The Magazine

Where Everybody Is Disadvantaged

Postcards from the diversity follies.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By MATT LABASH
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The whole farcical spectacle was sent up brilliantly on the "Diversity Day" episode of the NBC show The Office in which Michael, the clueless Caucasian manager of the Scranton branch office of a paper company, has to see his troops undergo diversity training after he performed an n-word-laden Chris Rock routine ("How come Chris Rock can do a routine and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking; then I go do the same exact routine, same comedic timing, and people file a complaint to corporate?"). Feigning the enthusiasm he thinks his overlords want to see ("I wish every day was diversity day"), he tries to muscle the diversity trainer aside and take over the proceedings himself.

"Why don't we go around," says Michael, "and everybody, EVERYBODY, say a race that you are attracted to sexually. I will go last."

Throughout corporate America, adults were infantilized, intelligence was insulted. Few escaped humiliation even if the extent of their participation was merely bearing witness.

This is not to say such diversity training, and infinite variations thereof, don't still transpire constantly. They do. American business, always keen to adopt suspect managerial fads and enforce them with ruthless repetitiveness, still spends $200-300 million a year on it. Ninety percent of Fortune 500 companies have had diversity training, even though studies have shown it doesn't work as advertised. The Washington Post reported last year on a study led by Alexandra Kalev, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, which comprehensively reviewed 31 years of data from 830 mid-to-large U.S. workplaces. The findings: Diversity training exercises at companies were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. Black female managers declined by 10 percent, and black men in top positions fell by 12 percent, with similar numbers for Asians and Latinos.

But the good folks attending the National Multicultural Business Conference have grown well beyond the training-wheels stage of thinking that diversity in business is just about diversity training. The diversity business is now just that. It's a top-to-bottom emphasis on diversity in everything from recruitment to retention to promotion. Its latest push is implementing supplier diversity, which holds that it's not enough for you to emphasize diversity in your own company, but that you must also inflict it on other companies by doing business with suppliers who are even more diverse than you are.

The only sort of diversity that isn't much championed is diversity of thought, as there's little room for those who think it's a waste of time to overemphasize diversity in transacting business. The need for 24/7 diversity, says Frederick Lynch, the author of The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the "White Male Workplace," is no longer an argument, it's now "in the bricks of American business," as companies even staff full-time diversity-officers.

Consequently, its practitioners have largely forsaken the earlier polarizing blame-whitey rhetoric, going with a softer, yet more ambitious and business-friendly "dollars and demographics" rationale, as Lynch puts it. This holds that valuing diversity is no longer just doing the right thing, but that it is also essential to a company's bottom line in a globalized economy, with rapidly shifting racial demographics at home that make it necessary for companies to look more like their customers.

Hence the opening for outfits like our conference host. Launched in 1999 by Kenton Clarke, who is black, DiversityBusiness.com boasts over 46,000 members, making it the largest organization of what it awkwardly calls "diversity owned businesses." DiversityBusiness.com has a magazine reaching 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and a website that garners 1.2 million visitors per month. Many of those visitors aren't just mom-and-pop minority business owners, but corporations looking to meet some demographic goals and score public relations points. They fall all over themselves to sponsor the conferences, small-timers you may have heard of like the United States Postal Service, Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Cisco amongst scores of others. Gaining everything from access to more than 350,000 minority small business contacts to cash-cow federal and state government bid listings, suppliers/small businesses pay up to $369 a year for membership, while buyers/organizations/HR departments pay up to $799 per year.

It's a far cry from playing Diversity Dodgeball or watching Everyday People-singing middle managers suffering through autoharp solos.