Biden starts on the wrong foot: Diversity training divides rather than unites

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In his inaugural address, President Biden promised that “my whole soul is in this. Bringing America together. Uniting our people. Uniting our nation.” Yet later that day, Biden signed an executive order reimposing the divisive diversity training that the Trump administration had suspended.

To be clear, like many social scientists, we see Biden as well-meaning, while President Trump was often mendacious. But to bring Americans together, we must value actions over intentions and choose science over public relations.

The Trump administration’s executive order attempting to limit diversity training in the U.S. government was, by and large, in accord with science. Biden’s undoing of it is not. We have seen the results of diversity training through many decades in higher education. But don’t trust us — trust the science.

Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin acknowledges that more than 1,000 studies indicate that “interventions that have been popularized tend to do nothing or backfire.” Similarly, in “Diversity is Important. Diversity related training is terrible,” Columbia academic and Heterodox Academy researcher Musa al-Gharbi summarizes a broad social scientific literature, concluding with a devastating indictment. Diversity training teaches recipients to give the socially desirable answers to surveys taken right after training. But in the long term, such training usually does more harm than good by reinforcing stereotypes and worsening intergroup relations while failing to increase actual diversity in leadership or to enhance productivity.

Al-Gharbi argues that by focusing on subtle and empirically hazy behaviors such as microaggressions, rather than clear cases of prejudice, training programs lead “many to believe that they have to ‘walk on eggshells’ when engaging with members of minority populations. … As a result, members of the dominant group become less likely to try to build relationships or collaborate with people from minority populations.” Some evidence indicates that diversity training can increase, rather than reduce, turnover among the very groups it is designed to help.

Strikingly, many of those tasked with implementing diversity training programs have viewed them as ineffective. The Minneapolis Police Department mandated diversity training before George Floyd died at the hands of one of its officers. We suspect Floyd’s family failed to appreciate the irony.

So, if diversity training usually fails, why do it? We see at least four reasons, the most important being genuinely good intentions to improve intergroup relations.

The second reason is more cynical. Diversity training is a multibillion-dollar industry that profits from bias incidents. If even one employee says or does something offensive, as in the noted case in which a Starbucks employee called the police on two Black men, a company will summon diversity trainers for public relations purposes, if not to actually make amends. Our own sector of higher education profits from producing diversity trainers, so asking colleges to oppose the practice is a little like asking ExxonMobil to divest from fossil fuels.

Third, once something becomes an industry standard, managers use it whether it works or not. Personnel specialists may not know or care about scientific evaluations — they just want to be perceived as professional.

Finally, you can’t beat something with nothing, and those of us who know the science have done too little to offer sound alternatives. Dobbin and al-Gharbi both indicate that when chosen, rather than imposed, some diversity training programs might be helpful. They say the same for voluntary mentoring programs.

To this we would add lessons from successful diverse organizations such as the U.S. Army, which until recently was one of the few places where it was commonplace for Blacks to boss around whites, as Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler document in “All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way.” Key to the Army’s successes were common missions, transparent merit systems and having Black and white soldiers of equal talent, disproving stereotypical beliefs of Black inferiority.

Alas, for some on the left, merit systems are synonymous with white supremacy. Likewise, as Thomas Sowell shows in “Charter Schools and Their Enemies,” the non-bureaucratic schools that are most successful in building Black human capital are an anathema to key liberal constituencies, on which Biden and many other politicians depend.

So, for political reasons, President Biden had to endorse diversity training programs that sound good but may fail to improve equality or unity in America. This is akin to a war on science.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Craig Frisby is associate professor emeritus at the University of Missouri College of Education.

Tags Discrimination Diversity training Donald Trump Human resource management Joe Biden Multiculturalism

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