‘Diversity Regimes’

Author discusses his new book on "why talk is not enough to fix racial inequality at universities."

June 16, 2020

James M. Thomas's new book is about a public flagship university in the American South and how it has struggled to define its commitments to diversity and inclusion and to put those commitments into practice. In more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork, he explored this university and how its struggles reflect similar struggles elsewhere. The result is Diversity Regimes: Why Talk Is Not Enough to Fix Racial Inequality at Universities (Rutgers University Press).

Thomas, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Mississippi, responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: What are "diversity regimes"?

A: In my book, I define a diversity regime as the constellation of organizational meanings and practices that function to institutionalize a commitment to diversity, but in doing so obscure, entrench and maintain existing racial inequalities. My framework owes a big conceptual debt to two scholars in particular: the sociologist Joan Acker and her concept of an inequality regime and the feminist and critical race philosopher Sara Ahmed’s critique of diversity work as a kind of performance culture. The research for my book identified three underlying mechanisms that I argue give rise to diversity regimes: condensation, decentralization and staging difference.

I want to be clear, while my work centers these three underlying mechanisms, we can imagine there are potentially more. But these were the three most clear and interrelated mechanisms that my research found.

Condensation refers to how diversity is talked about -- in official documents, in meetings and among diversity workers themselves. Through condensation, a variety of what appear to be unrelated things become condensed under the umbrella of diversity. We can add the umbrella of inclusion to this, too, as this is an increasingly common term deployed across colleges and universities. In my work, for example, I found that under the umbrella of diversity all kinds of things were placed: race, of course, but also regional identity (southern vs. northern, for example), what college or university a person graduated from and, I kid you not, even whether a person is left- or right-handed. The sociologist Ellen Berrey, in her own book The Enigma of Diversity, finds a similar pattern in how people define diversity. When everyday actors talk about the importance of diversity, they often talk about all of these different things as if they all have equal bearing on a person’s access to opportunities, resources, power and decision making. And we know that is simply just not the case.

Decentralization is the relative absence of institutional oversight over diversity activities, and the relative lack of coordination across units and departments. People across campus were often unaware of what other people were doing in terms of how they were trying to put diversity into practice. And, because condensation allowed for a wide variety of criteria to fit the definition of diversity, it meant that how diversity is defined and practiced in one unit was not necessarily similar to how it was defined and practiced in another. The rub is this: since diversity can mean so many things, and there isn’t clear guidance about what diversity work should look like, nobody can really ever fail to do diversity!

Staging difference is meant to draw attention to Ahmed’s point about the performance culture of diversity: how racial and ethnic minorities are strategically used by the institution in order to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Staging difference also draws attention to diversity workers’ ongoing frustrations with how they are used by their institution to promote a version of diversity that ultimately doesn’t really lead to transformative changes in how opportunities, resources, power and decision making are distributed.

Q: You talk about diversity being valued (in speech) but maybe not in actions. Could you give some examples of this?

A: I think nearly every major public university in the country, as well as most private universities, now have an official statement in support of diversity as an ideal for their campus. These institutions actually put a lot of time and energy into demonstrating their public commitments to diversity: from creating and maintaining websites to producing promotional materials including brochures and videos. In the past few decades, many have created new administrative offices for diversity and inclusion and have hired chief diversity officers. Some of these offices do important work in producing programming for students and in serving as physical, emotional and mental resources for minority students.

Yet nearly every major public university in the country, as well as most private universities, continue to have enormous racial disparities when it comes to the hiring and retention of minority faculty, the retention of minority students, and the tenure and promotion of minority faculty and staff. Pay inequities between white faculty and minority faculty remain common, as do pay inequities between men and women. For as much talk as there is about the importance of diversity and inclusion on college campuses, we see very little in terms of moving the needle on existing racial inequalities.

Importantly, this isn’t just a problem on college campuses. There is an enormous disconnect between what organizations say they value versus how they behave, especially when it comes to racial inequality. Victor Ray’s recent and important work on racialized organizations does an exceptional job of revealing this disconnect. Think about all of the examples just in the past few weeks. So many organizations -- not just colleges and universities, but also corporations and private companies -- have issued statements offering vague support for Black Lives Matter and for racial justice.

