Conor Friedersdorf questions the usefulness of DEI training

June 9, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Conor Friedersdorf, who writes for The Atlantic—not just a reputable publication but a liberal one—has been getting away with criticizing the DEI industry for some time (check hie earlier articles here, here, and here). Now he has a new piece that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below (it’s free, at least for the time being).   It’s definitely not something that the NY Times or Washington Post would publish, and I’m not sure how he gets away with fundamentally anti-woke articles in The Atlantic, but it’s good that he does.

Here Friedersdorf reiterates his claim that diversity training is largely ineffectual (though it does have a limited place), and that the tons of money spent by businesses and universities to run  DEI bureacracies is better spent helping poor people directly.

He’s also just done two podcasts about this issue, and I put the links below as well.

Click for the Atlantic piece:

It all started, we know, with the murder of George Floyd. In fact, it’s hard to find any “woke” article in a scientific journal these days that doesn’t begin with a ritualistic invocation of George Floyd, often coupled with a mention of Black Lives Matter. And Floyd’s death did galvanize a racial reckoning. What Friedersdorf wonders is whether it’s become the right sort of reckoning:

Floyd’s murder was similarly galvanizing. Arresting, trying, and convicting the police officers involved, and implementing new police training, was the most immediate response. But Floyd’s story suggested some additional possibilities. With several criminal convictions in his past, Floyd tried to turn his life around, preaching nonviolence in a neighborhood plagued by gun crime, serving as a mentor to young people, and trying to stay employed. He also struggled with drug addiction, layoffs due to circumstances beyond his control, and money problems that presumably played a role in the counterfeit bill he was trying to pass on the day that he was killed. If a callous police officer was the primary cause of his death, secondary causes were as complex and varied as poverty in America.

So how strange––how obscene, in fact––that America’s professional class largely reacted to Floyd’s murder not by lavishing so much of the resources spent in his name on helping poor people, or the formerly (or currently) incarcerated, or people with addictions, or the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, or children of single mothers, or graduates of underfunded high schools, but rather by hiring DEI consultants to gather employees together for trainings.

Although Friedersdorf later re-emphasizes better uses for DEI money, he does note that DEI consultants may have some use given their expertise on hiring, processing trauma, and assessing discrimination. But he still argues, quoting several studies, that the vast majority of studies on the effectiveness of DEI shows it’s a nonstarter. It doesn’t work. (It’s worthwhile, if you don’t know the data, to go through his short summary.)

Why, then, is there so much investment in DEI? You guessed it: it’s an easy way to show a company or university’s virtue, though it may have a benefit in making workers feel more comfortable. At least somebody is doing something:

The DEI spending of 2020 and 2021 was a signal sent from executives to workers that the bosses are good people who value DEI, a signal executives sent because many workers valued it. Put another way, the outlays were symbolic. At best, they symbolized something like “We care and we’re willing to spend money to prove it.” But don’t results matter more than intention?

A more jaded appraisal is that many kinds of DEI spending symbolize not a real commitment to diversity or inclusion, let alone equity, but rather the instinctive talent that college-educated Americans have for directing resources to our class in ways that make us feel good.

In that telling, the DEI-consulting industry is social-justice progressivism’s analogue to trickle-down economics: Unrigorous trainings are held, mostly for college graduates with full-time jobs and health insurance, as if by changing us, the marginalized will somehow benefit. But in fact, the poor, or the marginalized, or people of color, or descendants of slaves, would benefit far more from a fraction of the DEI industry’s profits.

But I agree with Friedersdorf that DEI initiatives are largely an exercise in optics. Given that the data show they don’t really reduce bias, what other reason can there be for them? In academia, they’re becoming increasingly intrusive—to the point of seriously eroding the real mission of a university: teaching and producing knowledge. Remember, if DEI initiatives don’t do much, and given how much DEI people get paid, for every DEI worker replaced you could hire a professor, or give grants to several students. And also free up the time we spend taking surveys and reading authoritarian emails to allow us to do our teaching and research.

