At an academic workshop a few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a Volvo that said “Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine.”  I fretted. This is just the kind of thing that makes people assume that all professors spend their summers swilling sauvignon on Martha’s Vineyard (the bumper sticker on the Tercel next to it, “I Brake for Hallucinations,” didn’t help much…I just figured folks would know that was a grad student’s car).  It isn’t true. At least, not every summer: A  heavy teaching load has kept me from this blog for the last couple of months, finding little time for anything besides prep, teaching, and grading.

Stepping out of the classroom this week as the summer quarter ended, into a much cooler Philadelphia, I happily encountered a day-long conference on Drexel’s campus hosted by the Pennsylvania unit of the National Diversity Council.  We heard consultants, corporate diversity officers, and CEOs describe best practices in a wide range of settings such as hospitals, financial firms and manufacturing concerns.  All were working hard to increase numbers of women and under-represented minority employees (“diversity”), and to bring a wider range of opportunities to those employees through changes to hiring and promotion practices (“inclusion”–together referred to as “D & I”).  The many practicalities involved in this work added up in my mind as the meeting went on:  All of these people were striving daily to overcome embedded prejudice, but also to establish strategic plans, set up new policies, create channels of communication, and garner resources.

It was moving and gratifying when the day’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, rousingly praised these diversity professionals.  He labeled their work as essential to the reform of race relations in America and in a globalizing corporate world…and as work that is nearly always hard and sometimes thankless.

As the event unfolded, I saw my own day-to-day work, the historical analysis of workplace racism,  as not only far less pressured than corporate diversity work, but as farther from my activist aims than I’d realized, if only for its lack of practical emphasis. As a social scientist studying workplace diversity in America, I need not produce “results”–measurable increases in minority participation–in any direct way. Presumably, I can criticize prevailing  employment or educational practices  while offering few constructive alternatives  because I  will have contributed to equitable reforms just by sharing my analytic findings.  That’s how social science and humanities expertise works. But then again, I thought as I listened to these  corporate diversity specialists, geared towards much more concrete results, where does my kind of expertise leave its traces? How do we know it IS working?

As I mulled this problem,  I started paying closer attention to the nature of corporate diversity work and its outcomes, its metrics for success.  As speaker after speaker laid out means of achieving greater diversity in corporate America, a single idea held center stage for them: We must make corporate employers see how a diversified workforce is crucial for business as we know it.  We must connect the idea of a diverse workforce to legitimate corporate functions. For example, speakers suggested, a diversity of product ideas  can serve expanded cultural and ethnic markets.  Further, wide-ranging cultural competencies will enable  a company to deal more effectively with non-US or non-European clients and markets. These and other such points, we heard,  will lead corporate executives and board members to see not just the value but the necessity of pursuing D&I goals.

It all made sense. I could see how these arguments would bring hardheaded business owners and financial analysts into the fold, leading to more opportunities for under-represented groups in industy. But thinking with a historical perspective, I had a gnawing sense that this approach may hold only limited potential for enacting diversity and inclusion.  Perhaps the very concreteness of its metrics, centered on business productivity and profit, was actually making it harder, not easier, to see some features of corporate D&I initiatives.

Hadn’t we learned long ago that these very corporate functions—the  expansion of consumer markets and the cultivation of loyalty among already influential types of clientele– have historically undergirded class and racial inequity in America and globally?  Virtually every speaker yesterday acknowledged that corporations are profit-based, presumably to clarify that industries cannot be expected to put matters of social welfare first; economic pragmatism must be paramount. Yet, no one voiced the concern that familiar profit mechanisms depend upon and propel some deeply undemocratic features of our society.

I wasn’t waiting for someone to propose that we dismantle capitalism, but only to acknowledge that racism feeds on certain parts of the corporate system.  Fifteen years ago, Avery F. Gordon warned that the corporation’s embrace of “multiculturalism” would serve its own ruling interests, and that “diversity management,”  while surely bringing some unprecedented economic opportunities to some minority workers,  actually helps hide deeper strains of racism operating in society.  Managed diversity subordinates cultural identity to corporate governance,  denying among other things any possibility of group-based cultural autonomy, as Gordon explained.   Some of the best-practices outlined at the event might reinforce her worry: As evidence that manufacturers will thrive by hiring more members of under-represented minorities, one speaker enthusiastically noted  that it was attention to one plant’s Hispanic “affinity group” that led Frito-Lay to develop its highly profitable “Guacamole Doritos.”  But the purposeful translation of cultural difference into market advantage, and its labeling as a successful diversity effort in this way, seems more likely to reassert corporate privilege than restructure economic opportunities in this country. Surely it does not promote the reformed education and training systems necessary for real and lasting correction of  race-based occupational discrimination.  (This kind of managed diversity also, not incidentally,  suppresses discussion of those needs by purporting to eliminate racism in employment, as Gordon points out).

Even Cornel West,  variously  riotously funny and deeply effecting yesterday in his endorsement of “diversity management workers,”  seemed to stop short of explicitly pointing out that corporate profit and social justice are often at odds.  He condemned  the U.S.’s  profoundly racist “prison-industrial complex,” but not Americans’  habitually uncritical embrace of free enterprise that has allowed that morally bankrupt sector to thrive. He did not draw our attention to the American corporate disregard for social- structural inequities that is manifest today in the outsourcing of industrial labor, in geographically selective environmental degradation, and in many for-profit education initiatives.

Could he have done so, without diminishing the struggles and contributions of the assembled corporate diversity personnel?  How do we think, historically, about the successes of corporate D&I efforts in reversing long-standing patterns of occupational exclusion? I’m not sure; it is a very difficult question and one at the heart of academic analysis of American race relations, as the social scientist tries to decide what race reform has historically proven to be “worth” doing and even who should make those judgments.

I am sure that downplaying those successes or trying to end racism by condemning capitalism outright has as little efficacy, and potentially involves  as little perspective and practicality, as slapping  on a bumper sticker. There is surely some more effective contribution that historians and social scientists can make.  I look forward to coming back to this space to work, with many others more experienced than myself, on this vexing set of questions about enacting social justice from the not-always-practical perch of academia.