The Diversity & Inclusion Profession Post-Election – by Deborah Levine

In just the 10 days following the US election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 867 hate harassment incidences ranging from racist and threatening graffiti, fliers, to physical attacks. The unusually high number of incidents were primarily anti-black and anti-immigrant and the most common venues were schools and colleges. In addition, the New York Police Department said it has seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes following the election of Donald Trump, with the majority of incidents directed at Jews, according to New York news outlets.  In a discussion with colleagues, the question came up as to whether the sudden emergence of the dark forces of hate demonstrates a failure of the diversity & inclusion profession.

Why haven’t D&I professionals had a more positive effect on the country?  Have they been focusing too much on unconscious bias and non-discrimination rather than to overt prejudice? Or, have D&I professionals been so hamstrung within the corporate structure that they’ve been sidelined and their impact substantially limited? What can and should be the role for diversity professionals going forward? How can they best intervene directly and indirectly to stop the growth of dark forces in our communities?

The diversity struggle has always been a bumpy ride and the search for wording to make it more acceptable is ongoing. Cultural trends have forced diversity pros into pretzel-like, touchy-feely, aspirational verbiage. ‘Multiculturalism’ was so dissed that we morphed to diversity terminology. That didn’t impact behavior as we’d hoped, so we went to Diversity & Inclusion in hopes of going beyond the numbers hired. Many folks have dropped the word diversity altogether, trying to ditch the negative baggage, and just use Inclusion. I saw one office drop the word ‘diversity’ completely from its title. Yet, since the election, that same office lost 50% of its personnel.

Beyond the language dilemma, the field of diversity has a history of morphing with cultural trends. Diversity moved on from an early emphasis on affirmative action to focus on non-discrimination and anti-harassment. In recent years, the intensity and reach of the global economy broadened the focus much further. International commerce and manufacturing came to the US, and we sent our own industries abroad. Diversity professionals kept up with and cultural competency required in the global village. Their work now includes diverse team building, global leadership, and cross-cultural communication.

There were many left behind in this globalization and technology era for whom inclusion was, all too often, a distant dream. Those affected are frequently described by the label: White working class. In reality, this group consists of multiple categories of impoverished citizens. They include rural America, inner cities, and those associated with industries that were sent elsewhere or bordered on obsolete. They are joined by debt-laden students and part-time workers whose futures do not resemble the American dream.

Our economic inequality dilemma is not owned by diversity professionals, or at least, not by them alone. Increasingly they are isolated in corporations, squeezed budget-wise, and limited too often to creating low-friction events, like culture festivals. Economic woes, particularly since the Great Recession, have caused the American sense of individualism to visibly morph into tribalism. Like rats in an overcrowded cage, the tribes hurl accusations and blame for economic disenfranchisement at each other. The result has been a hostile, divisive political environment that feels like a civil war.

Prior to the election, diversity professionals resorted to ‘unconscious bias’ to increase accountability and lower prejudice, discrimination, and harassment. Being unconscious, any blame was politely implied, not assigned. Now, acting out the ‘unconscious’ is growing more acceptable and if there is any blame, it is assigned to the opposition. Social networks and the internet have speeded up and intensified the process, encouraging intense emotions, particularly negative ones, to replace training and education.

There needs to be a rethinking of the diversity profession today. There are discussions in the works and some changes already. For example: I’ve rarely seen the phrase “White Privilege” since the election. As discussions get underway, There has always been a perception by some of D&I as Political Correctness. Now, discussions will need to address a cultural trend that sees the PC of diversity as irrelevant. Ironically, this sharp U-turn in the culture has been accompanied by overt incidences of harassment and hate. Some of my D&I consultant colleagues report a major post-election increase in the demand for their services. Perhaps the role of diversity professionals is about to emphasize intervention and prevention rather than team building and recruitment.

