Transcript: Conor Friedersdorf
My interview with the staff writer for The Atlantic
In recent years, we have seen the diversity, equity, and inclusion industry explode in popularity and prevalence. But my guest on this week’s program says that at its worst, DEI runs from useless to counterproductive. And he thinks companies would be better off giving the lavish DEI consulting fees directly to the poor.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a Substack newsletter that highlights exceptional non-fiction writing. Last week, he published a piece at The Atlantic titled “The DEI Industry Needs to Check Its Privilege.”
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Conor, welcome to Lean Out.
CF: Thanks for having me.
TH: It's great to have you on. I've followed your work for some time, so it's nice to have the chance to chat. We're going to talk today about your latest piece for The Atlantic, “The DEI Industry Needs to Check its Privilege.” You write, after the murder of George Floyd, "a poor Black man's death became a pretext to sell hazily defined consulting services to corporations, as if billions in outlays, mostly among relatively privileged corporate workers, was an apt and equitable response." Give us the broad strokes of how you think this “DEI gold rush,” as you put it, came about. How did we get here?
CF: I think after George Floyd's murder, there was an idea among people from all walks of society that we must never let this happen again. It was a galvanizing event that I liken it in the piece to the September 11th attacks, to the assassination of Martin Luther King — moments when everyone in society sees this clear act of depravity and thinks, “Oh, we have to do something.”
Some people were positioned to do something really directly related to George Floyd's murder. If you were a police chief, if you were a city council, you could say, "Okay, we're going to look at our training. We're not going to allow our police officers to kneel on necks to restrain people.” Or perhaps, “We're going to have a duty to intervene if you see another police officer doing that.” We might have body cameras. You can think of all sorts of ways that a police department in particular might put something into place to try and prevent anything like this from happening again.
Then George Floyd's life suggests other things. That might be not primary causes of his death — which I think everyone agrees is the police officer who murdered to him — but what we've now taken to calling more systemic or institutional problems that put him in this position. George Floyd was someone who had a few arrests and a criminal record from earlier in his life and seemed, by all accounts, to earnestly try to turn his life around and had a pretty tough time doing it.
Why was that? You could look to addiction problems, and you could think maybe if there would have been a better approach to addiction, or better social services surrounding addiction, could that have helped things? You could look at poverty. He was laid off the last time through no fault of his own, during the pandemic when things shut down. Would he have been trying to pass a counterfeit bill that day if there were better unemployment insurance or job retraining?
You can think of a dozen different ways that you could improve the social safety net in America. You could reduce poverty and maybe people who are hurting or at the bottom of society, the least well-off among us, would be helped in some way that would maybe reduce overall contact with law enforcement and might prevent this kind of thing from happening.
If you were a corporation with a workforce that was mostly college-educated, that was employed full-time, were you really in a position to do anything directly to stop anything like this from happening again? I would say, insofar as you have money that you're willing to donate to causes like the ones I've just been talking about, yes. Instead, corporations seem to respond specifically to the George Floyd moment by doing something that the corporate sector, to be clear, did long before this moment, which is to hire DEI consultants to come in and address staff.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is this bundling of three concepts. All three of them, you could have an hour-long conversation about what they mean and how different people mean different things by them. Then you bundle them together and it's a whole different story, it's even more complicated of what they mean. The way that it's used in a lot of the DEI training slide decks and presentations and sales pitches that I've seen, the consultants will say things like, “Oh, this will help you with retention.” Or, “This will make everyone feel a bigger sense of belonging at work.” Or, “This is going to help your bottom line.”
All of those things may be worthy goals for a business, or might be an admirable goal for society, but it's hard to see them as an apt or appropriate response to the murder of a poor person who is struggling with addiction. It struck me that this industry was using this tragedy, this depravity, this terrible thing that happened, in order to sell something that — whether you think it's good or bad or neutral — in its own right really isn't an apt response, I didn't think.
TH: Let's dig into what DEI is. Because as you've just pointed out, and as you've written in the past, many people talking about DEI are talking past one another. I've sat through one of these trainings. Given that The Atlantic runs them for new hires, maybe you have too. Let's talk a little bit about what we know now. There is some research data now. What is the effectiveness of DEI training?
CF: In my piece, I link to this Harvard Business Review writeup of these scholars that have done what seems to me to be the best meta-analysis of the most companies doing DEI. This goes back to — I believe they began in the early aughts. They basically found that most DEI programming that corporations do doesn't seem to have a particular effect. There's been some scholarship, and I'm forgetting the name of the particular scholars, that shows that there can be some backlash effect when you have these trainings.
At the same time, there are some interventions that you could think of as going under the DEI category that I would be supportive of, and that I would think are effective. For example, in the world of symphony orchestras, when there are auditions the musicians are sitting behind a screen. No one knows who they are. They're just listening to them play the music. This is intended to make it so that their appearance or their gender or their race aren't affecting the evaluation on some subconscious/unconscious bias level.
Now, I'm not saying that I've delved into the scholarship on this and they've done a comparative study and orchestras that do it one way are more diverse than another. But that seems to be a common sense approach that would reduce any consideration of bias, and reduce the perception of bias, and would make everyone feel, “Okay, we're going to get an equal fair shot when we play the violin behind the screen.” If someone said that's a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative at this symphony orchestra, I think many people would say, "Oh, that makes total sense. I can see how that would fall under those concepts, or under that bundle of concepts."
At the same time, some of the corporate trainings you'll see will try to educate the people taking the training in the difference between the concepts of equality and equity. They will show a slide deck that demonstrates these things as a subset of how critical theorists understand it. It might strike many listeners — it strikes me — as a leap in logic to suggest that understanding the academic definitions of these two things would necessarily change the way that coworkers relate to one another at a company that makes tennis rackets or shaving cream or whatever. Why would understanding that advance the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion? It's hard to find coherent explanations of that, and I've looked.
I've sat through different trainings for different corporations that sometimes sources share with me. Sometimes they're posted on YouTube. I really think that something about the vagueness and the amorphousness of the bundle of DEI allows for vague and amorphous concepts to be put forth under the umbrella.
It seems to me that if what we're interested in, for example, is retaining talent — if we've said, “We're going to have a diverse workplace, we're going to recruit people from all over, but they get here, they're leaving and we don't know why. We're losing a higher percentage of African American employees ,or Latino employees, or whatever it is, female employees. We want to remedy that” … You could say, "Okay, we're going to bring in a DEI consultant and have a training." But to me it would make more sense not to respond to that by talking about a need for more DEI, but rather "We're going to bring in someone who is an expert at retention, and we're going to figure out how to retain more employees." There's just a more direct thing, a more direct conceptual way to get at it.
I often think that with a lot of the things under the DEI umbrella that I'm most supportive of. It's like, “Well, if what you're worried about is bigoted language, or if what you're worried about is sexual harassment, or if what you're worried about is that you have a cohort of employees who are socioeconomically poor, and they can't get to work easily because they have to take the bus and the city's bus system is suffering” — these are all very particular things that you could address in very particular ways. It seems to me that we've abstracted anything and everything under this DEI umbrella in a way that makes it very hard to measure whether it's succeeding or not.
In our conversation here, we've been talking about two different baskets. One is how to improve work life at a given corporation, and the other is how to advance social justice in society. I guess my perspective would be that there are lots of things that might help at a corporation that may or may not improve social justice in society, and I'm all for tackling them in specific, coherent ways. Then, if the question is, “What do we want to do about the murder of a poor person at the hands of police?” or “How do we want to increase equity in society generally?” — probably we want to give money to the people who are worst off in our society.
I understand that's a complicated question of how you define that. Some people would want to define it in terms of class alone, in terms of poor people, people below the poverty line. Others might want to define it in terms of historically discriminated-against groups. However you define it — whether you want it to be poor people, or descendants of slaves, or African Americans or anyone who's ever been discriminated against in America — it seems to me that merely giving those people, however you define them, resources directly is a much better way to increase equity, the purported goal of at least a third of DEI, than filtering it through this strange industry of consultants. Where no one is quite sure what the expertise is or what the product is, and the scholarship seems to suggest that it doesn't even necessarily do anything once you go through these trainings.
TH: Another issue is that these trainings can be quite overtly ideological, and that there is a strange thing — having to agree to a political project at work. You can definitely be for wanting a more diverse workplace, a workplace in which everyone feels comfortable and welcomed, but find this method overtly political. What are your thoughts on that?