Tuesday, January 17, 2023

DEI's "Psychology" Double-Bind

The NYT has an op-ed today regarding DEI programs -- and in particular, the scant research suggesting that they actually, you know, work.

I'm familiar with some of the research in this area and while I could quibble on the margins, the core point is more or less accurate. There is fairly robust research evidence that establishes implicit bias is prevalent in our society, but there is not much in the way of verifiably effective interventions that combat it. Many DEI programs which purport to address implicit bias and other forms of prejudice are at the very least not proven to actually have an impact on the problem they purport to address. Finding an intervention that reliably and durably alters discriminatory attitudes (particularly implicit ones) is somewhat of a white whale for the social psychology profession. But in the meantime, the lack of evidence that many DEI programs tailored towards altering attitudes are effective suggests that a ton of time and money is being wasted.

Given that, the article makes the following suggestions:

So what does work? Robert Livingston, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who works as both a bias researcher and a diversity consultant, has a simple proposal: “Focus on actions and behaviors rather than hearts and minds.”

Dr. Livingston suggests that it’s more important to accurately diagnose an organization’s specific problems with D.E.I. and to come up with concrete strategies for solving them than it is to attempt to change the attitudes of individual employees. And D.E.I. challenges vary widely from organization to organization: Sometimes the problem has to do with the relationship between white and nonwhite employees, sometimes it has to do with the recruitment or retention of new employees and sometimes it has to do with disparate treatment of customers (think of Black patients prescribed less pain medication than white ones).

The legwork it takes to actually understand and solve these problems isn’t necessarily glamorous. If you want more Black and Latino people in management roles at your large company, that might require gathering data on what percentage of applicants come from these groups, interviewing current Black and Latino managers on whether there are climate issues that could be contributing to the problem and possibly beefing up recruitment efforts at, say, business schools with high percentages of Black and Latino graduates. Even solving this one problem — and it’s a fairly common one — could take hundreds of hours of labor.

I have no intrinsic quarrel with this. Instead of looking for "bad brains" and trying to fix them, focus on tangible actions and outcomes. If your company has too few Black and Latino people in management roles, instead of trying to root out the deep-seated biases in your executives and HR staffers, just get to work directly on the problem.

But this anti-psychology turn is interesting for one particular reason: it flies in the face of the prevailing conservative formulation of what discrimination is: namely, discrimination occurs if and only if one can prove the presence of malign intent by a discrete decisionmaker. Unless someone holds racially discriminatory attitudes, there cannot be said to be racial discrimination at all. From that framework, which holds out psychology as the exclusive prerequisite of discrimination, it makes sense that an anti-discrimination initiative would have to be psychologically-inclined as well. And indeed, focusing on actions and behaviors in absence of establishing bad psychological intent is an anathema to the conservative (and, often, alt-liberal) framework -- that way lies "racial balancing" or "equality of result" or any number of terrible ghouls which are supposedly the patrimony of the progressive DEI edifice.

And so we have a double-bind: first, prominent political and social institutions (to say nothing of legal precedents) say that the only cognizable way to speak of discrimination is through psychology -- bad motivations. Then, when DEI professionals accordingly work within that framework and try to address the problem through psychology, they're pilloried because such interventions, it turns out, are only dubiously reliable and don't directly correlate with fixing the "actual problem" of underrepresentation of social outgroups. Which is fine as far as it goes, except that when DEI tries to pivot back to the "actual problem" without the baggage of wading through conscious and subconscious attitudes, they're lambasted as crying "discrimination!" without proof, since only psychology is said to generate valid evidence of discrimination in the first place. It's an impossible situation. 

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