America has promoted increased racial diversity in business and academic environments since the 1980s. Despite this, there has been little change in the representation of African-Americans as CEOs and senior managers, or academic administrators and tenured professors. In fact, relative to the growing importance of key sectors and essential research fields like STEM underrepresentation of minorities has become more acute over the last two decades. So, although both Wall Street and ‘The Ivory Tower’ have spent billions to promote greater diversity there appears to be little return on investment.

The failure of most diversity initiatives is recognized, but not fully understood. The promotion of diversity in America fails partly because even the most noble creators of diversity programs can’t differentiate between what diversity looks like and what it means. Initiatives fail because they either alienate the minorities needed to create diversity or threaten the established culture of the business or university being diversified. The result is a default search for people of color to create the appearance of diversity efforts without real and substantive change of the organization’s culture. No matter how committed the organization may be to cultural diversity, initiatives also fail due to a lack of qualified and interested minorities.

Kenneth Frazier at Merck, Roger Ferguson Jr. at TIAA, and Marvin Ellison at JC Penny are the only African-American CEOs of a Fortune 500 company

“You say diversity, I say inclusivity…”

As a recent Forbes article puts it, “It’s not news to anyone that there is a diversity problem in the U.S. workforce.” It has been more than three decades since American corporations began developing diversity initiatives and little has changed in terms of African-American representation amongst CEOs and senior management of top 500 businesses. Only 3 of the Fortune 500 companies (0.6 percent!) currently have black CEOs, and the percentage of African-American representation amongst senior executives and management has stayed essentially static between 3% and 3.3% since 1990. The Harvard Business Review reports that in some key sectors such as commercial banking there has been a decline in the overall level of diversity.

The story in academia is essentially the same. Despite decades of initiatives and programs, growth in the diversity of college administrators and senior faculty has been relatively stagnant. And when key fields within STEM are examined not only is there a decline in diversity since the 1980s, there are measurable inequities in pay, tenure, and overall professional opportunity for African-Americans. There is no doubt that diversity amongst undergraduate and graduate students has increased substantially over the last three decades, and will continue to do so. But despite three decades of widespread diversity initiatives aimed at hiring African-American faculty and administrators, there appear to be few success stories. Like the promotion of diverse leadership in major corporations, there has been no real change in the underrepresentation of African-Americans. The question is “why?”

The dreaded diversity workshop…

All diversity initiatives begin with one of two motivations: the promotion of diversity (aesthetic diversity), or the creation of diversity (cultural diversity). Many program failures begin with the belief that these are the same thing making it fatally flawed at inception. Aesthetic diversity is the checking of boxes, the placement and utilization of token minorities in certain positions, and the overall understanding that you are searching for a minority that fits the already existing culture. Cultural diversity is a fundamental alteration of organizational missions, goals, and processes as part of incorporating minority viewpoints into key decisions and leadership. It is ultimately defined by how much members of the existing organizational culture realize (and accept) that their thinking, their behavior, and perhaps even their jobs will be changed by the diversity initiative.

For a variety of reasons, it is the inability to conceptualize cultural diversity that leads to aesthetic diversity as the default goal of whatever initiative or program is designed. The default is made easier to choose due to bureaucratic “how to make diversity” guidelines of federal laws like Title VII and EOP being the only metric of success. And so, every major corporation and university in America works their way through a paint-by-numbers approach to creating diversity that’s tailored to their existing culture. Because the final picture is different than it used to be they believe they have created diversity. But it requires ignoring the reality that the picture from last year’s company Christmas party hasn’t changed at all.

At the beginning of every diversity initiative, members of the corporate or academic culture in question must be BOTH willing and able to recognize the need for diversity. When it comes to the willingness to promote diversity there are many explanations for internal resistance and even hostility to initiatives. Some of the more selfish or immoral reasons include racism, sexism, or enjoyment of personal benefits from the unequal status quo. In my experience however most resistance comes from a “sincere ignorance” to what a diverse work or learning environment looks like. Regardless of the cause or source, considering these individuals are also the ones defining the meaning, processes, and goals of diversity programs it is easy to see how even the most well-meaning initiatives can derail before they’ve even left the station.

It may be surprising for some to hear that the key consideration for most diversity initiatives is NOT promoting diversity, i.e. fundamental changes of the business’ or university’s culture regarding the perceptions and roles of minorities as key leaders and decision-makers. Rather, it is to avoid or at least limit as much as possible the disruptions to the organization’s existing culture caused by promoting diversity in the first place. The reason for this is one of the least talked about aspects of diversity initiatives: the implied racial indictment of the existing culture of what are essentially successful businesses and institutions of higher learning. By calling for greater diversity the leadership of businesses and universities is being called out and blamed for a problem that some of them are not fully aware of, or even believe exists. Because the most successful individuals in both cases are likely to be white males, “woke” or not there is an immediate and defensive cynicism that develops towards diversity initiatives, their underlying psychologies, and the African-Americans they are ultimately meant to help.

The call for greater diversity in corporate and university leadership, as well as senior management and faculty positions, is from their perspective a call for them to publicly shame and then replace themselves with a minority. It is not hard to imagine individuals who have already spent most of their professional lives in firmly established cultures of inequality being driven from personal and organizational perspectives to resist the diversity initiative. This is the most common path by which programs are routed away from deeper changes to organizational culture towards a more symbolic and bureaucratic understanding of diversity. In so doing the initiatives sidestep one problem only to encounter a new one: incorporating new minority hires into the illusion of diversity.

