Workplace Culture

Q&A With Pamela Newkirk: Diversity’s Slow Incorporation Into the Corporate Mainstream

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Oct. 30, 2019

Author Pamela Newkirk
Author Pamela Newkirk

Pamela Newkirk, author of “Diversity, Inc.,” award-winning journalist and New York University journalism professor, talked to Workforce about the diversity industry. She questions whether billion-dollar diversity programs have worked and explores why the progress has been so slow, challenging the workplace and individuals to do better in applying incentives and sparking a different conversation.

Workforce: Why did you decide to write “Diversity, Inc.”?

Pamela Newkirk: I was on a train, heading back from Washington, D.C. I was reading the paper about another disappointing diversity report, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, here we go again.” Every year we see this flood of reports, and every number turns out to be disappointing. Why is it that so much attention is given to diversity, but so little has been achieved?

As I say in the preface of my book, diversity has been a preoccupation for 30 years of my career, yet two fields in which I have been most closely aligned — journalism and higher education — have numbers that show radical underrepresentation of particularly African Americans and Latinx. Why is that? I wanted to lift the veil and look behind the scenes to see what is actually happening at these institutions and why it is that after so many years of hand-wringing, conversations, task forces, training sessions and hiring diversity czars, we’re still at this place where people of color are still radically underrepresented in most influential fields.

Workforce: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Newkirk: Part of what I hope to achieve in this book is contextualizing some of these racial misunderstandings that we have. A lot of it is due to our different experiences as Americans based on race. For instance, we can’t assume that a black American has the same relationship with the police force, the criminal justice system [and] higher education.

We have to look at the attitudes and customs in this country that [have] set us on different paths. Until we truly understand the role that race plays in the myriad of interactions that we have in this country, we’re always going to be in this place on misunderstanding and mistrust. Hopefully we can move the needle and not continue to resort to this same conversation that we’ve had for so many years.

Workforce: What do you think we can do better as a society, as a workforce and as individuals?

Newkirk: We have to be honest about our intentions. To achieve diversity, there [have] to be true intentions, and it requires leadership from the very top to incentivize change. As many people who I interviewed during the course of my research have said: It’s not rocket science. But so many companies somehow act as if this is something that is so difficult to achieve. It has to come from the top, and people have to know that there are true incentives to make progress in this regard. Without incentives to move in that direction, and without believing that it’s truly a company priority, it’s not going to happen.

We also need to be honest about the ways in which race, ideology and history play into the current realities of people of color in the workplace and in society at large, and about some of these lingering attitudes about African Americans. For example, African American stereotypes and all these ideas that are deeply embedded in the social fabric play a role as well in diversity, or the lack thereof, in the workplace. If we still have these deeply embedded attitudes about who people are based on their race, that will be reflected in the workplace.

We don’t talk a lot about race in progressive settings. There’s usually this assumption that progressive workspaces are free of racial bias, yet what I find in my research is that many of the least diverse fields are those that are considered progressive — like the art world, Hollywood and higher education. Many of these assumptions that we make about progressives and liberals don’t really apply when we’re talking about race and equality.

You don’t need to be a bigot to not see anything wrong with these predominantly white workspaces. We have normalized the absence of people of color in so many fields.

That is what I most wanted to interrogate. Because it would be easy to point out one network that doesn’t have a great reputation on racial issues and say, “Yeah, that’s where the bias lies.” But what I wanted to do is to look even in the places where people of color would assume they would have natural allies because they are progressive people. Even there we see this radical underrepresentation of people of color. That’s where we really need to make progress, because if we’re not making progress in these progressive fields, then we know that we’re not going to make progress in places where people are more blatant about their racial biases.

Workforce: Why do you think some people are still claiming that this isn’t an issue today?

Newkirk: Often times people will see one or two people of color and think, “Oh, there we go, that’s diverse.” I think — especially in fields where people of color are so radically underrepresented — that the one or two who are there are pointed out as proof that there is diversity when that is not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about superficial, symbolic diversity. We’re talking about real diversity.

It’s a critical issue for this country, [and] it’s a critical issue for our world. We have so many people whose talents are being overlooked or whose potential is not being developed because we have this idea of who should be in these fields. We even have an idea of who is American. We need to interrogate our notions about fairness, equality and opportunity. All these ideas are bubbling up — especially now due to who is in the White House and the whole focus on immigration and diversity — and not in a positive way.

Workforce: Do you think that the current political divide in this country is amplifying this issue?

Newkirk: Fifty years ago, we had President Lyndon Johnson who kind of embraced this whole notion of diversity [and] inclusion of people of color in fields and in segments of America from which they had historically been excluded. Now, 50 years later, we have a president who has openly attacked immigrants of color, who has vilified urban blacks and who has openly attacked the ideals of diversity. We’re going in the opposite direction at a time when the demographics are showing that we really need to make progress in this area. It’s hurting our country.


Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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