For those who are keeping up with the continuing labor for racial justice, the wheel has turned again; at least on the long and winding road of au courant vocabulary and jargon.
The announcement came in The New York Times, which means it must be so. The headline was, “Why Some Companies Are Saying ‘Diversity and Belonging’ Instead of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’”
“The changing terminology,” the article states, “reflects new thinking among some consultants, who say traditional D.E.I. strategies haven’t worked out as planned.”[Emphasis added.]
“Haven’t worked out as planned” is a very carefully euphemized way of putting it. As Karith Foster, a former comedian, now one consultant leading this “new thinking,” said more candidly: “she believes . . . an overemphasis on identity groups and a tendency to reduce people to “victim or villain” can strip agency from and alienate everyone — including employees of color.”
She added that “as a practical matter, there will be no equity if the people in power — ‘the straight white male’— feel excluded from the conversation. The people traditional D.E.I. practitioners ‘most want to enroll are the people they’re isolating and honestly ostracizing,’ she said.”
Further, “The nonpartisan nonprofit Business for America recently interviewed more than two dozen executives at 18 companies and found this to be a common theme. “The way they’ve rolled out D.E.I. has exacerbated divides even while addressing valuable issues,” said Sarah Bonk, BFA’s founder and chief executive. “It has created some hostility, resentment.”
The matter of “No equity” without the “people in power” can also be understood from a different angle:
DEI consultancies are businesses. And their income comes from selling “products” (especially training sessions) which can easily cost, according to one firm described by the Times, $3,500 to $15,000 for a single day-long event. And it’s the “people in power,” evidently mostly white males, who sign the contracts and write the checks for such pricey “goods and services.”
So, bottom-line wise, the DEI consultants’ marketing had better be “inclusive” of them. And shouldn’t their programs follow?
There was a huge boom in the DEI consulting business after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But in the past two years, there has been a plethora of reports about many — numbers are scarce, but horror stories are not — of these programs that haven’t worked out very well.
In fact, many have backfired. One of the most lurid blowups came last winter when this blog broke the story of accusations that the DEI Director at the American Friends Service Committee had been credibly accused of masquerading as a person of color when she was in fact of strictly white European heritage.
The charges turned out to be correct; the DEI Director quickly exited. But the story got national attention and put a most unwelcome and embarrassing spotlight on a DEI program, in a once-venerable Quaker-founded organization, that was in fact incredibly amateurish, sloppily constructed, and absurdly vulnerable to flimflam and fakery.
If AFSC was so gullible, how many others? Reporting for The Intercept on the AFSC-DEI debacle, ace reporter Ryan Grim was told by Sana Saeed, a press critic for Al Jazeera, that “There’s long been a critique that companies & organizations use DEI as a shield against criticism of structural issues that continue to persist in the workplace; the people often hired in these positions are not qualified and will usually hurt, more than help, in redressing problems around inequities and exclusion.”
We had also had a stunning preview last summer, when Ryan Grim published a long , deeply searching piece in The Intercept, describing with many more examples a state of internal near-paralysis across much of the institutional base of progressivism, particularly in nonprofits, since mid-2021:
“So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and internal bullshit that it’s had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver,” said one organization leader who departed his position. “It’s been huge, particularly over the last year and a half or so, the ability for groups to focus on their mission, whether it’s reproductive justice, or jobs, or fighting climate change.”
Starting with an account of extended staff-executive infighting at the highly-respected Guttmacher Institute, Grim argues that this spat was no isolated outburst:
It’s also true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.
In fact, it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult. It even reached the National Audubon Society, as Politico reported in August 2021.
And that’s not all, Grim writes:
“To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years,” one [Executive Director] concluded. “This is so big. And it’s like abuse in the family — it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And you have to be super sensitive about who the messengers are.”
. . . One senior progressive congressional staffer said that when groups don’t disappear entirely to deal with internal strife, the discord is still noticeable on the other end. “I’ve noticed a real erosion of the number of groups who are effective at leveraging progressive power in Congress. Some of that is these groups have these organizational culture things that are affecting them,” the staffer said. . . .
Then in June 2022, Christmas came early for progressives, in the form of the Dobbs decision. The reaction against the end of Roe v. Wade aborted the long-feared big red wave, and thereby saved the country, temporarily anyway.
After this close call, one might think the progressive forces would now be busy building and deploying new pushback coalitions, aimed squarely at the pressure points where the authoritarian thrusts can be rolled back. They should be up to their neck in planning for the titanic struggle of 2024 that is essentially upon us.
Are they? Whether it’s smart or not, this upsurge of work toward “discussion without division” appears to be part of the reaction to the cumulative evidence of the downside of “traditional” DEI is often an obstacle to such preparation. The shift seems to be an effort to build coalitions with enough cohesion and stamina to last through the coming (nay, imminent) ordeal.
As Ryan Grim put it:
Winning power requires working in coalition with people who, by definition, do not agree with you on everything; otherwise they’d be part of your organization and not a separate organization working with you in coalition. Winning power requires unity in the face of a greater opposition, which runs counter to a desire to live a just life in each moment.
Take the ACLU, a big nonprofit kahuna, which is adaptable enough to have lasted more than a century in the turbulent nonprofit world. In May 2021 it repackaged its anti-racism efforts, ditching that term, and announced a new Systemic Equality Campaign.
