From compliance to diversity: The genealogy of woke capital

As conditions have changed since the 1990s, workplace diversity has evolved. Where diversity management was once the watchword, human-resources officers now talk about “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” while still insisting that race-consciousness is an essential principle of business success. Most firms have followed the trend to appease their employees. As liberal views and employability (as measured by education) have become closely correlated, firms compete for skilled workers by adopting woke corporate cultures, making wokeness a form of nonpecuniary benefit. In the process, the demands of diversity become increasingly excessive. Corporate executives routinely spend their weekends “dismantling whiteness” in elaborate performances.

The transition from compliance to diversity converted race-consciousness from a legal mandate to a feature of doing business and thereby legitimated the pursuit of race-focused political agendas in the workplace. When employees demand, or employers proactively grant, that the company should tweet about Black Lives Matter or hold segregated training events, it is partly because they have adopted the superficial logic of diversity, agreeing that race-conscious policy is fundamental to profitability.

The institutionalization of diversity also explains why worker and activist demands have grown more extreme, from the awkward multiculturalism of the 1990s office to the outright struggle sessions of today. Compliance had limits: though firms competed to prove their level of compliance, a fundamental relationship existed between what regulators said and what companies did. The transition from compliance to diversity marks the moment at which race-conscious corporate policy became unmoored from rational purpose and mutated into a myth. Unlike compliance, diversity is unlimited—unbounded by a rational goal and pursued for its own sake. Organizations have no capacity to reject new diversity initiatives; more diversity is always better. In fact, because diversity is institutionalized, questioning its efficacy at achieving its stated goals gets you nowhere (except fired). Radical ideas leak from the academy into the corporate world as diversity easily absorbs ever more elaborate definitions of race-conscious policy.