Pamela Newkirk on the Diversity Imperative: An interview by Bob Morris

Pamela Newkirk is a journalist, professor, and multidisciplinary scholar whose work traverses history and journalism.

Her book, Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, was published by Bold Type Books (October 2019). In it, she examines why, after five decades of diversity studies, training and conversations, many institutions have failed to diversify their workplaces. Her previous book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga was completed while she was a Leon Levy Biography fellow. The book was selected as the Best Book of 2015 by NPR, The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle; an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times and won the NAACP Image Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Pamela is on the journalism faculty at NYU and earned a PhD from Columbia University.

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Before discussing Diversity, Inc., a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Probably my dad who was an antiques dealer and collector of Black memorabilia. I grew up surrounded by the ephemera of Black life – the vintage posters, books, photographs and letters of major activists, educators, writers and thinkers who had done so much to advance the cause of civil and human rights.  This instilled in me a reverence for history and figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, Madam C.J. Walker and others who were not even footnotes in my school textbooks. This sparked my interest in this hidden history, and in counternarratives.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

There were so many people who influenced my professional development but the public figure who perhaps, more than anyone, fueled my interest in journalism was Melba Tolliver, an African American local television reporter in New York City. I always loved writing but she was the first person whose very presence inspired me to pursue a career in journalism. I began writing for community newspapers and once in high school wrote for my high school newspaper. While in college I continued to write for weekly newspapers until I landed my first daily newspaper job in Albany, New York. I was mentored by many wonderful journalists along the way.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

The biggest turning point occurred while I was still working for a daily newspaper while teaching a weekly New York University journalism class at night. One day a professor assigned to evaluate my teaching invited me to apply for a junior level tenure-track position, something that I would not have otherwise considered at that point in my career. However, once I saw that it would allow me more time to devote to more in-depth research and writing than I was able to do as a newspaper reporter,  I threw my hat in the ring.  I would not have joined a faculty, especially that early in my career, if not for Richard Petrow.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My formal education has provided the basis for my counternarratives and for much of my critique of systemic racial illiteracy –a pervasive ignorance of the historical events and actors that have created the systemic racial injustice that persists today. Much of our school curricula, from elementary through graduate school, romanticize the past and erase people, events and aspects of our history that could help us understand current-day realities.  Most Americans have never learned about Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction and the myriad ways Black progress has consistently been undermined by presidents, legislatures, the courts and social movements. I have endeavored to fill in some of those gaps and to make visible some of the pivotal events that have shaped and continue to inform our understanding of the world and of each other.

Here are a few of my favorite quotations. Please respond to each.  First, from Margaret  Mead: “Never forget that you are uniquely important. Just like everyone else.”

I agree that we each have a gift and the challenge in life is identifying it and being able to make a living performing it.   I used to advise my students to follow their passion and the money will follow but this may no longer be true given the exorbitant cost of living, particularly in cities where many young people wish to live and work. So my addendum is to find a way to do what you love AND to make a living. They may not be one in the same.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

I love this and  agree with whoever said that our education begins at the end of our comfort zone but this requires a degree of humility and vulnerability that many suppress.  Far too many see any change or challenge to their long-held beliefs as a threat. I think the rise in White nationalism and xenophobia is due to a fear of the rapidly changing demographics and predictions that by 2045 Whites will no longer be the national majority. However American culture — which has always been a blend of many — is thriving in many of our  so-called “majority-minority” cities.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

This is particularly true in education.  Students are far less impressed with what we’ve accomplished. They relate to our investment in their development.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

This could be the title of my book.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in an extended conversation? Why?

Probably Lincoln. He was such a complicated and intensely intelligent man who lived through one of the most challenging times in American history. Given the deep divide in our country,  I wonder what, if anything, he would have done differently.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

I don’t think any real change can occur without discomfort. The question is whether the discomfort is worth the tumult. If we look at the turmoil around emancipation, the civil rights and women’s movements, and the many movements since, it seems there’s no way to avoid resistance to change unless we elect to maintain an untenable status quo.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Recognizing the unique qualities an employee bring to the table by paying and promoting him or her fairly, and by providing opportunities for growth and professional development.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Value their unique contributions to the institution which includes the different strategies and ways of thinking that can spark innovation.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Diversifying their workplaces while managing the resistance to diversity.

Now please shift your attention to Diversity, Inc. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

I wrote it because for more than three decades of my career it has been a national preoccupation and yet the numbers have barely budged in most influential fields, including the two that I’m in: journalism and academia. But racial minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, are also acutely underrepresented in fashion, tech, investment banking, museum leadership and curatorship, film, etc. So I wanted to interrogate the tension between the rhetoric and billions spent on diversity, and the persistently disappointing numbers. I also think many believe we have made far greater progress on racial diversity than the numbers suggest.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The many billions institutions spend on diversity measures year after year, and often with so little to show for it. Institutions keep doing the same thing and getting the same results and yet there seems to be no accountability. People overseeing diversity seem to fail with impunity.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

It’s pretty much the book I envisioned except the numbers in many fields are far worse than I had anticipated. I had also not expected to be able to draw on as much data or find  successful models that could serve as a blueprint for institutions that truly wanted to achieve diversity.

