Critical Dynamics in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I)

Reflecting on past and underlying assumptions can enlighten our current perceptions and actions as they pertain to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Learning professionals benefit from gaining perspective of the critical training topics currently taught by leading organizations. Our perspective on what we refer to as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is based on our lived experiences and our understanding of the underlying causes of bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The very concepts and terminology used in the field vary across cultures and are constantly evolving (see my March 2021 column on “The New Diversity”).


August 28, 2023, is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, and it coincides with my first Diversity workshop. Back then, the field was called human relations and/or brotherhood and was part of the Civil Rights Movement. Little did I know 60 years ago that this one experiential educational program would result in a lifetime commitment as an activist, educator, and trainer focused on building bridges of understanding and successful relationships across differences. I am a white male, who came from a working-class, urban, Jewish, Republican family. Prior to attending the DE&I program, my primary goal was simply upward mobility. I organized my first diversity workshop in October 1963.

Reflecting on past assumptions can enlighten our current perceptions and actions. Here are some of the underlying assumptions that led to our current focus on DE&I and cross-cultural interactions. These assumptions are based on my biases as a social psychologist.

  1. In the 1960s we were trying to teach tolerance, not equity or inclusion. We naively thought that if we could tolerate one another, we would end all forms of bigotry, including racism.
  2. Tolerance was replaced by activism in the 1960s. The demonstrations and violence toward the demonstrators led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. If we could fix the laws, all would be better, we thought.
  3. Early in the movement, the institution in America that was least likely to promote diversity was the corporate sector since those in control of these organizations had no reason to relinquish their privileged situations.
  4. There was no DE&I field. The focus was on human relations and civil rights, mostly focusing on racism. Nowhere on the horizon were women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, rights for those with disabilities, veterans, Hispanics, and the wide spectrum of the diversity dimensions that make up today’s more comprehensive list of Diversity’s Dimensions (see “Diversity Dimensions,” November-December 2011).
  5. Understanding the social psychology of bias, bigotry, and prejudice would help eliminate these societal cancers. There is a substantial body of literature about the causes of authoritarianism, marginalization, living with the “others,” stereotypes, and the use and abuse of power against those “others” who had little power to fight back.
  6. The 1970s focused primarily on the application of quotas and compliance to create a more diverse community and workplace environment. There was the belief that to end racial segregation, we had to change the laws. There was little appreciation that racism, fear, and greed would combine to create white flight, which resulted in even more segregated urban areas in some cities.

According to DE&I pioneer, Dani Monroe, “In the 1980s, the body of work we call diversity, equity, and inclusion did not exist. The focus was compliance and affirmative action…to provide employment opportunities to diverse (predominately Black) people. Corporations or the people leading them were resistant to the change, as you might expect, because this was legislated mandates and behavior. So many of our conversations during the affirmative-action era addressed those misconceptions about Black people’s credentials and qualifications.”

  1. As the Civil Rights Movement morphed into compliance issues, my focus moved from fighting domestic biases to promoting cross-cultural Intelligence. By understanding the unseen forces of culture on our and others’ behaviors we could learn how to make more accurate interpretations of our own behavior and that of others. The underlying social psychological causes of bias were the same for domestic bias and cross-cultural bias.
  2. In the 1980s, corporations were beginning to offer courses on racism and social integration. Many of these programs resulted in “blaming” each other for the current state of affairs, so I frequently was called in to “fix” the problem that other diversity trainers created. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the growing economic competition from the Japanese and others. Not only was America the primary producer of products for export, but the U.S. began to become an importer of goods made outside the U.S. Learning about these other cultures became a business imperative.
  3. Due to changing demographics of increased people of color, Hispanics, and Asian populations in this country, the conversation started shifting to diversity as organizations realized the business benefits of managing and valuing differences. Employee resource groups (ERGs) were formed to help recruit diverse employees and to address the needs of these employees. Women’s rights were an integral part of the need for equity and inclusion in the workplace. As Monroe points out, “The conversation and definition of diversity broadened and expanded to focus on several groups and different identities, and race began to lose its sense of importance in the conversation.”
  4. COVID-19, George Floyd, and beyond. George Floyd’s death clearly demonstrated the consequences of systemic racism at a time when COVID was resulting in disproportionally more deaths in communities of color. His murder, viewed by millions during the pandemic, caused outrage across the country. Floyd’s death was one of many suffered by African-Americans at the hands of law enforcers. The Black Lives Matters movement was a direct result of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, an alleged law enforcement vigilante who shot and killed Trayvon Martin while the unarmed Black teenager walked home from a convenience store.

Those L&D and HR professionals who are responsible for the creation of organizations that promote psychological safety, inclusion, innovation, and resilience will benefit from understanding the background of the causes of bigotry, which, unfortunately, will plague humanity well into the future. A lot of work still needs to be done.

If you have any questions, comments, cases, or experiences related to bigotry in the workplace please send them to me at

Neal Goodman, Ph.D.
Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc.