Many diversity initiatives in universities fail — because they strive for more equitable representation, but not justice, according to Jonathan Tran.

“University diversity efforts at best make racial capitalism more diverse,” said Tran. “This grants the appearance of justice but as we should know by now the appearance of justice often means injustice.”

With that provocative assertion, Tran opened the 2022 Tate-Wilson Lecture, titled “Why University Diversity Initiatives Fail and Some Less Than Modest Proposals for How They Might Succeed: A Racial Capitalist Analysis.”

Tran is associate professor of philosophy and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University and author of Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2022) and the forthcoming Christianity and the Promise of Politics (with Stanley Hauerwas) in the series, Encountering Traditions (Stanford University Press.)

He spoke on March 9 at a gathering in Kirby Hall on the campus of SMU, with Perkins faculty members Sze-kar Wan and Tamara Lewis responding.

“ ‘Diversity’ within university diversity initiatives names two things: having more non-white-male folks around and feeling good about having them around,” he said.

While diversity trainings are “all the rage” in American institutions — in Fortune 500 companies as well as universities — there’s little critical inquiry as to whether they’re effective.

“Considering how much and how long we have been doing this, at least since the 1960s, we haven’t done much to study how well they work,” he said. “When we have, the results have been decidedly mixed.”

DEI diversity efforts focus on correcting bias, controlling people and punishing nonconformity, he said, and they “don’t work for reasons anyone who studies institutional behavior and social psychology could predict.” Telling people they are racist or sexist “doesn’t tend to get them out of their racism or sexism. It starts off on the wrong foot. Threatening people with punishment doesn’t work for long … yet we keep doubling down on our trifold tactics of correcting, controlling and punishing,” he said.

Voluntary mentoring programs that match senior white males with early career women and people of color tend to be more effective.

Similarly, protocols for transparency in areas such as hiring and promotion can also be effective because decision-makers will hold themselves accountable when they’re aware that others are watching.

“Instead of mandating from the top down, let people volunteer, which gives them agency and makes them feel like they have chosen diversity,” he said. “Start there and you will find that those who didn’t start off seeing the problem for what it is gravitate toward doing so.”

A bigger problem, Tran says, is DEI ignores the goals of reparative justice and liberation. Early Black politics and Black Power movements aimed for systemic changes that transcended race and identity politics. Instead, DEI diversity settles for equitable representation among the ranks of the privileged, with no efforts toward justice that repairs damage done by racial capitalism.

DEI diversity efforts, he said, tend “to flatten deep problems into superficial ones, where the social, institutional, structural and systemic would become personal, attitudinal, and psychological, where matters of racial capitalism would boil down to racial identity, where justice would be bought off with white guilt, and where representation and inclusion would replace redistribution and abolition.”

Lewis and Wan Respond

Responding to the talk, Dr. Tamara Lewis, Professor of the Practice of Historical Theology, called Tran’s work “groundbreaking.”

“He brings works and arguments often treated separately — capitalism, race theory, neoliberalism, along with Christianity and its theodicy and its soteriology, in a critique of anti-racist efforts,” she said. Such creative thinking is important, she said, citing Audrey Lorde’s words, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Said Lewis: “In order to effectively challenge racism, one must address racism materially by deconstructing the material conditions that give white institutions their power.”

Lewis added that a perennial question that has vexed historians is, “Which came first: the chicken of racism or the egg of race?”

Tran’s work, she said, points to the “chicken” of racism.

“Race was constructed in an answer to a need – the racism of capitalism,” she said. “This position underscores the problem of anti-racist work by holding on to the identity politics of race.

“Despite historic failures of the church to realize the practical vision of equality, we have examples in which Christian believers have striven to do and to act. Their example inspires us to become the ones we have been waiting for.”

In his response, Dr. Sze-kar Wan, Professor of New Testament, praised Tran’s analysis for revealing “the productive potentials of the concept of racial capitalism.”

“We have always known that capitalism and the slave trade were bound up together in convoluted fashion, but stating it in such stark terms is extremely helpful,” said Wan. “It helps us see racism [which is bad and is rejected at least formally] is an inextricable part of our current political economy under the caption of capitalism [whose virtue is reflexively unquestioned].”

Wan also wondered if racial capitalism might be understood more broadly in terms of tribalism.  Surveying ancient history, he disputed common assumptions that, unlike modern slavery, Greco-Roman slavery was not based on ‘race.’

“They might be right if they define ‘race’ in the narrow sense as it was used in old junk science,” he said. “But I don’t believe there is a difference between race and ethnicity, and the ancient Greeks and Romans most certainly differentiated between ethnic groups, usually on the basis of language, culture, religion, and, in the case of the Greeks toward the Macedonians, accents.  Or more accurately, tribalism — what distinguished us from them.”

“Isn’t tribalism a broader, more encompassing category, and therefore more accurate description, than racism?” he asked.