Robin DiAngelo and the next frontier of DEI
On March 1st, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, an independent publisher that markets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion literature to businesses, hosted a webinar entitled “Racial Justice: The Next Frontier.” The event featured DEI consultants Mareisha N. Reese and Mary-Frances Winters in conversation with Robin DiAngelo, the famous (or perhaps infamous) author of White Fragility.
The discussion revealed some good news for those of us concerned by the particular vision of so-called “racial justice” advocated by DiAngelo and her colleagues, in which all white people are racist by definition and all individuals are judged based on their immutable characteristics. All three of the panelists were noticeably less optimistic than they’ve appeared to be in the past about their ability to succeed in bringing their vision of society to fruition.
Each of the panelists expressed substantial frustration at the difficulties they’ve experienced in bringing our society the “systems change” they allege it needs. Mary-Frances Winters noted that she felt their ideas had finally become the basis for a real movement in the “racial reckoning” following the murder of George Floyd. But she lamented how her hopes during that time have not been realized.
Many corporations, Winters said, have added “justice” as a goal (turning DEI into DEIJ) without understanding “what that really means.” She explained that she now hears “a lot” that business leaders are uncomfortable with the DEIJ programs being proposed to them, and that her company, The Winters Group, has lost contracts with businesses who didn’t know what they were getting into—“oh, this is what you mean by anti-racism work? That’s not what we signed up for.” She attributes the failure of these companies to accept her DEIJ program to their “fragility” and choosing to “center white comfort.” DiAngelo added that corporations exhibit a lot of “proclaimed investment with absolutely no true investment,” and that in order to get to a place where they are capable of true investment, “white people have to build their stamina.” She complained that “so many companies have the diversity question…and no one on the hiring committee even knows how to assess a good answer.”
That ideologues like DiAngelo have had an imperfect relationship with corporations is not entirely surprising. Many DEI advocates have long complained that corporations mostly adopt DEI practices for appearance’s sake. But nonetheless, it is noteworthy that some companies are backing away from DEIJ programs once they learn what they truly do. Obscuring the true nature of these programs by using broadly agreeable words such as “inclusion,” “justice,” and “anti-racism”—a strategy often called a “motte-and-bailey”—has been essential to DEI advocates’ ability to market to mainstream America. The panelist’s account of their failures gives reason for opponents of race-essentialist DEI to be optimistic that our ongoing efforts to shed light on its divisive and impractical underpinnings is working.
Unfortunately, the bad news is that despite failing to meet their ambitious expectations, DiAngelo and her colleagues are moving ahead undeterred. To address opposition to her divisive brand of anti-racism training, DiAngelo proposed that companies must be pushed to view any employees who reject it as “simply not qualified in today’s workplace.” If employers fail to find candidates who are sympathetic to her views on racial justice, then recruiters should consider it a “failed search” and try again. “What I want to do is create a culture that actually spits out those who are resistant,” DiAngelo said. DiAngelo invoked Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping-point theory,” noting that “you don’t need everyone, you don’t even need 50%, tipping points happen at 30%, roughly.” Once a company goes past the tipping point, the 30% can set out to rid the undesirable influences.
Perhaps DiAngelo’s most troubling suggestion was that “people of color need to get away from white people.” One concrete manifestation of this reasoning that was mentioned favorably by all three of the panelists is “racial affinity groups.” These groups have already achieved widespread implementation in both schools and businesses and are explicitly segregated by racial identity. Affinity groups also are often geared towards advancing DiAngelo-style racialist politics and social change. The panelists all expressed hope that affinity groups can be used to organize workers and students in racial solidarity.
Ultimately, however, it appears that the uncontrolled spread of race-essentialist DEI has been mitigated—for now at least. The pushback is working. The necessary work of rehabilitating the pro-human vision—treating people equally regardless of the color of their skin or other immutable characteristics, of breaking down what divides us to recognize the truth of our common humanity—will make for a long road ahead. But a road grounded in positivity and harmony offers far more fertile ground to reach a “tipping-point” than DiAngelo’s ever can.
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