Today, diversity initiatives are ubiquitous in American colleges and universities. Nearly every campus touts its commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and the ideals of multiculturalism. At the same time, student-led movements across the country demonstrate that many American universities remain steeped in racial conflict. Black college student enrollment has declined by more than 13 percent over the past ten years, and the percentage of Black faculty on college campuses remains stagnant. These contradictions raise important questions. How, in an era saturated with commitments to diversity and multiculturalism, do colleges and universities continue to fall so well short of their stated aims? If diversity initiatives are seemingly everywhere, why do those initiatives appear to be going nowhere? In Diversity Regimes, James Thomas takes up these questions through a case-study of a public, flagship university in the American South. My analysis reveals the discursive, interactional, and organizational processes behind the failures of diversity initiatives to reduce existing racial inequalities. 

Scholars who study diversity find that among ordinary actors, it has multiple and contested meanings. For many, diversity is enriching. The idea of people from dif­ferent backgrounds coming together through shared values and working toward shared goals fits well with the ethos of America as a melting pot. Sociologists Douglas Hartmann and Joyce Bell aptly coined the term “happy talk” to describe this particular set of meanings. Yet happy talk—even among those “considered both well-informed and articulate about diversity”—often fails to capture the continued problems of race and inequality. Instead, happy talk treats diversity as something to be tolerated, or even celebrated, without considering whether and how power shapes people’s interactions with others dif­ferent from themselves. As a result, happy talk obfuscates social problems associated with race and ethnicity and dismisses the continued significance of race in maintaining social inequalities.

Scholars studying organizations and management find that happy talk is central to diversity policies and outcomes. Sociologist Lauren Edelman and her colleagues, for example, examined professional management literature to better understand how for-profit companies position diversity as a positive social value. Their research demonstrates that happy talk within managerial discourse disassociates diversity from civil rights law and collapses legally protected categories of difference—race, ethnicity, sex, and religion—with elements of diversity not protected by civil rights law. Managerial discourse on diversity often assigns equal, positive social value to all elements of difference, effectively ignoring how certain kinds of difference matter for reproducing the power structure of the organization. In a complementary analysis of diversity discourse at the University of Michigan, sociologist Ellen Berrey found that diversity policies emphasized occupational and cultural competencies alongside racial and ethnic differences. This effectively collapsed socially and politically meaningful differences between race, attitudes, and work styles, resulting in a diversity-is-everyone/everyone-is-diversity mantra that did little to challenge the status quo. Elsewhere, sociologist David Embrick has found that in the most egregious cases, organizational diversity policy excludes race and gender equality altogether.

Finally, sociologist Frank Dobbin examines what effects, if any, diversity policies have on organizational outcomes. He and his colleagues find that organizations with token minority representation are less likely to adopt diversity programs than organizations that lack even token representation. For organizations that create and implement diversity programs, it does not appear to matter whether those programs actually increase minority representation. Instead, what matters is that organizations can point to these programs as reflecting positively on their organizational image. Perhaps most tellingly of organizations’ intentions behind diversity policies and programs, Dobbin and his colleagues find that the programs most successful in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women and racial and ethnic minorities in the professional ranks are the least commonly adopted. Meanwhile, programs that are least successful in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women and racial and ethnic minorities are the most prevalent. These findings suggest that what matters most for organizations is that they show a commitment to diversity in the abstract, not that they produce meaningful change in how power, resources, opportunities, and decision-making are distributed.

Most of this organizational research on diversity centers on for-profit companies; however, some studies look at educational institutions, including higher education. Observing diversity’s architecture at a major public university, legal scholar Susan Sturm shows that how and where diversity initiatives are housed on campus marginalizes those efforts. For example, Sturm finds that diversity management is typically segregated from the executive office and therefore kept out of key decision-making processes. Meanwhile, the professionalizing and compartmentalizing of organizational goals relegates diversity management as a special division within human resources. Consequently, departments and divisions across campus have little awareness of what kinds of diversity efforts are taking place elsewhere. Relatedly, Sturm finds that the individuals most typically responsible for doing diversity work—select professors and staff in student affairs—frequently have little contact or coordination with the campus chief diversity officer.

Ellen Berrey’s aforementioned research at the University of Michigan reveals how diversity rhetoric there redefines race from a matter of legal redress for previous exclusion to one of cultural identity. This leads to the promotion of racial tolerance and difference but comes at the expense of addressing structural barriers to opportunity and resources. Elsewhere, sociologists Amir Marvasti and Karyn McKinney surveyed students, faculty, and staff at a small liberal arts college to reveal the pervasiveness of happy talk and diversity’s lack of universal meaning. Their survey results indicate that diversity and the organizational policies and programs associated with it are disassociated with existing inequalities on campus. Finally, in interviews and classroom observations with elementary school teachers, sociologist Antonia Randolph finds that as a matter of practice, diversity eschews the harder conversations on race, power, and inequality in favor of benign celebrations of difference. 

Much of the aforementioned research on diversity reveals a great deal of scholarly attention toward the material and symbolic consequences of happy talk. Yet relatively little attention is paid toward the processes through which happy talk, or what we might think of as “hollow diversity,” is produced, organized, and deployed. To date, we have a limited sociological understanding of the process through which diversity’s hollow meaning arises, what conflicts and contingencies are involved in this process, and how the social actors involved think about diversity when they put it into practice. The plurality and ambiguity of diversity’s meaning indicates diversity’s status as a “going concern,” where social actors struggle over how to define diversity and what it should look like in organizational practice. We know from the research already mentioned that ordinary social actors assign complex and often contradictory meanings to diversity. But what do they then do with those meanings? How do they actively make sense of diversity? Put differently, we know little about how, as a going concern, diversity unfolds within the organizational setting. Focusing on diversity’s articulation—the conditions and actions that forge the connection between diversity’s meaning and practice—can help us better understand how in an era saturated with symbolic commitments to diversity and multiculturalism, racial inequality persists.

James M. Thomas (JT) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He is also the author of Working to Laugh: Assembling Difference in American Stand-up Comedy Venues, and the coauthor of Affective Labor: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance and Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity.

Excerpted from Diversity Regimes: Why Talk Is Not Enough to Fix Racial Inequality at Universities by James M. Thomas, reprinted with permission from Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.