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How capitalism reduced diversity to a brand

A law professor explains how corporations commodify people of color.

Back in 2000, Diallo Shabazz was surprised to see himself on the cover of the University of Wisconsin admissions booklet. But there he was, cheering in the stands at a football game he never attended, just behind a group of white students.

Some employees in the marketing department had decided to photoshop his face into the image; this, they thought, was a great way to project a diverse image to prospective students.

The decision might seem innocuous to many — a clumsy but well-intentioned attempt by a university to promote diversity. But according to Nancy Leong, a law professor at the University of Denver who focuses on civil rights and discrimination, it happens all the time. And it breeds even more racial resentment in society.

In 2013, Leong wrote a lengthy article in the Harvard Law Review in which she labeled this practice “racial capitalism”: the use of nonwhite people by corporations and institutions to make money or boost their brand.

This is the sort of stock photo you’ll see in many college brochures. The message is clear: See how diverse we are!
Getty Images

Think of the controversial 2018 Super Bowl commercial in which Dodge used a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to peddle Ram trucks; it was one of those uniquely late-capitalist moments where an act of protest or a racially progressive speech was reduced to a bland commercial prop.

I reached out to Leong to talk about how racial capitalism exploits nonwhite people and why she believes the practice is bad for both individuals and society as a whole. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What is “racial capitalism”?

Nancy Leong

Racial capitalism is the process of getting some sort of social or economic benefit from someone else’s racial identity. In the United States, this usually, though not always, involves white people benefiting from nonwhite racial identity. This is because white people in the US are more likely to have the power and resources to use another person’s identity to benefit themselves.

Sean Illing

Can you give me some specific examples of racial capitalism in practice, things that would be familiar to most readers?

Nancy Leong

A common example of racial capitalism is a school or a company intentionally putting photos of people of color on its website to inflate its appearance of diversity. This happens all the time. Sometimes schools have even been known to photoshop people of color into their brochures.

Racial capitalism could also be something as simple as claiming that you can’t be racist because you have a black friend, or including a token minority character in a movie. Or it could be something like quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on Twitter when you’ve recently been accused of white supremacist views, like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) just did this past MLK Day.

Racial capitalism is very common, and it’s often done by well-intentioned people who are completely unaware they’re doing it.

Sean Illing

Why is racial capitalism problematic from your point of view?

Nancy Leong

Too frequently, racial capitalism is all show and no substance. We have a big problem with race relations in America. Racial capitalism doesn’t help, and it sometimes makes things worse.

Sean Illing

Worse how?

Nancy Leong

Racial capitalism breeds racial resentment. People of color know when they’re being showcased to benefit someone else — for example, a student of color whose photo is plastered all over their school’s website often resents the school for using them.

This is especially true if the student perceives that the school isn’t actually doing anything substantive to improve race relations, like providing funding to bring speakers to campus or taking the initiative to recruit racially diverse faculty members.

Sean Illing

I’m trying to imagine all the possible motivations for racial capitalism. Is it greed and cynicism? Is it about signaling, however disingenuously, a commitment to diversity?

Nancy Leong

I think there are a lot of overlapping motivations. One is virtue signaling: “Look at how inclusive and diverse this company is.” Another is as a defense against racism: “I can’t be racist because my best friend is black.” Another is purely economic: “Our movie will bring in a bigger audience if we cast this popular actor of color, even in a small role.”

Sean Illing

When did this become a thing? When did nonwhiteness acquire market value and become a commercial prop?

Nancy Leong

I trace it to a 1978 Supreme Court decision called University of California v. Bakke. That decision upheld race-based affirmative action programs but also said the only constitutional justification for affirmative action is promoting racial diversity. So ever since then, “diversity” has become a prominent part of our national conversation about race.

And if diversity is a good thing, that gives people a reason to engage in racial capitalism. Of course, this is not to say that diversity is a bad thing, but the fact that the Supreme Court focused on it drew attention away from other important issues.

For example, if the Supreme Court had instead held that past discrimination could justify affirmative action — what lawyers call the “remedial rationale” — then we as a country would be more likely to have a necessary and painful conversation about race that would include everything from slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to the discriminatory administration of the GI Bill after World War II.

Sean Illing

This is basically capitalist enterprises reducing race to a brand, in the same way they peddle lifestyles to targeted demographics.

Nancy Leong

Yes, absolutely. I think you could go even go further and say it is reducing diversity to a brand. This is one of the reasons that racial capitalism is problematic: It treats racial identity and diversity like commodities, which gives the impression that they are just like anything else you could buy or sell.

Sean Illing

In what sense does whiteness carry inherent economic value in our culture?

Nancy Leong

It’s the default setting. Law professor Cheryl Harris has written a wonderful article about this called “Whiteness as Property.” Whiteness has value in almost every setting due to conscious and unconscious bias.

Research shows that you are more likely to get a job interview if you have a white-sounding name. White people get better deals when they buy used cars and make more money when they sell things on eBay. Research even shows that professors are more likely to respond to an identical email when they think it was sent by a white student. Law firm partners rate an identical memo higher when they think it’s written by a white associate.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Sean Illing

Does the phenomenon you’re describing ever work in the reverse direction? That is, do nonwhite people and institutions ever use whiteness to acquire social and economic value?

