What Does "The Business Case For" Really Mean?

I have an automatic, negative reaction to the phrase “the business case for” + any equity-related issue. This particular reaction recently came up for me as I was reading a business journal for work. As a social researcher, I wanted to know what the business world had to say about equity issues and how to approach them, as that world is highly influential in my subset of academia which is very chatty about equity these days. I should have expected a “business case for” equity mindset to be prevalent throughout the read but hope, as usual, led me to disappointment. Page four featured a letter from the CEO titled, “Diversity: the Business Case and Beyond” and page 28 began an article on how “empowering young women” can be used as a strategy for attracting new clients.

Don’t get me wrong, I can wrap my mind around the “business case” for a “business case,” and I don’t think either of the two articles referenced above are mean-spirited in any way. It’s just that, with all due respect, this isn’t about you or your business. Business cases for the community good try to leverage the collective good to benefit an individual when let’s face it, that doesn’t really work in a capitalist system.

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Now, I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of capitalism and human nature (I say, having written and erased four paragraphs of philosophizing). Instead, I’ll emphasize the central message of this post: I worry that saying that an equity issue will benefit those already in power implicitly gives them permission to continue seeking personal gain over the wider good. In turn, this permission also gives them leeway to ignore equity altogether. I pull in Sara Ahmed’s work on diversity personnel in universities to bolster my point. In her book, On Being Included, she discusses how communities adopt diversity as something to celebrate, rather than as something which challenges the status quo, and “friendly documents” which are easy to circulate but, again, do not challenge anything (p. 68, 95-96). The “business case” is palatable for the business world exactly because it does not challenge anything.

By this mindset, why put in the effort to do a deep inquiry into and potentially change the entire hiring system at my business when we can just purposefully hire a few people of color and call it a day? In this way, the powerful and privileged are able to pay lip service to an equity issue by using our language without the follow-through necessary to take meaningful steps toward equity.

“I’m less interested in immigration policy that’s trying to find the next Steve Jobs than I am in policies that treat people escaping violence & poverty with dignity & compassion. No one should have to justify seeking safety for their family by trying to convince us that they’ll invent new technology or cure cancer or make people rich. Market-based ideologies have tried to tell us that these are the metrics we should use, rather than our sense of empathy.”
— Clint Smith

Take the rhetoric about immigration as an example. The above tweet by Clint Smith sums up a lot of what you hear “liberal-minded” politicians say when “advocating” for immigrants to be treated humanely. Saying that the next Steve Jobs might be present in an immigrant community implies a “diamond in the rough” mentality. It implies that people are only worth saving because of how they might benefit “us,” or “the economy.” What if there is no new Steve Jobs in that community? Are they then not worth helping? The answer is no, of course not, they’re human and they deserve dignity and safety. If that’s the answer then, why did we even bring up Steve Jobs in the first place?

I have another example which uses the same framework but doesn’t bring up profit explicitly (though it is, of course, implied). One of the interesting things about working in education is seeing how these institutions, especially schools of choice, rationalize becoming more diverse. My favorite of these rationalizations is the “21st Century Skills” list. Many of them are common-sensical and I agree that children should learn them. However, one of these skills is to “communicate effectively with diverse audiences,” quoted because I’m reading it off the wall in my office (I will not be so shady as to cite the school. Know that this phrasing is found in most private schools and educator communities at this point).

Indulge me as I break this phrasing down. First, what is implied by “21st Century Skills” is skills that will benefit young people as they enter their careers; i.e. skills that will help them make money. Okay, so we’re back to a profit mindset. We sure got there fast. Next, let’s tackle the phrase “diverse audiences.” Diversity, while being an all-encompassing word that technically includes concepts like religious diversity, diversity of thought, neurodiversity, etc., has a history so steeped in America’s racial past that the term itself is racialized. This phrase then, immediately brings to mind an audience full of people of color. Great! What does that imply about the speaker though? Again, technically it could be anybody, but I would argue that most people of color already have this skill. Code switching is a daily part of navigating American society for people of color and by the time children of color reach middle and high school, they’re already pretty good at it. So who are we teaching this skill to? I don’t think I have to say. You know what I’m getting at.

So far nothing I’ve pointed out is problematic except for the assumed audience of white children and their parents, but it’s the implication that this statement has for how these schools rationalize diversity that concerns me. Here goes:

Students should learn how to communicate effectively with diverse audiences = white children need to learn how to talk with people of color in order to make money ∴ our schools should be diverse so white children can learn how to talk with people of color so they can make money.

Oh boy, now that’s a problematic statement. Maybe you think I’m thinking too hard, but it was so easy to get to this implication. My brain understood it as soon as I read the statement, hence the immediate negative response I described at the beginning of this post. It’s not too crazy to think that other people understand the implications here too.

I’m going to wrap up this post by saying this: I recognize that businesses, even schools that are operated like businesses, have to make money to function. To make money, businesses have to appeal to a wide range of mindsets (a diversity of thought, if you will). That’s just our current situation. However, we have to be careful in our attempts to bring “business-minded” people into the world of equity work lest we allow for that work to become a performance; a plea for legitimacy that doesn’t actually produce equity. I am glad that businesses and schools are looking to diversify their employees, but don’t let hiring diverse peoples be something you do for yourself. Your learning to “communicate with diverse populations” should not be the end-goal but a positive side effect. Your benefit should not be the selling point. Widen your gaze: you don’t have to benefit for it to be the right thing to do.