We’re backsliding on this diversity thing.

Three years ago, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, everyone vowed to do better by Black America: employers, politicians, institutions from banks to schools to Hollywood. An open letter from a Harvard dean captured many such sentiments by vowing “to be agents of anti-racist social transformation.”

Among people of color, though, there was healthy skepticism. Some things I often heard behind closed doors or on the sidelines of meetings and trainings under the auspices of acronyms (D&I, DEI, DEIB) referring to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging:

  • “This is not a reckoning.”
  • “What’s actually going to change?”
  • “Is this time really different?”

Now we know.

Layoffs are disproportionately affecting minority workers. Meanwhile, return-to-office mandates land differently among women and people of color, who might see working from home as the only way to juggle caregiving and community obligations, or as a safe haven from racism and isolation (being the “only”) on their team. Case in point: As conferences return to in-person setups, we’re once again seeing speaker lineups with no women or people of color on stage. While white guys have been getting C-suite jobs all along, we’ve back in a place where the finalists for such jobs (think Morgan Stanley) are all white and male, too.

Why? Because the diversity efforts of the last three years have been largely cosmetic, performative, and perfunctory. We have barely begun to change the systems contributing to inequity. Nor have we fundamentally examined and overhauled the missions of our organizations that historically excluded people of color. We will be even further hampered if, as expected, the Supreme Court bans the consideration of race in school admissions. And now, faced with these limits and the economic uncertainty of 2023, the response to the little progress made since that historic summer of three years ago—when America roiled amid the Covid pandemic, racial justice protests, and a polarizing presidential campaign—is to … undo it?

How layoffs hurt progress

Employers have been here before. The Great Recession of 2008 undid decades of gains. One study examining the downturn’s effect specifically on diversity in higher education concluded: “Public institutions and research-oriented institutions, which faced the greatest resource challenges and uncertainty about the future, made the biggest cuts in the hiring of people of color. Our findings suggest that financial uncertainty led to a reversal in progress on faculty diversity.”

Over the last few months, similar belt-tightening has defined industries such as media and technology. As I followed the drama of one large organization’s layoffs, I was struck how management (shared via Twitter as screengrabs of Zoom calls) was all Black, the result of multiple much-heralded hires and promotions made within the last three years. And yet people of color also bore the brunt of the cuts.

There are no winners in this scenario, only old habits and establishments growing more deeply entrenched. The last-in, first-out policies of many employers when they shed workers can only exacerbate matters. Ironically, bosses often turn to this method because they think it’s more equitable.

“Layoffs can disproportionately affect women and people of color when companies don’t have diversity spread throughout the organization,” according to a report in Protocol, the technology news website that shut down last year. “More inclusive representation can be concentrated in the entry level and in what are considered to be ‘nonessential’ roles,” such as administrative assistants and, yes, chief diversity officers.

Better approaches might be more time-consuming but preserve diversity: redeploying talent, buyouts, and other types of cost-cutting.

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Why in-person office work breeds racism

Black, Asian, and Latino workers all prefer working at home at higher rates than their white counterparts, according to research conducted by Slack’s (since-shuttered) Future Forum—and yet this finding is rarely mentioned in reams written on returning to in-person work. That’s a mistake, because bosses are asking people to come back without solving for the factors that make them feel unwelcome.

“There’s no need to code-switch when there is no in-person office,” concludes a report released earlier this year by Included, a DEI analytics platform for HR. It cites a stat from Slack’s survey: A staggering 97% of Black knowledge workers said they want to stay remote or hybrid.

Further, the factors being used to foster in-person engagement, such as more happy hours after work, are also breeding grounds for microaggressions and exclusionary behavior.

Such environments reinforce the outsider status of historically marginalized groups, explains Stanford professor Brian S. Lowery. “Among Black people, the experience of discrimination is one of the few negative experiences that actually increases with education,” he says. “One explanation is that as education increases, interactions in predominantly white social spaces also increases.”

Accommodating the other side

I have written before about how the backlash to multicultural curricula and a wave of anti-trans legislation might actually be a reaction to workplace diversity. A recent article in Harvard Business Review lays out why we need to understand the resistance to said diversity initiatives.

“I don’t understand why we need to attend these sessions,” one employee wrote in a feedback survey after a diversity training at L’Oreal, according to HBR, “because we’re not discriminating against any employees to begin with.” This reaction of denial stems from a majority group feeling threatened.

A recent podcast from the newsletter No. 1 Immigrant Daughter, featuring an interview with a non-binary teen of South Asian descent, also explains why the backlash. “I’m seeing more and more people out and more and more people just living their lives as if it’s normal to be out, which is beautiful,” they said. “There’s an increase in queer joy. And that is causing people outside of the community—closed-minded people— fear.”

Of all the backsliding going on, this, to me, is most hurtful. In the days after Floyd’s murder and ensuing protests, so many colleagues vowed to stop making it about them. They bought books to be better “anti-racists” and attended seminars on “being an ally.”

Perhaps that attitude was easier to embrace during better economic and existential times than the ones we currently face. So those who make the moral case for diversity—that racism has been a destabilizing force in this country and it is time to repair the harm—are now looking for new arguments and ways to make white America feel less bad.

Thankfully, there are many such arguments to make. And in the wake of the expected blow to affirmative action to be dealt by the US Supreme Court any day now, it will yet again fall on the private sector to make the business case for diversity.

It turns out that marginalized groups are bellwethers in good times and bad. A joint 2019 report from Fortune and Great Places to Work on how inclusion is a necessary strategy to beat recessions concludes: “Historically marginalized groups … often serve customers directly and are plugged into the reality of how the business is doing. And they are a source of good ideas that many companies overlook—whether those are ideas for cutting costs or generating revenue in new ways.”

Put another way, these vital workers need to be brought into the core operations of your business, rather than seen as additive, fashionable, supplemental. Imagine if a company released a dozen products catering to non-white consumers without any marketing budget or community outreach. How successful would the product be? This is what it means to make structural changes: Extend support and resources across departments. Stop measuring success for diverse products and initiatives based on old metrics of scale and so-called mainstream penetration. Embrace the long game of developing trust, rapport and relationships with a new consumer base.

We can let the past guide us: the Great Places to Work report, for example, examined publicly traded companies during the Great Recession. Those with highly inclusive workplaces thrived before, during, and after the Great Recession. And they gained a four times larger stock return than the S&P 500. At this point in where the economy is headed, getting diversity right seems the only way a business can survive.

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