Nancy Leong

Occasionally, it could happen in the other direction. You might see a group that is predominantly people of color including some white people to try to help give legitimacy to the group. White people are sometimes seen as more authoritative even when they aren’t, and that can be valuable to nonwhite people.

Sean Illing

Why is nonwhiteness easier to commodify?

Nancy Leong

It’s because of the way power is distributed in America. The most powerful people in politics, business, education, entertainment, and so on tend to be white — although this is slowly changing — and that means those people are in a position to make decisions that result in commodifying people of color. People of color are less likely to have that position of power.

Sean Illing

All of this might seem counterintuitive to people, since whiteness has always been such a reliable source of value and power in this country.

Nancy Leong

I agree, and it mostly still is. My point is that because of the increased focus on diversity, nonwhiteness also has a certain type of value now too. White people are also increasingly concerned about being labeled racist, and forming relationships — even superficial ones — with nonwhite people might seem like a defense against that.

Sean Illing

There’s something very insidious about the inversion you describe here. For most of our history, nonwhite human beings were assigned value and sold as commodities. Today, a well-intentioned diversity rationale is being used to re-commodify and re-exploit racial differences.

Nancy Leong

This is one of my greatest concerns with racial capitalism. Racial capitalism feeds racial resentment — it’s not like nonwhite people don’t know what’s going on here — and this is like throwing gasoline on the fire of racial tensions.

Sean Illing

And, of course, the irony is that the value of nonwhiteness is still largely measured by its worth to white people and predominantly white institutions.

Nancy Leong

One of the big problems with racial capitalism is the way it constrains nonwhite people. If you know your company hired you partly because you are Asian, you might feel pressure to allow your photo to be used all over the website or to attend every diversity event even when you’re swamped just doing the work for your actual job.

White people, who aren’t usually pressured to do this kind of racial work, can just concentrate on their jobs. This has happened to me, when I am expected to mentor students of color, serve as the faculty adviser for racial affinity groups, or attend diversity events.

I love doing those things, but it’s real work that is not always acknowledged by the institutions to which I’ve belonged. Racial capitalism leads to a lot of extra racial work for people of color.

Sean Illing

There’s an example in your article of a largely white college that photoshopped an image of a black student onto a brochure in an attempt to offer the illusion of diversity on campus. I’m trying to be as generous as possible here, so I’ll just ask: Is this necessarily a bad thing? Is it possible that they’re genuinely seeking to become more diverse and perhaps they just chose a clumsy way of doing it?

Nancy Leong

I do have some sympathy for colleges that do this. I think the generous construction is sometimes true: Colleges want to signal that this is a good place for people of color, but the fact is that they don’t have very many students of color, which is why we end up with this photoshopping.

I’d suggest, though, that a more honest approach is better, backed up with a real economic commitment. What that might look like is a college that says, “We care about diversity and we know we need to do better. That is why we are offering 50 full-tuition scholarships to people who will bring diversity, including but not limited to racial diversity, to our campus.”

I think people would find something honest and substantive like that very refreshing.

Sean Illing

Is the problem, then, a superficial commitment to diversity, in which nonwhiteness is just a commodity, a way for white people to profit from a loose affiliation with nonwhiteness?

Nancy Leong

Yes. I think the superficiality is part of the problem. If you want to do something good for nonwhite people, put some real resources into it.

Sean Illing

Do you think our societal effort to promote diversity has had the unintentional effect of degrading nonwhiteness?

Nancy Leong

Maybe. If nonwhiteness is just a commodity that can be bought and sold, isn’t it just like cereal or ballpoint pens or anything else you can buy and sell? I worry that people look at nonwhiteness as just another thing to acquire. You want some nonwhite friends at your party, just like you want great lighting and fancy decorations.

Sean Illing

Is there a practicable solution to this problem?

Nancy Leong

This is the question that keeps me up at night. I think the example I gave earlier relating to college recruiting highlights two things that will help: honesty and resources. If a school wants more students of color, it should come out and say so, and then show it’s sincere by putting some money into the problem.

Sean Illing

And if we don’t get that, what then?

Nancy Leong

Our country is going down the wrong road when it comes to race. We have a president who is a consummate racial capitalist. He goes out of his way to tweet photos of himself with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the Oval Office, yet he hasn’t appointed a single black woman to the federal judiciary, constantly vilifies brown immigrants, and called white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people.” You couldn’t find a clearer example of the divide between show and substance. As a country, we are getting hung up on the show and missing the mark when it comes to the substance.

In 2018, a poll found that 64 percent of Americans think racism is still a major problem in American society and politics. Another 30 percent think racism is a problem. So almost everyone agrees that race relations in America are troubled. But glossy brochures with photos of smiling, racially diverse people aren’t going to heal our culture.

We need to come up with real, substantive solutions — not use racial capitalism as a way of avoiding the hard questions.

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