The Paradox of Diversity Trainings

Do diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts actually exacerbate intolerance?

Image of chairs in a circle
Peter Finch / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What do you think of the diversity-training and DEI industries? Do you have personal experiences with them? I’d love to hear from boosters and critics alike, especially if your commentary is grounded in something you’ve observed at work, school, or elsewhere in your life.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

“What if diversity trainings are doing more harm than good?”

That’s the headline of a recent New York Times op-ed by Jesse Singal, the writer, podcaster, and author of a 2018 Atlantic cover story, who delves into the multibillion-dollar diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) industry. While its advocates claim that “diversity workshops can foster better intergroup relations, improve the retention of minority employees, close recruitment gaps and so on,” Singal writes, in practice there is “little evidence that many of these initiatives work.” And the type of diversity training “that is currently in vogue—mandatory trainings that blame dominant groups for D.E.I. problems—may well have a net-negative effect.”

I have a theory about why programs of that sort might fail. After Donald Trump was elected, I studied the political-psychology research on authoritarian personality types. I was especially impressed by the work of Karen Stenner, who found in her scholarship that “a good deal of what we call racial intolerance is not even primarily about race, let alone blacks, let alone African Americans and their purported shortcomings” (though anti-Black, ideological racists do of course exist and African Americans are harmed regardless of what drives intolerance). “Ultimately,” Stenner contended, “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism,’” defined as “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.”

As I explained in a 2019 article:

The distinction isn’t merely about word choice. It has critical implications for fighting and easing both racism and other forms of intolerance. For example, in an entirely separate experiment meant to manipulate the way authoritarians viewed “us” and “them,” subjects were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life––beings “very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.” After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half, a result that suggests a general intolerance of difference that varies with perceptions of otherness, not fixed antagonism against a racial group. Their boundaries (and thus their behavior!) can be swiftly altered, Stenner emphasized, just by this simple cognitive device of creating a “superordinate group”: making “black people look more like ‘us’ than ‘them’ when there are green people afoot.” Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn’t only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals—that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance.

As I went on to explain:

Stenner’s book reaches a conclusion that cuts against one of the main progressive strategies for fighting racism in American society: the belief that if we have the will, everyone can be socialized to respect and value difference. “All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference … are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors,” she wrote.

The appearance of sameness matters, and “apparent variance in beliefs, values, and culture seem to be more provocative of intolerant dispositions than racial and ethnic diversity,” so “parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness” seems wise when possible.

Put more simply, perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference—and when DEI-industry programming deliberately raises the salience of race in a given organization with the intention of urging anti-racism, the effect is to exacerbate differentism.

In an article that dovetails nicely with Stenner’s insights, Matthew Yglesias once explained why he believes that raising the salience of race in public-policy debates is frequently bad for anti-racism.

He wrote:

A deep body of scholarship across history, political science, and economics all broadly point toward the conclusion that increasing the salience of race can have harmful results.

One particularly frustrating example I came across years ago at Vox is that Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found in experimental settings that telling people about racial disparities in the criminal justice system made people less supportive of reform.

And you could react to that by thinking “wow, that sucks, people shouldn’t be so terrible,” but I think most people believe there are tradeoffs between harshness in the criminal justice system and public safety. And while more progressive-minded people would say that’s overstated, there are clearly some margins on which it’s true. So if you tell people a penalty will be applied in a racist way, for many of them, that’s appealing—the system can crack down on dealers and addicts while they personally can rest assured that if their kid happens to be caught doing drugs, he’ll be okay. By the same token, a friend who’s running for office told me that many of the people she speaks to who are most agitated about crime also hate traffic cameras. My guess is that’s precisely because traffic cameras don’t engage in racial discrimination, and nice middle-class white people don’t like the idea of an enforcement system that doesn’t exempt them.

In the specific case of the cameras, I think we should have more of them and that the aim of our criminal justice system more broadly should be to catch a larger share of offenders in a non-discriminatory way and then punish them less harshly. Ideally, everyone who speeds would get caught and fined and the fines wouldn’t necessarily be very high, but people would stop doing speeding because the odds of detection are overwhelming.

And in the general case, I think it’s clear that the goal should be to reduce the salience of race in public debate and focus on the direct objects of reducing poverty, making policing more accountable, improving schools, reducing air pollution, expanding health insurance coverage, and otherwise solving the big problems of American society. All of this would, mechanically, close racial gaps. But highlighting that is genuinely counterproductive.

I mention these writers at such length because many diversity-loving people find it surprising that DEI training could be counterproductive, and Stenner and Yglesias’s work offers plausible explanations for why. But the intersection of politics, psychology, and race is exactly the sort of wildly complicated subject area where epistemic modesty and airing diverse viewpoints is vital for truth-seeking, so I hope that fans of DEI training and members of the industry will stand up for their work.

But to defend the industry in aggregate will require a lot of explaining. As Singal wrote, “Though diversity trainings have been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s, few of them are ever subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is ‘disappointing,’ wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors in a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology article, ‘considering the frequency with which calls for diversity training emerge in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.’”

