At an event I moderated with Newkirk earlier this month at Politics and Prose Bookstore here in Washington, I asked why is such a failed business a billion-dollar business in the United States. “That was the question that prompted my journey to try to figure out why are companies spending billions of dollars on something that clearly has not moved the needle nearly enough over the past five decades,” Newkirk said in the conversation that is the latest episode of “Cape Up.”
By moving the needle, Newkirk means the efforts by every profession to address glaring lacks of diversity and to increase representation in their ranks. Interestingly, she notes that the professions that are considered progressive, such as fashion and the arts, “that’s where diversity is most acutely lacking.” The same goes for journalism. “Diversity has been a preoccupation of our industry for decades and yet the numbers for African Americans, for Latinos, for Asians are still really, really low,” said Newkirk, a former journalist who is now a journalism professor at New York University. “Yet, companies are investing billions of dollars every year largely to pay for measures that have been proven to fail.”
According to Newkirk, here’s why those measures fail.
“To just talk about what institutions are doing to diversify without talking about the social context in which they’re attempting to do this, it makes the whole thing so abstract, right? . . . You have to connect the dots,” Newkirk explained. “If you don’t understand the ways in which African Americans have been demonized in this country, then you don’t understand what we’re talking about when we say, ‘Black lives matter.’ You don’t understand why these diversity initiatives don’t work. You have to really have a sense of what it is that we’re actually experiencing.”
When it comes to the failure of diversity training specifically, Newkirk said, “It assumes that you can train people in a few hours to undo centuries worth of damage that’s been done.” But there is an even bigger problem with diversity training. “What those training sessions have been found to do is trigger a backlash, a resentment, particularly by white men,” Newkirk said. The first time I heard of this negative aspect of diversity training was when journalist Joanne Lipman came on the podcast last year to talk about her book on gender equity in the workplace. She related the story of a conversation she had with a man who told her he felt beaten up during the diversity training he went through and that the message he came away with was “It’s all your fault.”
This sentiment puts people of color in those sessions in a terrible bind where their desire to point out inequities and hostilities smack up against the reality of putting their livelihoods at risk. British filmmaker Misan Sagay summed up the dilemma presented for all concerned in the pages of “Diversity Inc.,” when she told Newkirk, “People want diversity as long as they don’t have to do it. A lot of the times they want our physical presence, but not our voice.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Newkirk talk about about the explosion in companies and consultants doing diversity work. She talks about the companies and individuals who are doing it right and how they are getting results. And she reveals what the billions of dollars being spent on this work really should be used for.
“Imagine if the multibillions were spent on getting diversity, hiring people, training people,” said Newkirk. “Imagine what could happen if that money was directed in more fruitful ways.”