Workplace “Anti-Racism Trainings” Aren’t Helping

Donald Trump hysterically considers it a Marxist plot, but corporate "anti-racism training" isn't a practice that anyone should defend. It doesn't actually combat racism and it helps bosses consolidate their power over employees under a veneer of social justice.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaks at a conference in Mountain View, California, 2017. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Last Friday, the Trump administration called for a swift end to workplace anti-racism training for federal employees.

“It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda,” a White House memo read. According to the statement, a number of federal agencies’ anti-racism seminars for employees had included discussions of white privilege, systemic racism, and other tenets of which the Trump administration ominously identified as “critical race theory.” Such rhetoric, the memo insisted, was un-American and had to be rooted out from government bureaus.

The edict — which came shortly after a Tucker Carlson segment on the menace of anti-racism training — was plainly an attempt to add new fuel to an ongoing culture war over racism in the United States. And liberals responded accordingly by leaping to defend the seminars Trump was seeking to quash.

“We have to see each other as human beings, and we have to do whatever it takes, including taking whatever classes make that possible,” M. E. Hart, an attorney who has conducted racial sensitivity trainings for companies for decades, told the Washington Post. On MSNBC, former US attorney Joyce Vance was more direct: “Trump is just blasting out his racism by ending this sort of training,” she said.

But despite the White House’s reactionary histrionics, workplace anti-racism training isn’t a practice that anyone invested in the well-being of workers of any race should defend. The problem with such trainings isn’t that they push “un-American propaganda” or “neo-Marxist” ideas in the workplace as the Right has fretted, but rather, that they increasingly allow employers to consolidate their power over employees under a veneer of social justice.

The New Anti-Racism Training

In the wake of mass demonstrations against police brutality and heightened public attention to racism, corporations have rushed to demonstrate their commitment to racial justice. As a result, the anti-racism training business has boomed. (The most highly sought-after anti-racism trainers, like the now-notorious White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, are booked out for months and can command fees as high as $20,000 for a three-day workshop.)

At the urging of management experts — and sometimes also employees themselves — companies ranging from Target to Google to the millennial-run makeup brand Glossier have instituted mandatory anti-racism training for all employees.

What’s more is that the type of anti-racism training that has gained popularity over the last few years marks a significant departure from the rote “diversity” or “cultural sensitivity” seminars of the 1990s, which were intended primarily to outline the legal consequences of discrimination in the workplace. Instead, anti-racism training today seeks to educate employees on the far-reaching effects of racism in the United States, and encourages them to acknowledge and atone for any biases or privileges they unearth over the course of the training.

Take, for instance, a June statement from Google CEO Sundar Pichai pledging to institute racial equity measures across the company, including mandatory anti-racism education. “Violent and racist attacks against the Black community have forced the world to reckon with the structural and systemic racism that Black people have experienced over generations,” Pichai wrote. “We’ve begun piloting a new, multi-series training for Googlers of all levels that explores systemic racism and racial consciousness.”

The Trump administration is correct in its claim, then, that many workplace anti-racism trainings of late have embraced a certain activist vocabulary. In fact, the same training materials used by social justice organizations are also increasingly appearing within major corporations and public institutions.

For instance, a document on “white supremacy culture” that has long circulated among left-leaning NGOs and racial justice groups was adopted last year by the New York City Department of Education in a mandatory training session for school administrators.

But despite the claims of proponents, even this shift from the feel-good language of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” to more radical-sounding language like “racial equity,” “privilege,” and “white fragility” doesn’t mean that these programs can accomplish what they promise to do.

Workplace Anti-Racism Training Doesn’t Reduce Bias

While liberals have celebrated the proliferation of anti-racist education, even the recent activist-inflected mode of anti-bias training leaves something to be desired. As Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara has written, these seminars still mostly function as a form of legal protection for employers from potential discrimination lawsuits, and as an opportunity for companies to safeguard their bottom lines while appearing committed to racial justice. To put it another way, a weeklong anti-racism workshop that costs an employer tens of thousands of dollars is still cheaper than a discrimination lawsuit (or raising workers’ wages).

There’s also a substantial body of evidence that workplace trainings intended to change workers’ hearts and minds don’t actually do much to reduce their biases. A few years ago, a meta-analysis of nearly five hundred studies on implicit bias interventions found that while such sessions occasionally briefly and slightly diminished participants’ implicit biases, they had no significant long-term effects on people’s behavior or attitudes.