The Harvard Business Review has been publishing articles that cast doubt on the efficacy of mainstream DEI approaches for years. “One reason why I found Jesse’s piece so compelling is that he’s echoing arguments I made more than a year ago,” David French wrote in The Dispatch. “I quoted from a 2018 summary of studies by Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin and and Tel Aviv University professor Alexandra Kalev that said, ‘Hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that anti-bias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior or change the workplace.’”

In French’s telling, that scholarship has implications for the culture wars:

We fight a tremendous amount over diversity training—even to the point of violating civil rights laws and the First Amendment—to either mandate or prohibit certain forms of DEI instruction when DEI instruction doesn’t impact hearts and minds much at all. It’s Diet Coke. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that just doesn’t deliver what its advocates hope for, nor does it foster identity politics in the way that many of its opponents fear.

… People just aren’t that malleable. For good and ill, we’re built of sterner, less flexible stuff, and periodic Corporate PowerPoints or group learning sessions can’t really shape peoples’ lives.

For more, see a podcast debate that Jane Coaston hosted on diversity initiatives and my 2021 profile of the entrepreneur and public intellectual Chloé Valdary, who offers an alternative approach to DEI training that she calls the Theory of Enchantment. Finally, for a deep dive into the history of the diversity-training industry, see Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s 2002 book Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution.

“There’s No Planet B”

In Aeon, Arwen E. Nicholson and Raphaëlle D. Haywood reject the possibility of humanity moving off of Earth:

Given all our technological advances, it’s tempting to believe we are approaching an age of interplanetary colonisation. But can we really leave Earth and all our worries behind?

No. All these stories are missing what makes a planet habitable to us. What Earth-like means in astronomy textbooks and what it means to someone considering their survival prospects on a distant world are two vastly different things. We don’t just need a planet roughly the same size and temperature as Earth; we need a planet that spent billions of years evolving with us. We depend completely on the billions of other living organisms that make up Earth’s biosphere.

Without them, we cannot survive. Astronomical observations and Earth’s geological record are clear: the only planet that can support us is the one we evolved with. There is no plan B. There is no planet B. Our future is here, and it doesn’t have to mean we’re doomed.

Gas Stoves and Asthma

Emily Oster attempts to evaluate the data.

Berlin’s Failing Army

Spiegel International argues that even with war raging in Ukraine, and the attendant need for German contributions to European security, the German military is in dire shape. It reports the following:

In June, the Bundestag passed a 100-billion-euro special fund for the German military, and in December the Budget Committee released the first 13 billion from that fund for eight defense projects, including the new F-35 combat aircraft. “It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” the chancellor said in his February address to the nation. Scholz also formulated his political expectations: “The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us.” The question is: How much progress has been made on fulfilling that pledge. Since then, after all, the Defense Ministry has been producing little in the way of announcements about restructuring and reform, instead landing on the front pages due to gaffes and catastrophic shortcomings.

One example: The commander of the 10th Tank Division reported to his superiors that during an exercise with 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles, all 18 of them broke down. It was a worrisome incident given that the ultra-modern weapons systems are a key component of the NATO rapid-reaction force. There is a lack of munitions and equipment—and arms deliveries to Ukraine have only worsened the situation. “The cupboards are almost bare,” said Alfons Mais, inspector general of the German army, at the beginning of the war. André Wüstner, head of the German Bundeswehr Association, seconds him: “We continue to be in free fall.” The situation is so bad that the German military has become a favorite punchline of late-night comedy shows … The German military, to be sure, is no stranger to mockery and ridicule, but it hasn’t been this bad in a long time.  

Is This Morning in America?

David Brooks argues in The Atlantic that the future is brighter for the country than many now imagine:

If a society is good at unlocking creativity, at nurturing the abilities of its people, then its ills can be surmounted. The economist Tyler Cowen suggests a thought experiment to illustrate this point. Take out a piece of paper. In one column, list all of the major problems this country faces—inequality, political polarization, social distrust, climate change, and so on. In another column, write seven words: “America has more talent than ever before.” Cowen’s point is that column B is more important than column A. Societies don’t decline when they are in the midst of disruption and mess; they decline when they lose energy.

And creative energy is one thing America has in abundance.

Provocation of the Week

At Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Davis, California, some workers are trying to unionize. Faith Bennett reports on their grievances in Jacobin:

Like many other baristas and service workers, Peet’s employees are challenged by schedules that are delivered on short notice, unreliable hours, lean staffing, and difficulty securing coverage. As a result, café positions have high rates of turnover. But members of PWU are invested in making the job more sustainable for themselves and more tenable for those who come next.

In Davis, Peet’s workers report that they are often scheduled for shifts that are deliberately shortened so that they are not afforded breaks. Meanwhile mobile orders exacerbate understaffing issues: the company does not place restrictions on mobile orders, which often leads to a torrent of tickets, not all of which are picked up, and delays of drinks ordered by customers who arrive in person. The current practice around mobile orders exhausts baristas and contributes to frustration of customers, who sometimes direct that frustration toward staff.

Although it is possible to turn off the mobile order system, this can only be accomplished if staff from a given store put in a request to the district manager, who oversees operations at approximately seventeen locations. Having this request granted for even an hour is a rare occurrence … mobile orders, a lack of breaks, and understaffing curtail the ability to chat with regulars who look to baristas for social interaction.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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