Managing (Controlling) “Diversity”

Proliferation is an appropriate word to describe what is happening in many sectors of society under the heading of “managing diversity.” Most weeks bring to my desk a new announcement about another group that is offering to do “diversity training.” Inquiries come from corporate and community organizations indicating that they are eager to become more “diverse.” The announcements and the inquiries include something about how to “manage” diversity.

In another essay I have indicated why I find the “diversity” idea itself too often to be a “diversion” from dealing with the issues of racism.[1] For me, while the intent of “diversity” emphases and some of the outcomes are both to be encouraged, the practice of “diversifying” does not frequently enough concern practitioners with issues of power and decision-making and control: the “guts” of racism.

So I look at the implications of “managing” diversity.

“Managing” has everything to do with control. Control has everything to do with decision-making and power. The manager, by definition, has some sort of, some ultimate degree of control and power over the process s/he “manages.” Even the most enlightened manager, who seeks to encourage the “managed” to exercise a large degree of power, retains the final word. That is the essence, and an appropriate characteristic of managing.

You might guess where my concern takes me next. Most managers I see around me are white, and the “higher” the level of management the whiter it gets. Exceptions prove the rule. Unless I see some moves to change the “complexion” of top management, I do not look for substantive change in the institution or organization which claims to want to “manage” diversity.

“Managing” means controlling, shaping, manipulating direction, making sure that whatever (or whomever) is “managed” moves in the direction the “manager” wants to move. Let the person or the “it” which is managed move too far in a direction the manager does not like, and you will soon see what is the characteristic of power.”Managing” then may be just another way of “controlling” a recognizably and inevitably “diversifying” workforce and population. Anyone who has studied the history of white America carefully will know that danger. One place to look for evidence which gives rise to my concern is to examine the history of white America as it has invaded the land, the culture, the religion, the economy, the way of life of native peoples. Explicitly, implicitly, guided by expediency and euphemism, we have consistently practiced what amounts to near-genocide. In relationship to African Americans, our nation has “managed” diversity for the good of whites; it has discovered it cannot “manage” strong anti-racism, so it eliminates those who lead movements toward genuine freedom, equality and justice. Immigrants of color, mostly Asian and Latino have been “managed” to provide a labor force when we need it, excluded when we do not. We have consistently “managed” policies, practices, and people to implement the whims of white supremacy.

‘Diversity Diversion, June 1992

Some will argue that my view is much too cynical; so it may be. I argue that unless the danger I see is recognized as a possibility, there is little hope that we will build into the “management” of diversity a reality which will be the major kind of change which is necessary.

What is the way to avoid the consequence I fear? I am not sure. I know it will be difficult. I know that there will be stumbling efforts along the way. But let’s not kid ourselves. Anything less than a radical re-thinking of “managing diversity” will result in a euphemism for a phenomenon which is another way of “controlling” people, keeping the lid on restlessness about racism, making sure that nothing changes very much. Let’s inject racism as an understanding of power relationships into the discussion. “Managing diversity” as I see it now being practiced does not often do that.

[1] See Seldon’s essay “Diversity Diversion,” June 1992.