At least one recent study further suggests that educating liberals about “white privilege” doesn’t increase their empathy for poor black people but does lower their empathy for poor white people.

One reason why such trainings are so ineffective in the workplace, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev have argued, is that people unsurprisingly tend to dislike others’ attempts to change their thoughts or infringe on their autonomy. (As they explained it, “Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”)

That’s perhaps especially true in the United States, where employees already hold so few guaranteed rights and almost no power on the job as a result of at-will employment law and decades-long attacks on unions.

Anti-racism trainings — particularly of the “white fragility” sort — demand access to workers’ thoughts and feelings on highly charged topics, usually in the presence of their supervisors, and evaluate those workers’ responses, often with the explicit goal of generating discomfort. No wonder, then, that they often backfire.

So what actually works to reduce interpersonal racism in the workplace? “We know from a lot of social science research the way to get people to change their stereotypes about other groups is to have them work side by side with members of other groups as equals,” Dobbin told Vox in 2018.

That approach has been further confirmed by new research (and approximately a century’s worth of various examples from the labor movement) that shows that unions can successfully reduce prejudice among white workers by engaging them in collective action alongside fellow shop members of different races.

Bosses Decide What Constitutes Racism

More troubling still is that there are signs that workplace anti-racism initiatives may serve as an opportunity for employers to exert even more power over employees. In a recent article on the importance establishing “racial equity” in the workplace, Ben Hecht, the CEO of Living Cities, a consortium of foundations and financial institutions, called not only for requiring staffers to attend anti-racism training, but also for making their job security at least partially contingent on that anti-racist education. “Our annual staff performance reviews hold every staff member accountable for achievement against a personal racial equity and inclusion objective at the beginning of the year,” he wrote.

Similarly, the Harvard Business School’s Mark Kramer has recommended that companies “adopt a no-tolerance-for-racism policy like Franklin Templeton’s, which led to its swift, recent termination of Amy Cooper.” While it’s difficult to summon much sympathy for Cooper herself, it’s also clear that employers’ ability to fire people for their conduct outside of work has already taken a serious toll on American workers’ rights; the last thing at-will employment needs is any kind of progressive gloss. Making it easier to oust or discipline “racists” is no win for workers when the boss remains the ultimate arbiter of who’s racist and who’s not.

In fact, that very issue surfaced in a July ruling on a General Motors (GM) case by the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB will now allow employers to fire workers trying to unionize if those workers are found to have used “racist” or “profane” speech in their union-related activity. (As it happens, the GM employee at the center of the case who used the so-called “racist” speech that prompted the ruling was a black worker who “mockingly acted a caricature of a slave” to criticize a manager’s demand for subservience.) In other words, the NLRB ruling shows how quickly the ruling class can adopt egalitarian language in service of undermining workers of all races.

The Future of Workplace Anti-Racism Initiatives?

At the start of this year, Northeastern University announced that two of their researchers, with $1.5 million in funding from the US Army, were building an AI device designed to identify instances of implicit bias in the workplace and help managers take steps to reduce them.

The machine, like some kind of woke Alexa, would monitor staffers’ “verbal and nonverbal cues, and eventually physiological signals” for signs of prejudice. “The device would keep track of their interactions over time, and then based on those interactions, make recommendations for improving the team’s productivity,” Northeastern explained.

Though the examples the researchers gave of the device’s potential seemed innocuous enough — using data collected by the device to give more speaking time to women, for instance — it probably goes without saying that a surveillance tool that employers can use to track workers’ speech, let alone physiological signals, is an egregious violation of privacy straight out of a capitalist dystopia. Even if such technology was used thoughtfully and exclusively in service of promoting racial and gender justice (which, of course, seems unlikely), the tradeoff is a terrible one for workers.

That, ultimately, is the conundrum that underlies workplace anti-racism training in our current moment. Even if these trainings are truly born out of the best intentions, social justice consciousness-raising sessions will never benefit workers when they’re organized, administered, and evaluated by bosses.

And while there’s little question that the White House’s recent attack on workplace anti-racism initiatives arose from Trump’s reactionary tendencies, the trickier problem is that nothing about the anti-racism programs so happily taken up by employers will lead to more egalitarian workplaces.