If the huge uptick in hate incidences can be seen an outgrowth of the election, we can look at diversity professionals, often dissed as ineffective, as successfully keeping a lid on those ‘unconscious’ feelings until the current Trump phenomenon. Yet, many Diversity professionals in institutional settings feel their organizational change impact has been hemmed in and their impact on society has been indirect at best. Few diversity pros hired in the corporate sector were given, or allowed the luxury, of being social activists directly. Now that certain biases have become empowered as pro-American, diversity pros are facing a new era, as are diversity advocates invested in social action.

Today, as I was driving to a university meeting, I saw two grown men fighting on the campus sidewalk, punching each other in the head. One threw the other to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. No one stopped them. I stood on my horn as I drove by and shouted to them to stop. In my youth, I studied judo and karate so that I could intervene on incidents like these. Frankly, as a tiny, grey-haired lady with fragile bones, I was afraid to get more physical. I wondered if I’d failed my professional and personal mission by not doing so.

How are we to move forward in this new environment? Answering that question will require a renewed sense of purpose and an iron will. The audiences have changed, the environment has changed, and the economic realities are in flux. The resulting burst of anarchy that we are now experiencing requires marrying diversity training to conflict management and problem solving. Further, there will need to be a new emphasis on religious diversity that both exposes the players to different belief systems and recruits religious leaders as partners. Who better to offset the hate and intimidation that is being normalized than the designated religious leaders of diverse cultural groups? The combination of these leaders and diversity professional may be able to overcome the anarchistic violence, whether emotional, verbal, or physical that threatening to divide America permanently.



Deborah Levine is an award-winning, best-selling author. As Editor of the American Diversity Report, received the 2013 Champion of Diversity Award from diversitybusiness.com and the Excellence Award from the Tennessee Economic Council on Women. Her writing about cultural diversity spans decades with articles published in The American Journal of Community Psychology, Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, The Bermudian Magazine, and The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. She earned a National Press Association Award, is a Blogger with The Huffington Post, and is featured on C-Span/ BookTV.

6 thoughts on “The Diversity & Inclusion Profession Post-Election – by Deborah Levine”

  1. Thanks for the splendid article, Deborah. I hope your article stimulates a serious discussion about future directions for diversity and inclusion. For the past few years I have had the sense that the diversity-and-inclusion contingent has been suffering from a well-earned crisis in confidence and identity. As D&I has moved further and further away from the pursuit of equity moved toward wrapping itself in the over-hyped “business case for diversity,” it has painted itself into a conceptual corner. We need to get “back to basics” in terms of what brought diversity efforts into existence in the first place back in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Without that, we have surrendered the moral high ground.

    1. The struggle to make the case for diversity has a long history, partly because it’s a difficult moral concept to sell where there’s fear of being shut out. The business case, that diversity increases the bottom line, depended on lifting all boats with the rising economic tide. This election cycle has demonstrated that it’s not the case in a global economy. Rejecting diversity is akin to retreat into an essentially feudal society with rural fiefdoms, dotted with urban areas of a shrinking and at-risk middle class. Yes, I’m looking forward to the debate, too.

  2. Another perspective on the realities of the internal diversity professional, in addition to what Deborah so eloquently points out, is they too are sometimes the recipients of unconscious and conscious bias, the very biases they are focusing on in their organizations. Many get excluded from decisions impacting their work, get overloaded with extraneous stuff unrelated to diversity, get assigned to a new “pass through ” manager who is enroute to sonething bigger, absolutely clueless about, or even hostile, to the work, then gets nailed for lack of diversity progress, not only internally but sometimes by external D&I “experts” who are clueless as to realities of the internal D&I professional. I’ve lost track of the number of such D&I folks who have bailed out of the profession as a result.

  3. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Deborah. This question will follow everyone in the D&I and cultural training field in the future.
    How will interculturalists manage to avoid being sidelined as liberal idealists? How will we defend the relevance and importance of our work in the face of a culture war in which no more neutral zones seem to exist?

    Here’s my take on it: http://theculturemastery.com/2016/11/25/cultural-work-in-a-post-truth-narcissistic-world/

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