The Genealogy of Woke Capital
American companies’ embrace of radical ideas appears both sudden and inexplicable. In internal trainings, companies from Disney to Lockheed-Martin ask their employees to “challenge colorblind ideologies” and “deconstruct their white male privilege.” Firms spend vast sums of money on such trainings, on diversity-related speakers, and on maintaining a progressive image. Employees find themselves wondering why their workplace has transformed into a progressive propaganda center.
Much has been made of the propagation of certain ideas—call them social-justice ideology, critical race theory, or wokeness—in American institutions. But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the question of why institutions “go woke.” Some address this question in philosophical or ideological terms, noting the continuity between these ideas and the work of certain twentieth-century intellectuals, from the Frankfurt School in the 1920s to the critical race theorists of the 1980s. But a historical and sociological analysis can help explain why institutions accepted these ideas as legitimate in the first place.
Race-conscious policy has become a self-sustaining force in the modern workplace. Where companies once adhered to a paradigm of “compliance,” in which they adopted affirmative action to satisfy a new legal regime, they now follow the rule of “diversity,” which encourages race-consciousness as an end in itself. If social-justice ideology is the food that universities and businesses give to their students and employees, diversity is now the air that they breathe, the set of taken-for-granted assumptions without which woke ideas would be ignored. The story of diversity’s institutionalization in American corporate culture tells us much about how we got to this current moment—and how we can move beyond it.