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.