Friedersdorf is on a roll here; he’s fired up about the issue, and you can see this in his last paragraph. (Again, I don’t know how he gets away with this in The Atlantic):

. . . the reflexive hiring of DEI consultants with dubious expertise and hazy methods is like setting money on fire in a nation where too many people are struggling just to get by. The professional class should feel good about having done something for social justice not after conducting or attending a DEI session, but after giving money to poor people. And to any CEO eager to show social-justice-minded employees that he or she cares, I urge this: Before hiring a DEI consultant, calculate the cost and let workers vote on whether the money should go to the DEI consultant or be given to the poor. Presented with that choice, I bet most workers would make the equitable decision.

I’ve written many times about ineffectual efforts to increase diversity, when the real efforts should go not towards tearing down statues or renaming birds, which has virtually no societal effect, but to creating equal opportunities for the underclass. (That is not, by the way, best achieved by “giving money to poor people”, which is a form of reparations. It take a fundamental restructuring of American politics and social priorities.) And if there is to be a vote about hiring a DEI consultant, let that vote be anonymous, for too many people will vote for DEI if they know that others will admire them for doing so.


There are two new interviews with Friedersdorf out on the web. It’s Friday, and I haven’t yet listened to either, but I will.

One is From Tara Henley’s Substack site Lean Out, and is 27 minutes long. Click to access it, and subscribe to her site if you read it often. (h/t:Ginger K.)


The second podcast is 40 minutes long, is at Quillette, and has Friedersdorf interviewed by Jonathan Kay. Click below to access it; I’m not sure if it’s free for all.

13 thoughts on “Conor Friedersdorf questions the usefulness of DEI training

  1. Another straw in the wind. In the Higher Ed Chronicle, a short piece on controversy about DEI at U. Virginia and Virginia Military Acad. shows how the wind is shifting. The defenders of DEI in both cases emphasize all the other good deeds of DEI offices: things related to disabled students, or to first generation students, or to sporting events, etc. etc. Thus, the mere threat of defunding is already leading to to assertions about a kinder, gentler DEI. We can expect that DEI offices will soon tip-toe away from the mandatory trainings, the mandatory DEI loyalty oaths, and the rest of their over-reach, and instead emphasize their contribution to helping widows and orphans, to saving the elephants, and so on. Encouraging, in its way.

  2. If firms come to realize that the money they are paying for DEI is wasted, they should just give the money as wage increases to the productive employees who remain after the purge. DEI salaries and benefits, like all wage costs, come out of the firm’s compensation budget. The other employees forewent wage increases when the firm hired DEI-crats, absent the supposition—absurd—that these hires increased productivity and profitability. So when the DEI-crats are turfed, the money should stay in the compensation budget for wages, not frittered away on food banks or BLM fundraising. If the employees want to spend their windfall that way, fine.

    The actual amount of cash each poor person, “marginalized” person, and descendant of slavery (some of whom are fabulously wealthy) would get from even 100% (not just a small fraction) of DEI spending is likely very small—I’m guessing $10 a year—simply because:
    1) there aren’t vast regiments of DEI-crats toiling away undermining the firm’s profitability. A medium-sized company might have two or three FTEs in HR with some HR employees having DEI compliance added to their existing job descriptions, and

    2) the number of people who feel poor enough to put their hand out for free money is so large as to dilute the impact disappointingly..

    Fire the DEI people and pay wage increases, or hire a professor. Whatever.

    1. Fire the DEI people, not disagreeing but what interests me is what inclines or motivates someone to find employment in this sector . My experience of DEI in the workplace has been that most view it as a nuisance visited on what is usually a reasonable and fully functioning work place to which DEI added absolutely nothing. Those delivering this stuff cannot have also much in the way of positive response leading to job satisfaction and yet they persist. Strange calling for a career. Or maybe the sector I work in (Aerospace) was more sceptical or cynical?

      1. “What motivates someone to find employment in this sector?” I suspect these are mostly Gender studies and African Studies graduates who a) have been told for years that their sacred duty is to dismantle white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy, and b) have not been taught any useful skills whatsoever.

  3. I have little knowledge in how ESG scores are specifically calculated, but I do I think that part of the DEI industry is a reflection to these calculated rankings. Both the “S” and “G” include diversity and inclusion contaminants. Always look at where the incentives lie !

