How Diversity Training Hurts

Dan Subotnik

At a recent University of Pittsburgh program, the speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, technology editor for the conservative website Brietbart.com, referred to (1) those who believe in the gender wage gap as “idiots,” (2) the Black Lives Matter movement as a “supremacist” group, and (3) feminists as “man-haters.” Reports are silent as to whether anyone walked out or felt individually threatened. But an uproar ensued shortly thereafter during which individual students claimed feeling “unsafe,” “invalidated,” and even “traumatized.” They saw themselves not only in psychological but in “physical danger” from “real violence.” The organizer defended himself only by invoking free speech and the trigger warning he had included in the flyer advertising the event.1

To forestall this kind of drama and purportedly to give minority students a greater voice, many universities are mandating diversity training on their campuses. The University of Missouri recently yoked itself to the diversity training movement after demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, following a 2014 fatal police shooting of a black man who was unarmed (though he had tried to grab the police officer’s gun and then turned to charge him when the officer set off in pursuit).

Diversity training is defined as a “distinct set of programs aimed at facilitating positive intergroup interactions, reducing prejudice and discrimination, and enhancing the skills, knowledge, and motivation of people to interact with diverse others.”2 Its goals are undeniably admirable. In practice, however, diversity training almost surely hurts, more than it helps, race and ethnic relations.

Two views dominate the discussion of appropriate university objectives. On the one hand, a diversity training program in effect at the University of North Carolina (UNC) seems to satisfy Chancellor Carol Folt, for whom “nothing matters more” than “having…conversations…and trying to…make people in our community feel safe, feel welcome,”3 as she put it at a town hall meeting. Any existing social or academic disrespect or invisibility felt by blacks and other minority students would undermine such conversations. For President—and Professor—Obama, on the other hand, the chancellor has it wrong. Bemoaning “political correctness,” he recently insisted that students need to hear from those that they disagree with; they “shouldn’t be coddled and protected from different points of view.”4

Putting aside whether or not the university should favor student “safety” and comfort over thinking, what is the state of interracial discourse in our time? Do all have a real voice? Decidedly not. “No Euro-American person, except one insensitive to the charge of racism,” writes prominent black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, “dares say what he or she really means,” a remarkable claim for a nation whose First Amendment singularly protects speech.5

Are minority voices similarly suppressed? Not that of Ta-Nehisi Coates—the much celebrated winner of the 2015 National Book Award and MacArthur Award recipient—who describes a rapacious white culture ever programmed to “kill the black body.”6

In this setting, if there is to be honest conversation and thus progress on cross-racial and ethnic relations, white tongues have to be loosed. How to do we get there when whites are so conditioned to being on tenterhooks? “In our face-to-face interactions,” Patterson insists, “Afro-American and Euro-American people should treat each other exactly alike: as responsible moral people. We do not need any special sets of sensitivities.”7

A debate of this nature is presumably what President Clinton was after when in 1997 he called for a “National Conversation on Race.”8 To prod us toward that same goal, many will recall, in 2009 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called America a “nation of cowards.”9

Without opening up, whites can present no defense against charges of racism. And if their racism is the very presupposition for the discussion, most whites will not join that discussion out of fear that otherwise they would be pleading guilty to the charge. Whether blacks would join the discussion without that plea by whites is perhaps an open question.

In any event, diversity training works at cross purposes with the objective of promoting real talk. In practice, diversity training aims to expose and discourage verbal macro- and micro-aggressions against blacks and others. The trainers become the institutional authority on what is coddling and what is acute, if stressful, discourse. (Is opposing diversity training an expression of hate speech?) We can pretend that our goal is to make students “in our community feel safe and welcome,” but are white students not part of the community?

In fact, diversity training is explicitly a one-way street. The emphasis rests on the perceived needs of “diverse others,” about which whites must be educated. There is no other side for people like Coates.

We should not be surprised that disadvantaged minorities attempt to control the discourse. “[U]nless inhibited, every person or group will tend toward beliefs and practices that are self-aggrandizing,” writes black Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. “This is [not only] true of those who inherit a dominant status….Surely, one of the most striking features of human dynamics is the alacrity with which those who have been oppressed will oppress whomever they can once the opportunity presents itself.”10

That said, nothing is wrong with helping whites engage in honorable and productive conversations with minorities. And in some situations and institutions this engagement may be necessary in response to unpleasant events. In such cases university leadership must also speak out.

But diversity trainers keep uncovering new and highly dubious micro-aggressions such as dressing for Halloween as a Mariachi musician (Claremont McKenna College); dressing up in geisha or taco costumes because these are expressions of “cultural appropriation” (University of Missouri); asking someone with an accent, “Where are you from?” the alleged implication being that the individual is not a real American (University of California); or uttering the phrase (I’m not making this up) “America is the land of opportunity” or expressing the thought that a “job should go to the best qualified person” (again, California).