Amazon put a “Black Lives Matter” banner at the top of its homepage and made a public statement calling for an end to the unjust treatment of black people in the United States. But some intrepid reporting by The Guardian and other news outlets shows that Amazon has made a pretty significant sum of money selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies all across the country. How can a company claim black lives matter when they profit off of the dehumanization of black people? Likewise, how can a college or university claim diversity matters if they have relatively little of it in their student body, within their faculty ranks or among their administrators?

Q: You talk about history being important at the university you studied, in the South. Can you explain how this impacts diversity?

A: I think that it can be easy to frame the history of the campus I studied, including its century-long love affair with Confederate symbolism and its enduring legacy of racial discrimination, as a kind of southern history. On the one hand, the specific history of the campus I studied matters for how it thinks about itself today as moving beyond its history. In a lot of its own official documents, there is this framing that takes place where everything that happened prior to its violent integration represents a previous, racist institution.

And everything after its violent integration represents this slow and steady march toward a more open, inclusive and equitable campus. Its diversity initiative is very clearly framed in this manner. As something that demonstrates it is moving beyond its own history. Yet the reality is conflict and struggle have shaped the campus from its founding to the present day. Including conflict and struggle over defining, organizing and putting into practice its diversity initiative.

At the same time, however, I would argue that this is not a distinctly southern history. Malcolm X, in his 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, provides an important reminder to his audience in Detroit: "If you black you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. Stop talking about the South. As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South."

On a personal note, it is deeply frustrating when I see people -- including other scholars -- pretend that their northern, elite institutions are somehow free from the kind of racism they imagine as singular to and indicative of the American southern campus. Most of these northern, elite institutions were closed to racial and ethnic minorities from their founding through the first half of the 20th century. Many institutions -- not just southern ones -- were founded upon the stealing of land from indigenous people and the enslaved labor of African and Afro-Caribbean peoples. There is a reason that nearly every college and university across the United States has made some kind of public commitment to diversity and inclusion, no matter how milquetoast that commitment might be.

Q: The outrage over the killing of George Floyd happened when campuses were largely empty. What should colleges expect with the return of students?

A: Colleges and universities should expect conflict, plain and simple. A not-insignificant number of our minority students will have actively participated in the protests themselves. Some will have assisted in crafting the demands given to law enforcement and policy makers. Many of our white students are actively wrestling with their relationship to white supremacy. For some, it’s an awakening. For others, it’s debilitating. And still for others, their response is defensive posturing. And then there [are] so many students, faculty and staff who are running on fumes because we have been fighting for racial justice for so long, and often with very little to show for it.

Meanwhile, many of us continue to believe in the idea of university as a site for cultivating values like democracy, equality and liberty, even if we know that the university rarely if ever lives up to these values. I think this all makes for a very volatile dynamic. For those of us who believe in these ideals, we will want to see concrete changes in how our institutions operate. The reality is that few institutions will respond how they ought to in this moment. And so frustration will continue to build, and at some point we should expect it to boil over.

Q: You open your book with some reflections on Barack Obama's re-election. How has President Trump influenced discussion of diversity on campus?

A: The Trump administration has been one where, when it comes to racism, it has almost reliably "said the quiet part out loud." On the one hand, this can make it easy to point to the worst parts of our society, shine a light on them and claim they don’t align with who or what we think we are. When Trump or someone in his administration makes a derogatory comment about immigrants, or refers to black protesters as "thugs," it’s relatively easy to distance ourselves from those comments.

I’ve written elsewhere that under this administration there has been a marked a shift from dog whistles to fog horns. But on the other hand, those of us who study race and racism know that the quiet part has (1) never really been all that quiet and (2) been an enduring feature of our society from its founding. What I worry about is the extent to which our students' understandings of racism, and more generally our society’s understandings of racism, have shifted toward only being concerned with the fog horns, and that we will continue to ignore all of the other less explicit, yet no less significant, ways that racism is produced and maintained, including in our own backyards.


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