The consultancies mentioned in the Times article have clearly been reading all the same reports, and hearing such feedback. As one from NYU said, “‘I’ve heard from so many managers. They can’t stand it anymore — the constant conflict over people’s identities.”
And those managers are close to, or occupy the desks of, the people who sign off on the consultant contracts, and write the checks.
Maybe that’s why, in the web-browsing I’ve done on the sites mentioned in the Times, I haven’t thus far seen words like intersectionality, white fragility; dismantle; gaslight; or even racism. Maybe I missed them, but so far they’re being replaced with phrases like,
“cognitive biases”; “constructive dialogue across differences”; “the confidence to have difficult conversations in and outside of the classroom.” And
“The program provides employees with insights to better understand themselves and others and equips them with skills to engage in constructive dialogue across differences.”
The most intriguing new name in the article was for the Moral Courage College, founded by Irshad Manji. An active reforming Muslim, of Ugandan-Canadian heritage (she now is based in Brooklyn), Manji says she developed her “Moral Courage”-“Discussion Without Division” pedagogy during years of writing and and speaking on behalf of efforts to reform and liberalize Islamic thought and scripture interpretation.
She has faced assaults and death threats in this work, and in 2021, made it the basis of her pivot to DEI consulting Her website explains:
Wait. What is Moral Courage?
In popular culture, Moral Courage means speaking truth to power. But pop culture also pushes the narrative that power only exists “out there” — in the corporate captains, the tech titans, the media moguls, the police, the protestors, the politicians… The System.
The reality is, power also exists within ourselves — in the form of the ego (our primitive brain). The ego’s power manipulates us to feel stressed, fearful, and defensive when we encounter views that differ from our own. Which prevents us from understanding others and, in turn, being understood.
Now more than ever, Moral Courage means speaking truth to the ego’s power so we can learn from multiple perspectives, especially on issues that need solutions.
Manji told the Times that “an almost offensive focus on group labels” is a big problem with mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “It all but compels people to stereotype each other. I happen to be Muslim and a faithful Muslim,” she said. “But that does not mean I interpret Islam like every other Muslim out there.”
Ms. Manji believes that people now use “belonging” as a “tacit acknowledgment that traditional D.E.I. hasn’t worked well.”
Some may be tempted to scoff at all this; and I’m uncertain. But we should soon have some better data on whether these “Belonging” groups can cut the mustard.
They better. Not only their prices are high; the stakes are even higher.
ADDENDUM: A Catalog of Racial Justice Work’s Ever-Evolving vocabulary
Speaking of terminology, I’ve been collecting slogans and phrases associated with racial justice work. I’ve found terms going back almost 250 years, to before the America Revolution. This list is not exhaustive, but it shows how many times the names and descriptions changed as conditions and public debates developed. Many of these terms were once quite prominent in media and academia; then they were succeeded or displaced by others. The article above shows how this evolution is continuing.
Pre-Civil War – 1700s – antebellum–
— Manumissionist (sought to free one slave at a time, by appealing to the owner’s conscience; it actually worked sometimes; cf. John Woolman was a “manumissionist” in the mid-1700s.
— Abolition — there was an Abolition Society founded by Quakers in Philadelphia as early at 1784. But the movement did not really blossom into “abolitionism: until 1830 and after.
1800s – A New Century
—Immediatist–slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania and some other states in a gradual way. But a growing number of activists demanded that all slaves be freed at once; they were the “Immediatists,” and were very much a minority voice.
The abolitionist movement surfaced in 1830 and soon became a national force. It often met with violent responses from slavery supporters, North and South.
This is a sketch of Pennsylvania Hall, May 17, 1838. It was built with donations from abolition supporters, because of their difficulty in finding a pace to meet in the face of public opposition. It was completed and opened in May 1838. Within three days, it was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery terrorist mob..
Civil War -1861-1865
— Jim Crow
— The Nadir
1900–The New Century
— Commission on Interracial Cooperation (Atlanta 1918)
— Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) 1941, FDR Exec Order 8802o
— “Anti-lynching” campaigns & groups: early 1900s.– Human Relations &
— Intercultural education
— Human Rights (UN – 1945)
— Desegregation, 1954 Supreme Court
— Civil Rights
— [U. S. Civil Rights Commission], founded 1957
— Freedom Now! (Mid-1960s) See: https://tinyurl.com/5dxzjby8
— Call for Reparations
— Intergroup relations
— Human Relations & Human Relations Commissions (e.g., Fla , PA [1960s])
— U. S. Equal (Employment) Opportunity Commission (EEOC) est. 1965
[Marginally relevant note: I came in about here.]
— Fair Housing,
— Integration– Affirmative Action
— [Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD)], 1950
— Black Power, 1966
— End Apartheid
2000 — Another new Century/A New Millennium
— Black Lives Matter
— prejudice reduction
— Racial equity
— Racial justice
— Systemic Equality [the ACLU]
“constructive dialogue across differences”
“the confidence to have difficult conversations in and outside of the classroom.”
The program provides employees with insights to better understand themselves and others and equips them with skills to engage in constructive dialogue across differences.