Diversity training has become a standard feature of American corporate culture. Its origins date to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which codified protecting employees against discrimination and resulted in numerous lawsuits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency created by the statute. In response, CEOs began holding diversity and inclusion classes and companies began to see such training as critical to good business—both as a defensive measure against liability and to foster a healthy and respectful office environment.
Not all diversity and inclusion models have been designed the same way or achieved the same goals. In 1990, Roosevelt Thomas Jr., the former executive director of diversity and inclusion at Morehouse College, argued that a business could measure the success of its programs by asking the following questions: “Does this program, policy, or principle give special consideration to one group? Will it contribute to everyone’s success, or will it only produce an advantage for blacks or whites or women or men? Is it designed for them as opposed to us?” Thomas concluded that “Whenever the answer is yes, you’re not yet on the road to managing diversity.”
If Thomas’s standards seem obvious, it’s because his ideas are rooted in Martin Luther King’s vision of the “beloved community.” Through this vision, conflicts are resolved peacefully and adversaries can reconcile. Racism and discrimination are recognized as evil philosophies “based on a contempt for life,” which promote “the absurd dogma that one race is responsible for all the progress of history and alone can assure the progress of the future.” King sought to defeat injustice by embracing love over hatred.
Underpinning King’s philosophy was his belief in the sanctity of the individual and the “amazing potential for goodness” within human beings. “We do not wish to triumph over the white community,” he wrote. “That would only result in transferring those now on the bottom to the top. But, if we can live up to nonviolence in thought and deed, there will emerge an interracial society based on freedom for all.”
Unfortunately, most major institutions’ diversity and inclusion programs ignore these lessons and betray King’s vision. Robin DiAngelo, an academic and diversity consultant who counts Amazon, Unilever, the YMCA, and the City of Oakland, among others, as clients, coined the term “white fragility,” calling it “inevitable” that whites are racist. “Racism,” she states, “is the foundation of Western society.” Though making such sweeping judgments would surely offend many whites, she concedes, this reaction is itself a “weaponized defensiveness that . . . functions as a kind of white racial bullying.”
DiAngelo holds that all whites are complicit in racism by virtue of their skin color. To argue otherwise is racist; to object to the label proves that the label fits. This racial double bind negates King’s belief in the capacity for human goodness. In “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” King wrote that “the important thing about a man is not the color of his skin or the texture of his hair but the texture and quality of his soul.” For DiAngelo, no distinction exists between skin and soul. She and other purveyors of such thinking embrace a reductive and repellent vision of racial guilt.
This alternative vision has troubling implications for the workplace and beyond. Consider the recent report that the New York City school system’s bias trainers have “been told to focus on black children over white ones,” with consultants even saying that “racial equity ‘means favoring black children’” over white children. After a Jewish superintendent shared a story of her grandmother and four children hiding in a forest during Nazi rule, she was “verbally attacked by a black superintendent in front of her colleagues” for “privileging” her experience over others. (Two other superintendents, both minorities, came to her defense.) This racially hostile environment has led to firings, resignations, and lawsuits with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
What is the aim of diversity and inclusion training? Should it embrace the beloved community and its transcendent vision of human beings working through conflict—racial or otherwise? Or should it bring about a hierarchical inversion, in which one group of people is favored over another, which is perpetually castigated for sins, real or imagined? How we answer this question may shape our institutions, and the workplace, for decades to come.