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The Big Book

The real reason our workplaces aren’t getting more diverse

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Oct 22, 2019
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Though billions of dollars have been invested in expanding workplace diversity, those programs often fail. Above, an office building in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from Pamela Newkirk’s “Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Industry” in which she explores a simple reason why diversity efforts in corporate America, journalism, and academia often fail.

I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to journalism and higher education, both fields in which people of color are radically underrepresented. In three of four newsrooms, I was the only African American news reporter. I would later become one of two people of color on New York University’s tenure-track journalism faculty and for a time was one of the few tenured African American female professors on the entire faculty of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

During more than three decades of my professional life, diversity has been a national preoccupation. Yet despite decades of handwringing, costly initiatives, and uncomfortable conversations, progress in most elite American institutions has been negligible. While racial/ethnic minorities make up roughly 38.8 percent of the national population, they comprise just 17% of full-time university professors, which includes faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Put another way, non-Hispanic Whites, who comprise roughly 61% of the population, hold 82% of full-time pro­fessorships. Hispanics and Blacks, who together encompass roughly 31% of the U.S. population, are just 3% and 4%, respectively, of full-time professors. Their numbers have barely budged over the past few decades.

The field of journalism has not fared much better. Four dec­ades after the newspaper industry pledged to create newsrooms that reflect the proportion of minorities in the population by the year 2000, they, too, remain disproportionately White. Afri­can Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans combined held 16.55% of newsroom jobs, based on the 2017 annual newsroom survey released by the American Society of News Editors. That number was even a slight decrease from the preceding year, and when online news sites were excluded, the percentage of minorities dropped to 16.3%.

Five decades later, diversity proponents can be forgiven their ideal­ism, if not their fidelity to ineffective approaches.

The numbers in journalism and academia, like those in other influential fields — from the arts, advertising, and fashion to law, technology, and investment banking — defy the quickening pace of change in the nation’s racial demographics. In 2011, for the first time in America’s nearly 250-year history, more babies of color were born than non-Hispanic Whites. Since 2010, non-Hispanic Whites have been the minority in twenty-two of the nation’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2045 they will no longer constitute a national majority — which has made diversity one of the buzzwords of the twenty-first century. But why, after five decades of countless studies, public pledges, and high-profile initiatives, is diversity lagging in most elite fields? And why do many White Americans believe that racial progress has been much better than the numbers suggest?

Our current diversity conversation began in 1968, when Presi­dent Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders recommended the inclusion of African Americans in institutions that had historically excluded them. The Kerner Commission, as it came to be known, highlighted the need to address the shameful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. It over­looked, however, the haunting invisibility of Native Americans, an estimated 90% of whom were killed by disease and war in the wake of European settlement. Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, including those of more than one race, number around 6.7 million, or 2% of the population. Regrettably, given their small numbers, they barely register in much of the data.

The plodding pace of change a half century later makes clear the need to reframe the diversity conversation of recent years from a rosy we-are-the-world ideal to one fired by a mission to combat systemic racial injustice and pervasive delusion about where we stand. Our current predicament is part and parcel of an enduring ideology of White preeminence and the callous resolve that America’s global ascent justified the means by which African Americans, Native Americans, and others were ruthlessly exploited. This ethos permeates mass media, so-called high art, the Western literary canon, and our criminal justice and educational systems. The dismal numbers reported year after year are a predictable outcome of this morally impover­ished calculus. Unless and until White America — including those who claim progressive values — comes to terms with its complicity in persisting injustice, diversity initiatives will con­tinually fail. Since one’s complicity can be willful or stem from benign ignorance and neglect, the latter affords the potential — if not the promise — of serious reflection and reform. The numbers are uninspiring, but the all-too-few examples of change offer a semblance of hope. They can serve as a beacon for those who are truly committed to justice. In the end, we will each be judged not by stated principles but by our achievements.

Given the sturdy foundation of White domination on which America rests, it has perhaps been naïve of many diversity advo­cates to expect even those viewed as progressive allies to relin­quish hardwired attitudes and centuries-old customs, no matter how ignobly attained. Many believed that if only they could show the inherent injustice of institutional bias and the ways in which it perpetuates inequality and fuels racial conflict, then attitudes — and workplaces — would substantially change. Five decades later, diversity proponents can be forgiven their ideal­ism, if not their fidelity to ineffective approaches.

Allies and advocates of diversity — including those who are beneficiaries of the burgeoning industry it has spawned — must also change course lest they become complicit with those who consciously or unconsciously work to sustain the status quo. In their work they might ask whether they unwittingly serve as smokescreens rather than true agents of change. How might they enable evasion and resistance by the institutions they serve? At what point does it become apparent that institutions they associate with are less committed to diversity than their rheto­ric, commissioned task forces, studies, and appointed diversity officers suggest?

How do we as a society gauge success, and at what point is it safe to assume that some of the best efforts are in vain? And what can be done differently to foster change?

“Diversity, Inc.” inspires indelicate questions and sober reflec­tion. In an increasingly multiracial nation, who will set the course for the nation’s identity and destiny? In a nation that has — as a result of political and numerical dominance — largely been defined by Whiteness, what would a truly diverse society mean culturally, politically, spiritually, economically, and psychologi­cally for White Americans? What would it mean for America?

Excerpted from DIVERSITY, INC. The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, by Pamela Newkirk. Copyright © 2019. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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