Yglesias: A good way to reduce racism might be to do away with mandatory diversity training

Showing once again why he didn’t fit in with the progressive orthodoxy at Vox, Matt Yglesias has a piece up on his Substack today arguing that diversity training might be doing more harm than good. The whole piece covers a lot of territory but he starts by arguing that there’s not a lot of certainty about what works in terms of anti-racist training, but there is some evidence about what doesn’t work.

…as best I can tell, none of the literature seems to support the idea that in-your-face calling-out tactics are effective. What seems to work best are fairly gentle suasion tactics plus efforts to get more people into casual integrated interactions.

In other words, what doesn’t work is what is very popular right now, i.e. Robin DiAngelo telling people that if you disagree with her it’s proof you’re racist. Yglesias doesn’t mention DiAngelo by name but he does argue that, in general, the kind of diversity training that has become common in corporations and colleges is probably doing more harm than good.

Business executives believe that doing these programs has genuine value to the bottom line in terms of protecting them in the face of lawsuits, so they are fairly widespread. Critically, however, the lawsuit-protecting attributes of training do not require the trainings to be effective, and they generally are not. Indeed, as this summary from Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in Harvard Business Review hints, the main question in this literature is whether the trainings backfire by annoying people:

Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases? Researchers have been examining that question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies. It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.

Some of the backlashes can be very bad. Leigh Wilton, Evan Apfelbaum, and Jessica Good find that emphasizing themes of multiculturalism can increase subjects’ belief in race essentialism (consider Tema Okun’s work in this light) while Madeline E. Heilman and Brian Welle find that when teams are assembled with an explicit diversity goal in mind, women and Black group members are perceived as less competent, and “this effect occurred regardless of the proportional representation of women or the degree of the groups’s heterogeneity.”

I don’t think many on the left are actually super enthusiastic about these diversity trainings, but the general sense is also that only a bitter crank would actually complain about them. But there is real evidence that they are at least sometimes making things worse, which strikes me as a big deal. For example, Michelle Duguid and Melissa Thomas-Hunt find that when you tell people that stereotyping is widespread, they stereotype more.

I highlighted that bit above because I think there’s a lot more to be examined there. If this training is counter-productive, shouldn’t everyone just say so? Why are so many people worried about being perceived as bitter cranks? Where did that idea come from. As it happens, I think it comes from Robin DiAngelo’s white fragility, i.e. from the same people making bank off the current approach to anti-racism.

In any case, this leads Yglesias to three bullet points about how to improve the current situation. The first is doing away with the legal protections companies enjoy because they host these training sessions. The idea is that if companies weren’t motivated to host them for financial reasons, they would stop and maybe invest in other approaches that might actually work. In fact that’s point three, finding alternatives that actually work.

His second bullet point is the one that caught my eye: “Doing fewer diversity trainings would, based on the evidence, likely somewhat reduce racism.” That’s just a restatement of what he’s argued above, i.e. if anti-racism training is counterproductive then a genuine anti-racist would seek to stop requiring such training, but it’s still striking.

This is where the rubber really hits the road but instead of drilling down on what seems like a key point, Yglesias sort of moves on. But the obvious point here is that anti-racism is now big business. It’s an industry with high-profile thought leaders and hundreds of individual trainers offering variations on a theme for a price. DEI has also become a growing career path for people which often seems to amount to the same messages and approaches but delivered by people who are part of the company rather than hired guns from outside.

All of these people are committed to the concept of anti-racism and I suspect few would agree that their work is counter-productive. But what if you could demonstrate that it is? Would their commitment to anti-racism lead them to abandon their own jobs? Or would they stay on the career path regardless of what the research says? To put a fine point on it, what does Robin DiAngelo believe about the efficacy of her own work? Given that she’s now made a tremendous amount of money off her workshops and bestselling book, would it be possible to get her to admit her methods are counterproductive?

I think the answer is pretty obvious. DiAngelo’s whole approach (white fragility) is labeling any opposition to her message as evidence of the need for her message. So good luck convincing her that, actually, her approach might be doing more harm than good. She’d just roll her eyes at the idea all the way to the bank.