Make yourself at home! Please don’t change anything…”

All diversity initiatives operate with the explicit goal of promoting change of an organization’s structure and culture through increased minority representation and inclusion. The pursuit of aesthetic diversity reduces the actual impact of change on the existing corporate or university culture, while allowing leadership and members to literally “check the boxes” of diversity promotion. Through developing initiatives and programs associated with Title VII and EOP guidelines the organization creates a series of forms, training sessions, and videos to explain to the people in the room why they need to respect people that don’t look like them. It is not seen as a foundation for building a new and more diverse business culture. Instead, diversity is an investment any business or university receiving federal funding must make knowing in advance that it may not produce a bottom-line return on investment. But what if you’re successful? What if you’re able to hire two or three (or ten!) qualified African-Americans into a pool of 100 white faculty or senior executives?

In the fall of 2014 a significant episode took place at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Black students, athletes, and activists concerned over what they saw as a long-standing culture of racism eventually forced most of the university’s senior administrators including the President and Chancellor to resign. Approximately two weeks after the issues at Missouri had become national news the University I was working for, which was in a deep-red Midwestern state, held its fall faculty meeting. Discussions included creation of a university “Working Group on Diversity” whose only minority representation was a newly hired Korean American business professor. Most of the discussion focused on campus security, with the presentation culminating with the president saying in reference to the protesters, “We have to make sure we don’t let those people come here and take over.”

At just about every job I’ve ever had I am the diversity initiativeAs I looked around the room of 90+ white faces to catch the eyes of the ONE other full-time African American faculty member the difference between aesthetic and cultural diversity smacked me in the face. Where I came from in New York using the term “those people” in any way, shape or form referencing African-Americans was simply not done. The fact that it had just been used in an open forum to establish the entire university’s response to the ethnic and racial issues taking place at the University of Missouri was for me a clear signal that there were real problems at the institution. My mistake was thinking most of my white colleagues understood the problem the president’s comments revealed. My undoing was asking why they didn’t.

Protesters on Missouri campus, 2014

For most of my white colleagues it was simply a non-issue. It was not that they didn’t care about diversity or me personally, they just couldn’t understand why I was making such a big deal out of the president and university wanting to avoid the sort of chaos and negative spotlight that was hitting Missouri University. There were a few that were sympathetic to my concerns, but there were neither the numbers nor the commitment to make an issue out of it. This left me playing the role of the “angry black man” as I tried to convince people that the comments, other behaviors, and the sheer lack of diversity at our university represented just the sort of problem that had caused the Missouri upheaval in the first place.

The irony was most of my colleagues and administrators came to see my concerns over potential racial bias and discrimination as ‘fake news’ precisely because I failed to accept the illusion of diversity that had been created. My attempts to explain and illustrate some of the most basic issues that would in fact be at the core of any diversity initiative (e.g. respecting minority viewpoints, diversity of leadership, etc.) were now seen as direct attacks on the University and its senior administrators. I slowly evolved from a symbol of the University’s commitment to diversity to an internal threat to its stability. And in the end, we “mutually parted ways” with me unable to prove, and them unwilling to admit, that there had even been a problem.

Even when organizations are successful in attracting African-American faculty and senior management, the disparity between the expectations and realitiesof cultural diversity can undermine continued success. For me personally, the realities are that I have worked for over 20 years as an educator at seven different institutions from the urban community college and small liberal arts school, to state universities and large online schools. Throughout my career as a graduate teaching assistant, adjunct, visiting instructor, assistant and associate professor I have never had more than one African-American colleague within my department. I have NEVER worked for African-American department chair, Dean, or university president. In the 16 years that it took me to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees (over 120 courses!) I had a total of two professors of color, one African-American and one an immigrant from Africa; neither were mentors or in my degree field. And ironically, my two decades of work in the restaurant business mirrored this experience exactly as I never had an African-American manager, and never worked in a restaurant owned by an African-American.

For me, this reality created lower expectations for diversity wherein I sometimes found myself playing the role of the “happy token” in order to avoid major issues with students and customers, colleagues and coworkers, administrators and managers. It also created a false sense of camaraderie and shared interests that compelled me to reach out to any face of color. I remember the University hiring a young (late 20s) African-American male professor right before my departure as part of their attempts to expand their healthcare offerings. I visited his office with intentions of recruiting him to the struggle that I believed I had been fighting for years on my own and made a comment somewhere along the lines of, “I’m sure the NAACP would love to know what goes on here.” His response was simple, honest, and left me speechless… he asked, “what’s the NAACP?”

It was in that moment that I realized that corporate and university leadership weren’t the only groups struggling with aesthetic versus cultural diversity. As our conversation concluded he made it clear that if the paychecks kept coming, he really didn’t care either way about the culture of University. I had only ever considered the impact of how much corporate and university structures buy into or resist diversity initiatives. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that African-Americans could become apathetic to the idea of diversity. I had a mixture of responses including feeling old, more isolated, and less certain of my own commitment. The only thing worse than being the sole African American in an organization with diversity issues, is being one of two African Americans and the other one doesn’t see it as a fight worth engaging. In the end, I realized that the historical resistance to a diverse America has been so successful that even as we develop new diversity initiatives the beneficiaries don’t think they matter. And sadly, until we move beyond the appearance of diversity to the development of a true culture of diversity, they may be right.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.