Facing backlash in February over a sweater that looked like blackface, Gucci followed a now predictable course. Company officials apologized for appearing to mine demeaning imagery from the past; hired a global diversity czar, who is African American; and vowed to create multicultural scholarships and a more diverse workforce. Burberry announced similar efforts after it showed a hoodie that looked like a noose the same month, and Prada did the same in 2018 after it had unveiled a line of figurines that also resembled blackface.
This is not just the playbook of the fashion industry. Dozens of companies and institutions have sought to deflect controversy over embarrassing missteps or revelations of homogeneous boards and workplaces by launching high-profile initiatives or enlisting a person of color for a prominent post.
In 2003, MIT professor Thomas Kochan noted that companies were spending an estimated $8 billion a year on diversity efforts. But since Trump’s election, and with the emergence of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the industry has exploded. A 2019 survey of 234 companies in the S&P 500 found that 63% of the diversity professionals had been appointed or promoted to their roles during the past three years. In March 2018, the job site Indeed reported that postings for diversity and inclusion professionals had risen 35% in the previous two years.
The lucrative industry shows few signs of waning–from the spike in well-compensated diversity consultants and czars; to online courses and degree programs at prestigious schools; to professional organizations and conferences; to the commissioning of ever more studies, task forces and climate surveys. The buzzword is emblazoned on blogs and books and boot camps, and Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass-media and information firm, even created a Diversity and Inclusion Index to assess the practices of more than 5,000 publicly traded companies globally.
But while business targeting diversity is flourishing, diversity is not.
People of color–who make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population–remain acutely underrepresented in most influential fields. From 2009 to 2018 the percentage of black law partners inched up from 1.7% to 1.8%. From 1985 to 2016, the proportion of black men in management at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees barely budged–from 3% to 3.2%. People of color held about 16% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018. A 2018 survey of the 15 largest public fashion and apparel companies found that nonwhites held only 11% of board seats and that nearly three-quarters of company CEOs were white men. And in the top 200 film releases of 2017, minorities accounted for 7.8% of writers, 12.6% of directors and 19.8% of lead roles.
A look at higher education–where, in fall 2017, 81% of full-time professors at degree-granting postsecondary schools were white while just 3% were Hispanic and 4% were black–is helpful in understanding the forces that allow these disparities to persist. Though the 1960s saw the introduction of affirmative-action policies intended to address the history of slavery followed by centuries of discrimination against people of color, decades of legal challenges have undermined these measures. Since 1978, for example, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke has prohibited institutions from using racial quotas or other remedies to address past discrimination.
Because of this decision, says Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who as president of the University of Michigan was named in two lawsuits in which white students who’d been denied admission claimed reverse discrimination, “we’re deprived of the context that gave it a sense of mission. Every college leader is told, ‘Do not refer to history.'”
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