program in the multibillion-dollar diversity management industry. These trainings do not move white women or most people of color into management, and they actually decrease black women’s odds of becoming managers by 7%, perhaps because they can breed resentment.

Likewise, in the neighborhood I studied, politicians promoted small-scale homeownership housing programs for the middle class in the name of diversity — but these race-blind programs were altogether insufficient for addressing the displacement of the low-income, majority black and Latino renters getting railroaded by condominium conversions.

Diversity talk is a convenient solution to new racial challenges. Those who lead companies, universities and communities confront the widespread expectation that there will be at least one high profile person of color — typically, a token black person — in an otherwise majority white environment. The problem is far from fixed, though, with just four black CEOs in the Fortune 500 and racial segregation rampant across the workplace. To create integrated companies, more than 50 percent of employees would have to swap jobs.

Leaders today also must govern an increasingly small white population that commonly harbors racial fears and anxieties, if not out-and-out bigotry. The title of a social psychological study out of Harvard Business School and Tufts University captures a disturbing finding: “Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing.” That’s right, white folks think they have it worse off than black people.

In response, diversity’s champions have redefined racial progress itself. Rather than a righteous fight for justice or effective anti-discrimination laws, we get a celebration of cultural difference as a competitive advantage. Diversity, we are told, is an end goal with instrumental pay-offs: good for learning, good for the bottom line, even good for white people. Administrators at the University of Michigan tout their institution as “excellent and diverse” — a place where people’s differing points of view improve the college experience for everyone. This powerful buzzword reflects leaders’ belief, to manage race successfully, white constituents need to see inclusion as in their own self-interest.

Treating race as diversity does offer some promise. The drive for diversity disavows outright racist hate. Appealing to diversity can unite people across differences that divide us deeply. It affirms a much-needed basis of commonality — a shared, self-reinforcing commitment to each other.

But with what other issue of inequity do we think that the solution is just talking about it? Health care? No. We create insurance plans that buffer people from bankruptcy. Hunger? No. We create emergency food pantries and free school lunches.

Ultimately, I see diversity as a big lie. We need fewer cheerful logos and more effective action. Like an honest reckoning with racist housing policies that have robbed people of color of wealth. Like affirmative action policies at work and in universities, which have effectively moved people of color up the economic ladder. Like support for collective union bargaining. Like the decriminalization of recreational drug use and addiction.

Instead, the diversity movement gives us doctored photos in college brochures. It gives us investment banks that keep hiring rich, white, Ivy League grads. And it gives us denial of racism. Diversity is not the wake-up call that white America needs. It’s the snooze button.

3 thoughts on “Diversity is for white people

  1. I’m going to be straight and blunt, the only way I know how when attempting to understand and share understanding. We are all people. As in the constitution, all people are created equal (not regarding abilities, but that we are all human, all created as such.). This means we all have the same opportunities, in this country, to work hard and achieve, but that we may not all have the same starting points as each family may have provided their children with more opportunities. We are also a country filled with people from many different places and experiencing many different cultures, but as the nation came together, one thing we understood was “the dream” and a distinct belief which is America (An American culture) and was written in the constitution. Diversity, as I see it, allows each person freedom, along with the good times and consequences of embracing that freedom. But it doesn’t guarantee success, or the appearance of success. Nor does it guarantee popularity, money, or any other objects people might imagine. However, in order to have true freedom and success, a foundation in reality, which is our constitution, must be in place, embraced, and understood.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoy bluntness. Saves time.

    The United States Constitution states a black person/ slave counts as 3/5ths of a human being.

    The Constitution’s wording is “all men are created equal.” What they intend by this choice of words is all white land-owning men are created equal. Women, children, blacks, and tenants need not apply.

    We cannot base our current understanding of human rights on a document written in 1787 simply because their understanding of what a human being’s rights are is radically different than our understanding today. For example, not only was slavery legal, many of the men who signed the Constitution owned slaves.

    To be blunt, if we use the US Constitution as our “foundation in reality,” that is, as our moral gestalt, we get Rich White Guys Matter because this is the view of the rich white guys who wrote and signed off on the document.

    Is this your position as well, dolphinwrite? The position the Constitution takes on human rights?



  3. I did some research of my own, some in my youth, some during college, and some more recent, also listening carefully to others educated and most likely wiser. When the country was forming, they knew some would not let go of their slaves (This horrid thing had been long in practice, terrible as it is.), but they also knew that in order to survive and become a nation, one supporting freedom and due process, they would come together and not immediately end the practice. However, what they did was write into the U.S. Constitution the words necessary that would later cause the abolition of slavery. Many also worked feverishly to free all men during the succeeding years. There’s no 3/5ths person. All are created equal. And today, difficulties and all, we have more opportunities than ever before. What is under attack, however, is common sense and decent traditions. As one who grew up being picked on at times, racism if you will, I have noticed, as an adult, our youth being encouraged not to think for themselves, but moreso to use “hate” as a means to express what puppet masters will them to believe. Think for yourself. That includes questioning what one already believes. For if it stands, the belief is stronger. And not for myself. Just for understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

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