DEI Training Isn’t Affirmative Action
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training initiatives are failing in every sector. But it is essential our nation gets it right for our continued peace and prosperity. And now, the Supreme Court has killed the one thing that measurably helped diversify institutions: affirmative action.
Social psychologists agree that humans tend to divide themselves into in-groups (groups they’re members of) and out-groups (everybody else). In-group members have positive views of each other and give each member preferential treatment. In-group effects show up in the workplace all of the time. For example, research has shown that board members tend to hire people who are like themselves.
Things like race, gender, and sexual orientation are bright flashing signs directing the way people categorize themselves and each other. Our species has evolved this way — it’s in our DNA. Over thousands of generations, when our ancestors lived in small groups, in-grouping and out-grouping helped them survive.
Good intentions don’t work against unconscious preferences.
It’s tough to keep people from back-sliding against their DNA, no matter how well-intentioned they are regarding diversity and inclusion. That’s why we need laws. Good intentions don’t work against unconscious preferences.
In 2020, Otis wrote a blog titled, “Want Diversity? Make It the Law.” We can ensure diversity and inclusion (in hiring, at least) by mandating it by law. We can help people become “in-group.” Research on affirmative action shows that it works (opens as a pdf). But the Supreme Court has now ruled affirmative action to be unconstitutional. The result will be an even more segregated America and provide yet another reason why we must figure out how to advance DEI.
How Did We Get Here?
The year 2020 marked a watershed moment in America’s conversation about DEI. The DEI industry exploded, precipitated by the murder of George Floyd. Quickly, a growing multibillion-dollar industry became embedded into public and private institutions alike. Many organizations issued sweeping proclamations about racial minorities, blasted out surveys sampling employee views on DEI, and consulted with budget-breaking consultants. None of it is working.
This is not to indict the entire industry, however, much of DEI training has been shown to be expensive, useless at best and counterproductive at worst. And the failure of DEI initiatives may be damaging organizations’ commitment to providing equal opportunities to all races and ethnicities.
DEI training was set up to crash and burn.
Much DEI training is based on flawed social science. In 2020, the widespread acceptance of “implicit bias” played a role in throwing open the doors to DEI training in many organizations. Indeed, implicit bias training had been in full swing for years in corporate America. After George Floyd’s murder, the language shifted to “DEI.”
How Do We Measure Bias? The (Flawed) Implicit Association Test
The concept of implicit (unconscious) bias, and specifically, implicit racial bias, began with the work of Harvard and University of Washington social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in 1998.
They conducted a simple experiment. First, they measured the time it took subjects to associate the faces of black Americans with negative words (like devil, bomb, war, etc.) by pressing a computer key. Likewise, subjects were instructed to strike another key whenever they saw a white face or a good word, like “love,” “peace,” or “joy.” The test then switched the pairing, so subjects had to use the same computer key to identify a black face with good things and white faces and bad things.
The time it takes for participants to respond to different combinations of stimuli was thought to reveal their mental associations, even when they aren’t aware of them. And many subjects’ response times were longer when they had to pair black faces with positive words and white faces with negative words. This test, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT), has now been taken by more than 20 million people online.
Today there is no consensus among social psychologists on whether the IAT measures unconscious bias at all, because this acclaimed, hugely inﬂuential test has repeatedly fallen short of basic scientiﬁc standards. But we built our DEI initiatives on its back.
Whether we have a tool to measure an individuals’ bias or not, racial bias in the workplace is real. For example, research shows that both gender and racial bias affect whether we can remember a co-worker’s contributions, how much credit we give them for successes, and how much we blame them for failures (it’s good to be white and male; they get credit when things go right and are relieved of blame when they don’t).
No one knows how to reduce implicit bias, which is the goal of all those expensive workshops and training programs.
Nearly all our thoughts and actions are inﬂuenced (at least in part) by our unconscious. There’s no reason prejudice should be any different. But we don’t yet know how to accurately measure unconscious prejudice or reduce implicit bias, which is the goal of all those expensive workshops and training programs. Finally, we don’t know how to inﬂuence unconscious views to decrease racism or sexism.
Which brings us back to affirmative action. We need diverse people in the rooms where decisions are made. DEI training does not do that effectively; affirmative action did.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
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Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.