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KOZMA: True inclusion in society extends beyond diversity efforts

Column: With Liberty and Justice for All

Diversity efforts must be reimagined to make society more inclusive and equitable.  – Photo by null

Good intentions do not automatically lead to good results, and nowhere is that clearer than with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) industry. Over the past few years, most universities, government departments, public school districts, major businesses and nonprofits have adopted some policy relating to DEI.

Unfortunately, these institutions tend to value the symbolism of supporting diversity over the actual results. DEI has blossomed into a lucrative $8 billion dollar industry employing thousands of consultants, with shockingly little evidence backing up its initiatives.

DEI traces its roots back to diversity and anti-bias training that first gained prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the civil rights movement. For the most part, institutions adopted such training out of a desire to avoid discrimination lawsuits rather than a sincere commitment to inclusion.

As an exposé of the DEI industry's underwhelming results in 2019, "people of color — who make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population — remain acutely underrepresented in most influential fields," barely budging in several metrics over the past few decades, according to Pamela Newkirk, the author of "Diversity, Inc."

In 2007, researchers at the Harvard Business School combed through over three decades of diversity training at 829 companies and found a statistically insignificant effect on the actual representation of either non-white minorities or women in management.

It is one thing to be ineffective, but there are signs that some training is actually counterproductive.

The Harvard researchers note that "laboratory experiments and field studies show that it is difficult to train away stereotypes and that white men often respond negatively to training — particularly if they are concerned about their own careers. If training cannot eliminate stereotypes and if it can elicit backlash, perhaps it is not surprising that, on average, it does not revolutionize the workplace."

Particularly worrying is that mandatory training sessions about white privilege lead socially Liberal whites to feel less sympathy for white people in poverty instead of feeling more sympathetic to minorities dealing with discrimination. That actively reverses progress toward a more just and tolerant society.

An unfortunate paradox of diversity training is that a focus on generalizations and stereotypes, even if only to note how they can be harmful and wrong, sometimes backfires and ends up reinforcing them. In psychology, this is known as the "illusory truth effect," where people remember only the falsehood and not its rebuttal. When anti-bias training does manage to reduce bias, the effect usually only lasts for a few days or a few weeks.

A lot of concepts in DEI training, such as implicit bias, microaggressions and stereotype threat, are by no means settled science. For example, the Implicit Association Test is often used as a tool to gauge subconscious biases against specific groups but is essentially uncorrelated to actual discriminatory behavior.

From a conservative perspective, DEI serves only to divide people based on race and make them defensive. From a Leftist perspective, the symbolism of DEI pretends to create systematic change but in practice just enriches a small number of consultants while keeping the status quo of exclusive institutions largely intact.

A great example of this happened just last week, when Recreational Equipment Inc (REI), an outdoor gear company, cloaked its union-busting activities in the language of diversity and social justice.

If DEI and anti-bias training are not working to reduce discrimination, then what options are actually available to ensure everyone is included? 

The best option depends on what the actual goal of "anti-racism" is. If the goal is to reduce interpersonal biases, interventions are often unnecessary to begin with. Simple exposure to other cultures, religions and ethnicities remains one of the most effective ways to reduce biases. 

Among people who know a transgender person, for example, opposition to transphobic public policy is much higher. Anti-immigrant sentiment is highest among people who have had the least direct experiences with immigrants. 

This pattern repeats for all marginalized groups. The “contact hypothesis,” as sociologists call it, often happens naturally in diverse areas — there is no need to hire fancy and expensive consultants.

A lot of DEI training tries to do something more ambitious than reducing interpersonal bias, which is to fully educate people on the history and policy implications of race relations in America. That is extremely difficult to summarize in a few training sessions. While it is important to understand, it has minimal relevance to actual interactions with other cultures on a day-to-day basis.

The intent of most DEI and anti-bias training may be well-meaning, but they occupy an awkward middle ground between meaningful change and ignorance. Finding a better and more evidence-based path forward to reduce discrimination is vital.

Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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