The unavoidable result is to limit interracial discussion by stifling curiosity and driving underground countervailing sentiments. The process cannot help but put off Americans of all varieties, ornery sorts to begin with, who demand a maximum of freedom to speak their piece, without being tutored in what they are allowed to say.

A University of St. Louis law professor, for example, has characterized the diversity training for faculty that he received as “Chinese mind control.”11 (Is this hate speech?) For baby boomers, this evokes jarring “Manchurian Candidate” images. Faculty were asked to self-identify by religion and sexual orientation, and atheists and agnostics were not absolved for this purpose. To show the diversity of the faculty and the value thereof, individuals were required to stand up as their group was called. Seated groups were then expected to applaud standees with a “‘woo-hoo’ level of vigor.”12 So much for diversity of expression.

We need not rely solely on press reports and anecdotes to evaluate diversity training. According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work,” it doesn’t. The reason: “Categories are dehumanizing….[W]e need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual.”13

A 2007 study of diversity training programs in 829 companies revealed “no positive effects in the average workplace.”14 And what is perhaps the latest formal review of diversity training programs in business and nonprofit organizations concludes in ambivalence.15 While diversity programs may lead to “reduction in discrimination, and more development…for minorities,” it can also lead to more discrimination and lawsuits, “more organizational distrust” among minorities, and absenteeism and “negative interpersonal attitudes.”16 In short, “[t]he evidence of its positive impact on organizational performance is far from conclusive.”17

Diversity training arguably helps non-white students boost their self-esteem and visibility by promoting their importance in the academic agenda. Yet it is hardly clear that self-esteem translates into intellectual growth, the alleged purpose of the academy. (See Obama statement above.) A program that starts by emphasizing society’s debt to you might well undermine your own academic motivation.

For whites, diversity training allegedly helps suppress feelings of racial superiority, racial violence and harassment, and violence on campus. No evidence seems to support the first claim. As for interracial campus violence and harassment (in all directions), how serious are these problems? The U.S. Department of Justice reports as campus hate crimes five rapes, five robberies, ninety-seven simple and aggravated assaults, 359 intimidations, and no murders/homicides.18 Regarding harassment, although there are thousands of reported “incidents” (definition unclear) on four thousand American colleges and universities, the U.S. Department of Education reports only 146 instances of racial harassment in 2015.19 One wonders where the outcry at the University of Pittsburgh (above) arises.

What might we expect on the agendas of future diversity training programs? A focus on the town hall meeting at UNC at which the university’s diversity training program was discussed can be instructive. After Chancellor Folt’s announcement that she wanted all students to feel welcome, minority students presented a list of demands. Among other things: SAT I and SAT II (the achievement test) are to be abolished because results follow race and class; classes must be open to all North Carolina residents; heads of African American and diaspora studies as well as 80 percent of tenured faculty in those departments must be “faculty of color”; graduation rates should be disaggregated for minorities because minority students have often been expelled unfairly; police should be excluded from campus; sleeping on campus by non-students must be decriminalized because these are measures primarily designed to keep out minorities; UNC must acknowledge its contemporary oppression of minorities and allow the vetting of an educational program about that oppression to a “University professor of our choosing.” 20

Each of these demands deserves a response that a one-sided program such as diversity training is neither equipped nor disposed to handle. But shouldn’t students be exposed to the rejoinder that these demands stem from paranoia or manipulativeness,21 devalue the UNC degree, exacerbate racial tensions, and—with anyone welcome to sleep overnight on campus—make the campus less rather than more safe? And shouldn’t they be made aware that even if, for reasons of racial disparity, standardized testing for admission is abolished, those who enter the university ill-prepared might well feel more, not less, disrespected—invisible, academic achievement still being the currency at our better universities?

Beyond this, at many if not most schools, diversity values are already front and center of the academic agenda. African American studies programs are everywhere. So is affirmative action—even in places where it is illegal under state law. Brown University, the school I know best, recently announced a $100,000,000 investment in diversity, since raised to $150,000,000.22 At Brown graduation ceremonies most of the black graduates march together wearing the distinctive striped scarf of the Onyx Society, at the head of the procession. At Brown, and no doubt elsewhere, a faculty job that is not awarded to a woman or minority must be justified by the search committee in writing, through specific reference to the deficiencies of the losing candidate (authority: Rose Rosengard Subotnik, my wife, and professor emerita at Brown). Many schools also have designated “safe spaces” in the form of cultural centers allocated to minority groups—as if the majority are predators ready to pounce. At the University of Connecticut a single-sex dorm is being built, but, astonishingly, for the exclusive use of minority men. How does this promote diversity? My own school holds a month-long summer orientation open solely to non-white students, as well as an exclusive program that continues through the first year. One cannot help thinking that the campus is being balkanized and that while relations on campus are far from perfect, minorities are in many ways venerated.

If circumstances require diversity training, then, professional racialists must not be allowed to control the discussion. Keep in mind what they have already wrought—and we have not even begun to consider the financial costs of diversity training at a time when most college and university budgets are stretched to the limit and tuition is prohibitive.

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