Stephanie Mehta is editor in chief of Fast Company.

I am the beneficiary of what used to be called affirmative action, or what today would be called diversity and inclusion programs. An internship for promising minority journalists turned into my first full-time job as a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, a daily newspaper in Norfolk. An informational interview at an annual conference for Asian American journalists led to my next gig as a writer at the Wall Street Journal. Along the way I met many brilliant journalists of color who, like me, got their start through internships or recruitment efforts specifically designed to diversify newsrooms, and I proudly watched peers go on to become top editors, photographers and designers at major newspapers, magazines and websites.

As a business journalist, however, I’ve chronicled the slow progress people of color have made in the corporate world, even as companies spend, by one measure, more than $8 billion a year on diversity initiatives. In fact, in some regards we’ve gone backward: There hasn’t been an African American woman leading a Fortune 500 company since 2016, when Ursula Burns stepped down as chief executive of Xerox. There are three African American men running Fortune 500 companies today, down from six in 2012.

So I was eager to read Pamela Newkirk’s “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business,” hoping it would skewer those peddling hollow inclusivity bromides and canned bias-training classes, and offer case studies on institutions that have been effective and authentic in making their ranks culturally diverse.

Newkirk, a journalist and author, ably chronicles the long history of bias and discrimination that has held back the advancement of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans at companies and universities. She explains the significance of landmark legal cases, including major racial-discrimination settlements paid by Coca-Cola and Texaco. She examines the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups in Hollywood, a conversation that garnered global attention when a frustrated Twitter user, April Reign, created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

But Newkirk misses a chance to really get inside modern institutions that have blown it despite allocating significant resources to the challenge. Google, she notes, reportedly spent $114 million on diversity programs in 2014 and $150 million in 2015, yet in 2019 African Americans made up only 2 percent of its tech workforce. Newkirk faults Google for failing to address the shortage of African American and Hispanic students entering computer science programs — and that’s a legitimate critique. How is it that a company that can autocomplete my email messages and tell me how to drive to virtually any destination in the world can’t figure out how to solve the “pipeline” problem and attract and retain more engineers of color? But even accounting for a smaller pool of black and Hispanic computer scientists, Google, with its lucrative pay packages, generous perks and interesting projects, theoretically should have an overrepresentation of diverse tech talent. There’s probably a larger culture problem at one of the world’s most influential companies, but “Diversity, Inc.” doesn’t pursue it.

Newkirk does offer one significant corporate success story. As part of a $192 million bias settlement in 2000, Coca-Cola agreed to change its personnel policies to ensure fair compensation and promotion. Newkirk credits Coca-Cola’s progress — in February, the company boasted that people of color make up a quarter of its top leadership team — to a court-approved task force that ensured Coca-Cola lived up to its promises, underscoring the need for outside watchdogs. She also praises chief executives E. Neville Isdell and Muhtar Kent for personally making diversity a priority. But she resorts to jargon — “systems” and “assessments” — to describe the hard work of reversing decades of discrimination. There surely are important pragmatic lessons from Coke’s experience: How do you redesign worker evaluations to eliminate bias? How do you suss out and fix pay gaps? How do you build training programs that don’t elicit eye rolls?

“Diversity, Inc.” is most potent when Newkirk writes about the human toll of discrimination. She details how Linda Ingram, a black information analyst at Coca-Cola, was ostracized by co-workers after she complained about racially insensitive remarks from a supervisor. Ingram grew depressed, took a long-term disability leave and eventually had to sell her house to help pay her bills. Bari-Ellen Roberts, the lead plaintiff in the Texaco lawsuit, was saddled with unrealistic assignments and poor performance reviews after she talked to the oil company’s human resources department about improving diversity, and how it felt to be treated as inferior or unqualified. As a cancer survivor, she tells Newkirk: “The discrimination plays on your health.”

Newkirk concludes her book by declaring that the barrier to equality in schools and the workplace ultimately isn’t the fault of ineffectual players in the diversity-industrial complex but rather society itself. “Racial diversity will only be achieved once White America is weaned off a prevailing narrative of racial preeminence — a belief system as intoxicating and addictive, and ultimately destructive, as any opiate,” she writes. “Change will require resources and resolve, but no amount of money, no degree of effort, will succeed alongside a willful negation of our shared humanity.” Her view is echoed by diversity consultant Steve Bucherati, who recalls that the most effective corporate inclusion programs emphasize fair treatment of all employees and speak to “everybody in the workplace. The civil way to behave.”

Simply by reminding readers of the stories of people like Ingram and Roberts, dedicated employees who endured unthinkable humiliation — the “uncivil” ways in which they were treated, simply because of their race — “Diversity, Inc.” may do more to help advance the cause of workplace inclusion than any canned bias-training program ever could.

Diversity, Inc.

The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business

By Pamela Newkirk

Bold Type.
261 pp. $27