    The phenomenon of its exponential growth within organizations, even though its true effectiveness and bang for the buck swims in lake highly dubious, is what we get as a society when we let the humanities run the show (half jest).

  4. There’s an interesting article on Tablet this week about the common roots of post-60s Marxist cults and the Diversity industry, especially their usage of psychological manipulation by applying heavy doses of guilt and shame to control and abuse:
    “At the heart of both political cult rituals and the diversity training racket is the conviction that all participants suffer from incurable ideological failings, with which they must contend in a literally endless cycle of confession and penance.”

  5. I Think that DEI as well as Jan 6 are greater threats to the US than 9/11. Yes, fundamentalist Islam is a threat to the West, but not so much in the US as in European countries. But DEI and Jan 6 -if left unchecked – may spawn the demise of the US.

  6. To see ‘ check your privilege’ turned and aimed at this insidious DEi industry gave me relief… for all those slapped with this phrase and ‘harmed’ (yeah, that word) and battered by DEi. It’s assault on freedom of speech and authoritarianism is a threat to error correction the only way forward of any meaning. We need more of this “in the nicest possible way.”

  7. I subscribe to the Atlantic not only for its overall excellence but also for its expanse of viewpoints. The magazine publishes Ibram X. Kendi, sure, but also David Frum, Tom Nichols, and Anne Applebaum — no woke progressives they. That’s the point, after all: to provide a variety of differing worldviews, and to leave the merits of such up to the reader. Jeff Goldberg runs a great shop over there. And after being a subscriber for decades I finally cancelled my subscription to the New Yorker; I was loathe to do so because fine writers still remain on its staff, but its illiberalism — “no place for hate speech in free speech”, etc. — has been gaining strength for years now, and I finally gave up hope for an editorial turnaround. I’m really disappointed in David Remnick, who should know better.

  8. The primary concern I’ve had about DEI (it’s amusing that its advocates get **very** huffy if you switch the acronym to DIE) is that, so far as I can tell, the core principles of the High Priests of Diversity—Kendangelo, et al—are based almost entirely on assertions, not demonstrated facts or even propensities.

    In other words, DEI as currently practiced/taught can be seen, in large part, as essentially religious in nature.

    It’s abundantly clear that companies forking over millions for DIE “training” are merely “virtue signaling” and hoping to get enough props that they never have to actually **do** anything with regard to diversity.

    A liberal

  9. If white CEOs want to genuinely uplift minorities, invest, don’t donate. That involves developing human and economic capital. On the human side, instead of wasting money on DEI, BLM, NAACP…find a good to excellent HBCU. Partner with them by investing, or creating, a program that focuses on graduation, particularly for men. Find a charter school that serves minorities…and ASK THEM…what they need to produce more academic preparedness and success.

    On the economic side…do part of your banking at a minority owned bank or credit union. Your assets will will help them invest in ventures that will create real economic growth and opportunity.

    It’s that simple.

  10. It is another illustration of how DEI has become a new secular religion. Like Christianity, despite its foundational narrative, its purpose isn’t to actually help anyone (other than the priesthood) but to enable virtue signaling and a sense of moral superiority among the paying customers, err, adherents. It is complete with the saints (say, Kendi), martyrs (e.g., Floyd), and the claims to one absolute truth that cannot be questioned. Competing narratives (say, Western science, meritocracy, academic freedom) must be attacked and demonized, just like the pagan religions became witchcraft controlled by the Devil. The power is maintained by fostering a sense of guilt, however baseless it may be, or by the threats of horrible consequences (e.g., cancellations, ruining careers). Just give the money to the priests and spend some mandatory time listening to them preach, and you’ll be forgiven. The same model was used by other totalitarian political ideologies, e.g., various strains of communism.

    It amazes me that so many ostensibly smart and well-educated people would fall for this scam. I guess that most academics, at least, know full well what is happening but are afraid to speak up. Ditto for many university administrators with the cushy sinecures. Or maybe they think that it gives them more power, just like the alliances between prevailing religions and ruling classes since time immemorial.

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