In October 1980, Publishers Weekly featured an exhaustive piece called “Minorities in Publishing” that remains a revelation even today because it so pointedly rehearses diversity, equity, and inclusion issues bedeviling American book publishing—issues that might seem unique to our vexatious times but are not. The context for the article was this: the ascendance of the New Right, which opposed desegregation, affirmative action, environmental protection, and women’s rights, among other progressive causes. This white supremacist movement would help facilitate, a few weeks later, the election as president of Ronald Reagan, a man who, in pandering to Southern states—a key constituent of his victory coalition—opposed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, proscribing, respectively, discriminatory practices based on race, color, sex or religion and discriminatory voting practices in Southern states.

“Minorities in Publishing” brooded on whether publishers were acting in good faith to redress the meager representation of Blacks in the industry, even as the article was oblivious to the possibility of intractable, institutional racism. It called into question the prevalence of qualification among Blacks, while pondering whether Blacks themselves were to blame for their underrepresentation, by not appreciating the allure of a low-paying “accidental profession” not known for clarity of career advancement. It wondered whether class, in addition to race, played a role in the matter—whether Blacks should be recruited from “the ghetto” or “the middle-class.” The piece summarized the diverse views of the white publishing hegemony: “Many argue that blacks are not qualified for positions in publishing because they often lack basic skills, and the industry is not equipped to offer them the necessary training. Others contend that the cultural deprivations of the ghetto cannot be made up in school or office, that publishing requires the cultural incubation only a white middle-class can provide.... Nevertheless, there is in publishing an enormous reservoir of goodwill and a large pool of liberal guilt that can be drawn upon to bring in and advance minorities.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the proverb has it. “Minorities in Publishing” reeks of the kind of condescension that is hardly anachronistic nowadays. It championed the supposed value-laden noblesse oblige of white publishers, as they worked to ameliorate the condition and situation of the opaque Black Other. Which is to say, “Minorities in Publishing” reduced Blacks to creatures of, what the sage Albert Murray called, “social science fiction,” denying them the rich complexity of their humanity, by pushing a master narrative capable of comprehending Blacks only through the distortive lens of sociology.

The acronym BIPOC... is an abtraction stunning for the violence of its erasure of identity, its blithe lumping together of groups... as if their concerns were indistinguishable.

Nearly 40 years later, having willy-nilly practiced cultural, commercial, and employment apartheid for more than a generation, American book publishers were forced publicly to grapple with anti-Black racism as never before, and, more importantly, to take a stance in Donald Trump’s highly polarized and troublous America, where white supremacists had, with grim determination, come out of the closet. In May 2020, the Covid-19 plague raging the world over, video of the savage murder in plain view of a Black man, George Floyd—police unconscionably kneeling on his neck until his life expired—went viral, further igniting the Black Lives Matter movement, and inspiring global protests against anti-Black racism. It was no longer tenable for publishers to hide behind the cover of claiming to offer a “diversity of voices” on their lists whenever the subject of anti-Black racism reared its unlovely head. Publishers now vied with one another to affirm bona fides as proponents of social justice in general. Never mind the satisfactions of vainglorious posturing, if you were a publisher, you had to go all in on DEI, lest you incur the wrath of millennial mutineers in the industry and self-appointed, revanchist culture warriors of various races and ethnicities.

What was remarkable about the institutionalization of DEI was that the very power structure that had heretofore denied these values was now insisting on defining them, serving only to highlight shortcomings in the industry that it claimed it wanted to eradicate. As the furor over George Floyd abated, talk of DEI elided anti-Black racism as a subject unto itself, subsuming Blacks into a confederacy of the aggrieved. But if “the limits of my language means the limits of my world,” as Wittgenstein allowed, what am I, as a Black man of Caribbean provenance, to make of contradictions in the stultifying language of DEI, which seeks to move beyond “the unbearable whiteness of publishing” to define me?

The language of “cultural suppression or appropriation” and “authenticity reads” acknowledges the integrity of difference, real or not, among disparate aggregates possessed supposedly not only of their own truths but also of their own position in publishing’s power grid. The sci-fi–sounding acronym BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color—in high vogue today, does not. It’s an abstraction stunning for the violence of its erasure of identity, its blithe lumping together of groups—so much exotica however vaguely understood—as if their concerns were indistinguishable. This conundrum informs the trouble publishers are having as they struggle to devise meaningful and effective DEI strategies and policies beyond tokenism for which they must hold themselves accountable. The irony is that the result of their contorted efforts to legislate the treatment of others with simple dignity and respect, apparently a difficult thing to do, is the further alienation of those deemed deserving of “inclusion.”

Erroll McDonald, v-p and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf, is also a professor at Columbia University, chair of the board of directors of the Center for Fiction, and a board member of the Brooklyn Rail. He has served as a trustee of PEN America, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.