Diversity is under attack. This may not seem like new news, considering the contentious standing that diversity has held in this country—from Jim Crowe to redlining. However, if recent headlines are any indication, this particular assault will not only have ethical consequences but also a significant impact on commerce as well.
After the public execution of George Floyd, there had seemingly been a reckoning afoot with regard to diversity. White America got a glimpse of the societal inequalities associated with the Black experience and, subsequently, was forced to come to terms with their own privilege. With this new perspective came progressive steps to right the wrongs of the past. Companies increased their representation of Black leadership in the boardroom, DEI hires were on the rise, and racial bias training became more commonplace throughout the corporate world. Diversity—writ large—was on the top of minds and tips of tongues, and changes were happening across organizations, academic institutions, and media outlets. It was a victory for progress—or at least it seemed.
Fast-forward three years later, and those steps forward have taken steps backward. In the wake of mass layoffs across a myriad of industries, DEI roles were often the first to go. Despite how in vogue diversity had become, its prioritization in the workplace just became, well, less of a priority.
This deprioritization is also reflected in the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, effectively ending systematic consideration of race as a factor in college admissions. The court’s ruling reversed decades of precedent that helped make college campuses more diverse. When affirmative action fell years prior at schools like the University of California and the University of Michigan, there was a pronounced decline in students of color who were admitted to these institutions. The result of this decline led to a significant decrease in diversity throughout college classrooms. The implications of the recent ruling will likely have a similar effect.
The attack on diversity has extended from the boardroom to the classroom, and even onto the shelves of store aisles. Target, one of the largest retailers in the country, came under fire after its Pride Month campaign caught the attention of conservative social actors who were displeased with the brand’s attempt to diversify its product offering to meet the needs of diverse audiences. In an effort to drive commerce among a growing consumer segment, the Minneapolis-based retailer partnered with a trans designer to create LGBTQ+ specific merchandise with slogans and community pride affirmations that read messages like “Cure Transphobia” and “We Belong Everywhere.” The diversity initiative also included products that addressed trans identity projects like women’s swimsuits designed to conceal male genitalia.
Target’s LGBTQ+ collection was met with public outrage from its detractors which manifested into threats of physical harm to Target employees and destruction to store property. To safeguard its workers and its guests, Target removed some of the more controversial pieces from the floor in hopes of appeasing the opposition. However, the retailer’s battles didn’t end there. Target has recently found itself in the crosshairs of far-right lawmakers who have applied legal pressure to force the brand to discontinue its efforts to hire more minority employees and diversify its vendors.
This cacophony of pushback against diversity is demonstratively antithetical to what was once a shared consciousness of the country post-George Floyd. In what feels like a change of heart, parallel to the reversal of sentiment and policies that ended Reconstruction in 1877, diversity has lost favor with the American public. Like a fashion trend that is in style one season and out the next, the country has seemingly moved on from prioritizing diversity. We’ve been there, done that. Although America may be ready to turn the preverbal page on diversity, I don’t think we’ve fully considered the true cost of our actions—the cost of canceling diversity.
Let’s set aside virtues and ethics for a moment to focus on the objective costs of cancelling diversity. Removing diversity initiatives from companies reduces its ability to compete in the market. Empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that heterogeneous teams outperform homogenous groups when it comes to complex tasks like strategy and ideation. University of Michigan’s complexity, social science, and management professor , Scott Page, refers to this advantage as the diversity bonus.
According to Page’s work, “differences in how people think—differences in problem representations, categorizations, knowledge bases, heuristics, technical and tacit skills, and experiences—are what enable teams to find more novel solutions, develop more creative solutions, make fewer inferential errors, and construct more accurate predictions.” DEI initiatives aren’t merely altruistic efforts to make organizations more colorful and representative of society; it’s a strategic advantage that produces the kind of cognitive heterogeneity that leads to better ideas and better outcomes for the company. This isn’t a handout; it’s a benefit. Reducing diversity reduces an organization’s ability to benefit from the diversity bonus.
The diversity bonus is also at risk in the classroom. Let’s ignore the moral imperative about representation, and the importance of upending systemic racism, and just focus on the shared objective of higher education: creating better learning environments for critical thinking. No matter where you sit on the political, ideological, or racial spectrum, the aim of higher ed is undebatable.
The Supreme Court itself once held this belief. In fact, the landmark case of 1978, The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, shifted the affirmation action policy regarding college admissions away from an act of social justice to a means of promoting diversity in the classroom as a benefit to the student body. Despite its positive impact on equality efforts, the focus of affirmation action on college campuses over the last forty-five years was in service of realizing the diversity bonus. Course correcting racial disparities became an added bonus of the courts 1978 decision—and perhaps that’s the real issue for diversity’s most fervent detractors.
Set aside the intellectual implications of diversity and consider its literal relationship to commerce: variety. Market diversity provides opportunity for companies to reach different groups of people with a variety of products and customized communications to increase the likelihood of consumption in all its many forms. As Target’s CEO, Brian Corwell, told Fortune, “[Our diversity and inclusive initiatives are] helping us drive sales, it’s building greater engagement with both our teams and our guests, and those are just the right things for our business today.”
Even from a pure capitalistic perspective, diversity has its benefits. Benefits that enrich both the privileged and the marginalized. Benefits that are self-serving and social good. Benefits that help people—across the board—achieve. Consequently, we stand to lose these benefits with each blow to diversity, because an assault on diversity is truly an assault on human agency. And that is the real cost of canceling diversity. No matter where you stand on the matter, if diversity falls, we all lose.