To which “billion-dollar business” does the book’s subtitle refer?

The billions are spent each year on diversity consultants, czars, commissioned climate surveys and studies, conferences and the entire diversity apparatus, all of which have helped to sustain a ballooning industry that by all indications has grown substantially in recent years.

What are the defining characteristics of an organization within which diversity is most likely to flourish?

One in which the leadership is actually committed to change, rather than public relations, and hires someone who has access to the resources, institutional metrics, and support necessary to do interventions.

In your opinion, is there any one organizational level at which such diversity is most important?

The top. It has to be incentivized and integrated into the company’s mainframe.

In your opinion, what is the single greatest waste of resources in each of the doimains on which you focus? First, academia

Anti-bias training, climate surveys and an elaborate diversity apparatus led by a diversity czar that is often untethered to clear goals or measurable outcomes. This would apply to every sphere.

Next, Hollywood

What’s unique about Hollywood is that it’s a very cloistered, who-you-know world that normalizes generations of nepotism and stereotypes. Since Hollywood’s chief product is culture, the overwhelmingly white men who greenlight and direct multi-million-dollar projects  expect filmmakers’ worldviews to mirror their own.  As a result, filmmakers who are women or of color are acutely underrepresented as writers, directors and other influential players.

Finally, corporate America

In addition to the billions it spends on surveys, studies, consultants, czars, and the like, many companies also devote millions to advertising campaigns and other public-facing initiatives promoting their diversity efforts. Starbucks closed hundreds of its stores to perform a day of anti-bias training even though research shows that it, at best, has no effect and at worst, makes matters worse. For many companies, diversity is inspired more by public relations than notions of equality and justice.

Which of the three has achieved the least progress in diversity since (let’s say) the beginning of the 21st century? Why?

If we were to look at positions of influence, corporate America has made far greater strides than academia and Hollywood.  The percentage of Black and Hispanic full professors, which is 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively, has barely budged in decades. In Hollywood, people of color have barely broken into the studio executive suites and are radically underrepresented as directors and writers.

Much of what I have read about systemic racial injustice seems to focus on symptoms rather than its causes. Is that a fair assessment? Please explain.

Yes, that’s part of the racial illiteracy I mentioned earlier. Many don’t know enough about the history of race in this country to form reasonable assessments of where we stand today. There’s so little context to explain the glaring racial disparities. Many think that after emancipation, and certainly since the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks have been on a level playing field with Whites. Many have little understanding of the ways in which Black advancement has, throughout history, been systematically undermined. Many are also in denial about the ways in which racial attitudes and customs, which are embedded in our school texts, our literature, public iconography, and film continue to perpetuate demeaning and dangerous ideas about people of color that fuel and serve to justify continuing bias.

How best to combat systemic racial injustice?

Through education. We first have to recognize the breadth and depth of injustice, which many are unwilling to do. Only then can we begin to dismantle it. In my book I sought to offer compelling examples of the breach.

In your opinion, why are so many people determined to preserve it?

I guess it’s what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Change is hard, and in this land of plenty many Whites continue to see racial progress as a zero-sum game that means they’ll have less power and influence – and fewer marbles. However, history has shown that policies enacted in the 1970s enabled Blacks to make substantial progress without Whites losing ground.  Since the late 1970s/early 1980s, many of those gains were erased due to a virulent backlash.

Here’s another opinion of mine that I have been hauling around for at least for a century: The objective should not be equal opportunity. Rather, it should be equal access to whatever is required to become qualified for consideration in a selection process that is wholly free of bias.  Your thoughts?

I see them as interdependent: one needs equal opportunity for decent housing, education, employment, etc. to be on a level playing field to compete so it’s all about access and opportunity writ large.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Diversity, Inc. will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Hopefully, once they see how racial attitudes and customs continue to pervert national ideals, they’ll discover ways to detect and disrupt patterns of systemic bias in the workplace.  This requires a measure of empathy and a willingness to shed deeply entrenched customs and attitudes that may place one at odds with friends, colleagues and family members. So it requires a measure of courage. I’m not suggesting it’s easy.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.


To C-level executives? Please explain.

Beyond recognizing the problems, they need to incentivize change and not farm it out to consultants and other diversity professionals. It needs to be part of the institutional ethos, prized not only for the appearance, but for the measurable change it sparks.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.


Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

While the questions relate to the workplace, institutional leaders cannot tackle the diversity problem without a fundamental shift in the dominant narratives around race perpetuated by our schools, museums, major media and in our households. Until Americans are weaned off deeply embedded narratives of racial superiority and inferiority and recognize the historical events and persisting policies that have created and sustain systemic inequality, diversity initiatives will continually fail.

Thank you!

Pamela cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

NYU faculty page link

Publisher/author page link

Time magazine article link


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