Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives now represent significant investments for institutions in every sector of the American economy, from museums to Google to the military. What was once the language of academics and activists has become mainstream—as illustrated by a June 2021 article in a lumber and building trade publication, with the headline “Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Are Crucial for Lumberyards,” asking how companies in the industry could “make their workforce more inclusive of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).” Spurred by the antiracist protests in the summer of 2020, corporation after corporation has come to seek diversity training from external consultants. The DEI industry is accordingly doing well, but is it doing any good?

For the American journalist Zaid Jilani, who’s researched diversity initiatives with the University of California, Berkeley, the answer is not encouraging. Jilani says that the problem isn’t with the goal of diversity but with mainstream organizational approaches to it. Cultural and viewpoint diversity are, he thinks, good for society; but they’re also crucial for problem solving and other kinds of organizational capability. And the marginalization of underrepresented groups isn’t just unfair; it’s a marginalization of talent. But as Jilani sees it, U.S. corporations have tended to define the idea of diversity narrowly and develop programs for it poorly. A vision of diversity where “everybody looks different but thinks the same” reduces people to racial or ethic categories, without fostering the kinds of substantive differences that represent real organizational strength. At worst, DEI trainings force people to label themselves in ways they find uncomfortable. At best, they’re unlikely to have any long-term impact on employees’ attitudes or on institutional environments generally. A “deeper diversity” is only achievable, Jilani says, on the basis of a deeper understanding of diversity as an idea, applied through longer-term institutional shifts.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What does the idea of diversity mean now?

Zaid Jilani: I’m not sure everyone who hears the word thinks the same thing. When I was growing up in the 1990s, diversity just meant having a rainbow of different people. It was basically seen as something positive, just because it’s good for everyone and everything not to be the same. We need variety in life, that kind of thing. I don’t think the idea was very politicized back then.

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