One year ago, the nationwide protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer not only fueled demands for systemic police reforms, but also forced companies and government agencies across the country to reexamine the inequities within their organizations.
Hiring for experts who specialize in addressing racism, implicit bias, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has increased significantly in recent years, a trend that has accelerated in the year following Floyd’s killing.
“Immediately after [George Floyd’s death], I was getting three to five calls per day. … It was incredible,” said Benjamin Reese, a clinical psychologist who runs his own diversity and inclusion consulting firm.
As the anniversary of Floyd’s death marks a moment of reflection on what has changed, and what hasn’t, over the last year, DEI and bias trainers and educators said they noticed a shift that forced decision makers to discuss systemic problems. But in interviews with the PBS NewsHour, several professionals expressed skepticism that such efforts will lead to long-lasting change as clients resist committing to the long-term and often uncomfortable work that they say change requires.
As interest in diversity and equity grows, trainers see challenges
DEI and anti-racism work is not new, but in the two weeks following Floyd’s murder, web searches for the terms “diversity officer” and “implicit bias training” reached a peak in the United States, according to the web analytics tool Google Trends, far exceeding the searches for these terms after the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other Black people, whose deaths ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
The country’s largest publicly traded companies tripled their hiring of chief diversity officers in the three months after Floyd’s killing, according to an analysis by the management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
The growth of these positions is part of a years-long increase. A 2019 Russell Reynolds report found that 63 percent of those top public companies had appointed or promoted someone to a diversity chief role within the last three years.
Diversity, anti-racism and anti-bias work can range from standalone trainings, to reviewing organization policies, to developing and implementing programs aimed at promoting racial and gender equity.
Lorie Fridell began training law enforcement in implicit bias awareness and management in 2008 and has worked with departments in New York City, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Arlington, Texas. In her company’s early days, officers were much more likely to be disengaged or even hostile, she said. As public familiarity with the concept grew, officers became more accepting.
For many trainers, the work requires a balancing act.
Fridell said she and her team of 23 trainers make an effort to speak about bias as a societal and human problem, rather than a police-specific issue. Fridell also carefully considers which subjects to discuss or words to use in order to avoid putting her audience on the defensive. Her goal, she said, is to avoid finger pointing and casting all police officers as racist. “We’re always looking at the end point. How do we get these [officers] on board?”
Some organizations ask trainers to change the content of their presentations in order to avoid making their majority-white staff or membership feel uncomfortable.
“Sometimes I have to put more time into assuaging the concerns of the people who are hiring me than developing the framework for the presentation,” said Rita Cameron Wedding, who has facilitated implicit bias training for more than 15 years, mostly for individuals working in juvenile justice, law enforcement and education.
Kay Moore, a diversity and inclusion consultant for health companies, said she worked with an organization this year that cautioned one of its DEI trainers against speaking specifically about disparities or mistreatment experienced by Black people. “They said, ‘Let’s move forward, let’s not talk about what we have done in the past,” Moore said. “My thing is, when you’re not talking about what you have done, you’re continuing that cycle,” she added.
Cameron Wedding said for much of her career she talked around the subject of racism so that she “could keep people in the room.” This year, Cameron Wedding said she speaks about systemic racism more directly. “I decided that I would no longer dilute my conversation and my message and contribute to systemic racism by not talking about the hard stuff and being direct about it,” she said.
Institutions undervaluing or not wanting to pay for diversity or anti-bias sessions at all can be a problem, said Chiany Dri, an anti-racism educator, who once was offered $5,000 for six months of work. Group trainings hosted by other consultants and companies can run between $3,000 and $7,000 per hour.
After years of training, what will promote lasting change?
The rise of diversity and bias trainings and programs has prompted debate over what strategies will be most effective for long-term change.
Research indicates that simply becoming aware of a bias does not change behavior. Even as diversity programs have expanded at major companies since the 1990s, conditions haven’t changed significantly for underrepresented communities, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 2016.
“Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s — which often make things worse, not better,” wrote Dobbin and Kalev.
Turnover among the diversity and equity officers that lead such programs can be high due to a lack of resources or internal support. Recruiters interviewed by The Wall Street Journal last year reported that the average tenure of chief diversity officers is about three years.
This year Paul Forbes resigned as the executive director of educational equity, anti-bias and diversity for the Office of Equity and Access in New York City’s Department of Education after two years in the position. He first joined the city’s education department as an intern 25 years ago, but decided to leave, he said, after a series of challenges in his new role. Among them, Forbes felt that the perspectives and interests of two women of color were not being respected by the office. He also wanted to see stronger action from the office, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted stark racial and economic disparities.
“If this hasn’t taught us to change how we operate the policies and procedures that we create … then I don’t know what it’s going to take,” Forbes said.
The New York City Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
There is also some evidence that forced or accusatory efforts to combat bias can actually spur resistance or more racist behavior among training participants, according to research. Fridell said learning bias management strategies is more likely to result in shifting attitudes and intentions than trying to suppress biases completely.
Rather than dictating what an organization or group needs to do, Dri uses a collaborative approach to work with clients to address their needs. This includes taking time to facilitate listening between employees and making sure everyone has a baseline understanding of the concepts she plans to discuss.
Multiple trainers emphasized that anti-bias or anti-racism work should not be a “one and done” presentation and should have tangible metrics to observe progress. Dri requires multiple sessions as part of her contracts and asks potential clients a series of questions about their goals to gauge their commitment to the issue. “I just don’t mess around. … I just don’t take on clients who are not interested in long-term sustainable practice in anti-oppression work and anti-racism work,” Dri said.
The question of sustainability and devotion to these issues lingers for the experts NewsHour spoke with. Kristen Liesch, co-CEO of the consulting firm Tidal Equality, said that, based on her preliminary research, interest in these types of trainings already appears to be decreasing after the initial surge last year.
“I’m kind of predicting a little bit of a pendulum swing,” Liesch said. “I think it’s a reflection of what organizations are placing their focus on right now and to what extent homogeneous leaders who have been used to holding the pen are being asked to give it up and don’t like it.”
Reese, the clinical psychologist, said he needs to see bold changes before he will say the country is having a reckoning on race.
“Most of the change I’ve seen is still tweaking around the edges. It’s symbolic,” Reese said. “It’s not sufficient interest and courage to be bold in taking down those structures and systems that continue to create and reinforce racism in America.”