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Disney, reverse discrimination, and "Respect of Persons"

Disney
Disney employee Nicholas Maldonado holds a sign while protesting outside of Walt Disney World on March 22, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. |

In the recent Disney annual meeting, shareholders were given the opportunity to vote on a resolution regarding the issue of possible reverse discrimination in employee diversity training. The resolution was placed on the ballot by the conservative Free Enterprise Project (Free Enterprise Project - The National Center) and Justin Danhof, the leader of the group, gave a public statement in support of it. The resolution said:

"RESOLVED: Shareholders of The Walt Disney Company (“Disney” or “Company”) request that the Board of Directors commission a workplace non-discrimination audit analyzing Disney’s impacts, including the impacts arising from Disney-sponsored or -promoted employee training, on civil rights and non-discrimination in the workplace, and the impacts of those issues on Disney’s business. A report on the audit, prepared at reasonable cost and omitting confidential or proprietary information, should be publicly disclosed on Disney’s website."

The Walt Disney Company

This resolution was based partly on leaked documents from a Disney diversity training program. The source material is found near the bottom of this page: The Wokest Place on Earth (christopherrufo.com). The material tells people who are not members of the disadvantaged group, which in this case is people of color, that you are only an ally when the other group says you are an ally. It tells employees not to say things like "I feel you" or "I can't believe this is happening" (in reference to items in the news). "All lives matter" or "I don't see color" are deemed "harmful and hurtful." And the rules are not just something which employees are told to impose on themselves, "problematic posts on Slack," or other workplace channels are to be reported to the HR or diversity departments. Employees are given a list of books and articles to read about "white fragility", "microagression," and even something for the "well-meaning white parent" about how not to teach racism to babies.

Training material rejects the idea of "equality," which emphasizes "equal treatment […] and opportunities," in favor of "equity," which strives for equal outcomes. Equality is not the goal. The idea of equality is one of the problems which such training programs are intended to replace.

Understandably, employees felt under attack by such training programs. Equally understandably, they only felt safe expressing those feelings off-the-record. Whether such training programs amount to reverse discrimination is debatable, but it seems clear that there is adequate basis for concern. The resolution simply asked Disney to commission an audit regarding the issue and to disclose the results. In other words, it's only a request for a study, and yet Disney objected. It offered no real counter argument, just shared already available boilerplate claims that it treats people fairly and is committed to diversity. That was hardly an adequate basis to urge shareholders to vote against a non-binding request for a deeper look at the question, "at reasonable cost."

What view should Christians take about such corporate employee diversity training programs? Like all forms of discrimination based on surface-level group identity, reverse discrimination is an example of what James (James 2:1-4) calls "respect of persons." The word he uses in the original Greek (prosopolepteo) is literally " face" and "accept" spliced together. So, to be a respecter of persons is literally to "accept a face."  The example he uses is one in which people are treated differently as they come into a synagogue. You see what they look like (in this case, their clothing) and then accept (or reject) them in advance.

Is this not what all skin-color based evaluation does? It looks at faces and then judges. James' example involves favoring the rich over the poor, because that is the problem he saw at the time of his writing. Christians, perhaps as part of a political tactic to get protection from persecution by Pharisees, were pandering to the ruling class. But whether the bias is socially upward or socially downward, it is still "becoming judges of evil reasoning" (2:4). It's evil whether it’s the standard form of discrimination or an alleged reversal, pandering to the poor through populist revolts and such. In fact, in the next generation after James was written, that is exactly what happened: Zealots committed acts of terrorism against the ruling class. For example, they murdered the High Priest and his family and burned down the house of records where debts were recorded in order to curry the favor of debtors. This helped lead to the destruction of the city.

Any favor based in outward appearance or class (or race) and not based in actual knowledge is what some translations call "respect of persons" and constitutes evil judgment. In many ways, this English translation is misleading, because it's not actually "persons" who are being respected -- it's faces. In other words, the person is not being respected at all, only outward appearances. Neither the one who is told to sit under the footstool nor even the one favored is being respected as a person. You can't respect a person when the only thing you see is their face.

The HR and diversity approaches currently in fashion in corporate America claim to show respect for victims ("historically disadvantaged groups"), but they do so at the expense of the dignity of employees who are members of groups considered to be historic oppressors. This current approach reverses the earlier patterns of discrimination associated with the era of racial segregation, and on the surface it appears to reverse the pattern which James warns about which favored the ruling class. But when you look deeper, you see that it is not really a reversal at all: it still favors the rich and powerful over the less rich and powerful, because these training programs are being forced by wealthy and powerful people at the top echelons of American corporate life down upon those who have no choice but to endure it for fear of losing their livelihoods. Disney's upper management is tapping into ideologies hatched in Ivy League universities and forcing them on those lower than they are in the social hierarchy. When top managers force their employees into mandatory diversity training, they get credit for being progressive (or at least they seek such credit), but it's those under them who have to sit "under my footstool," being berated for surface-level similarities to past oppressors, in a show designed to make the bosses look good. Workers sit through accusatory struggle sessions, while bosses get to pretend that they are Atticus Finch. So in the end, it's not really reverse discrimination: It's just plain old discrimination. It's the powerful socially castigating the less powerful.

The proposal on Disney's ballot lost, but a message was sent. Similar messages are going to be sent at the upcoming Levi's, Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, Citi, CVS, and AT&T annual meetings as well. Concerns are increasing, not decreasing. Face-based acceptance is evil judging, no matter which direction it leans. Christians should denounce it in all its forms.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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