What Woke's Worth and Why

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 29: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Carlos Watson speak onstage during HISTORY Talks Leadership & Legacy presented by HISTORY at Carnegie Hall on February 29, 2020 in New York City. / Getty Images
June 3, 2021

In early 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered the inaugural "Distinguished Diversity Lecture" at the Ohio State University. Coates’s hourlong engagement, which included a reading, a moderated conversation, and an audience Q&A, cost OSU $41,500.

The price tag included first-class airfare, a per diem, and private transportation, a contract obtained by the Washington Free Beacon shows. OSU also sold Coates’s books, put him up at a four-star hotel that, per his contract, included "an indoor pool whenever possible" and provided a green room with two bottles of water and one box of Nature Valley "Crunchy Oats and Dark Chocolate" granola. The contract prohibits any fruit with pits.

Coates is a MacArthur "genius" and bestselling author, but even accomplished writers typically don’t rake in speaking fees nearly equivalent to the median household income of the city they are visiting. That sort of payment, however, is the industry standard for the rock stars of the new "wokeness," a survey of nearly 20 contracts obtained through public records requests shows.

Demand for events like the one Coates headlined has risen even as statistics suggest racism has declined—there were fewer complaints of racial discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2019, for example, than at any point in the last two decades.

So why is the market for woke still booming?

Commentators left and right have tried to answer this question, with the former attributing the phenomenon to a developing political conscience among white America and the latter chalking it up to an irrational and ever-growing religious fervor.

A look at how well racial progressivism now pays encourages a different view: that big businesses shelling out for top speakers like Coates are responding to the demands of their most-valuable employees, for whom compensation is as much about the opportunity to hear their views and values affirmed as it is about salary.

What Woke’s Worth

The Free Beacon obtained 19 contracts from five "antiracist" commentators who gained prominence in the wake of last summer’s protests: Coates, the academics Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, journalists Ijeoma Oluo and Isabel Wilkerson, and the criminal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.

The fees they command are big and getting bigger. Nearly half of the payments are for $20,000 or more; just two are under $10,000. Kendi’s fees rose to $20,000 last year, compared with $10,000 to $15,000 in 2018-2019. DiAngelo made $20,000 a speech in 2021 versus $15,000 in 2019, and Oluo’s speaking fee jumped to $15,000 this year from $12,000 in November 2020.

Both the speakers and the institutions hosting them are tight-lipped about the rationale for these eye-popping payments. Reached through representatives, the speakers did not respond to a request for comment about why organizations were willing to pay so much for their services. Of the 15 universities from which contracts were obtained, just 5 responded. Two merely acknowledged the event in question had taken place, and three said that events were aimed at improving race relations or promoting diversity of opinion.

The past half-decade of protests "calling out" campus racism and "canceling" dissenting speakers cast doubt on these explanations, as increasing wokeness correlates with increasing racial strife. So does research evidence that diversity training programs do not promote racial understanding, and may even reinforce biases. If hours and hours of training can’t reduce intolerance, it’s hard to see how an hourlong book talk could work real change.

This logic extends from public universities to the corporate sector, where firms from Disney to Lockheed Martin have embraced woke corporate culture, going beyond legal compliance to publicly support progressive social causes like Black Lives Matter and Democrats’ "voting rights" laws. What’s making these big entities so aggressively progressive?

Woke Labor

If diversity initiatives do not change institutions, they may mollify those who work for them. The progressive institutional turn is likely fueled by the group columnist Josh Barro labeled "woke labor"—individuals whose high levels of education make them desirable employees and who are disproportionately likely to be fixated on politics.

Highly credentialed workers—those with college or advanced degrees—are typically political progressives. The correlation is borne out by the ever-growing support for "wokeness" among highly educated white liberals. It’s also supported by research indicating that better-performing employees at an anonymous management consulting firm were more likely to participate in social responsibility initiatives, and that the most-skilled freelancers are also those most likely to ask for less money after learning about a company’s charitable giving.

Even a small fraction of high-status workers can hold outsized sway. As the political scientist Richard Hanania noted, the most politically active people are disproportionately likely to be liberals. Employers can cater to their strongly held preferences without doing too much to alienate the more politically apathetic majority by bringing in speakers, by encouraging employees to celebrate their political identities at work, and by aligning the firm with progressive causes.

A focus on how employees influence corporate decision-making makes sense. If consumers were driving the corporate trend toward wokeness, we should see more corporate differentiation—some firms would specialize in competing for the other side of the political divide. It could also be that top corporate decision makers are themselves woke. But American companies have spent just $250 million of the $50 billion pledged last year toward "racial equity" initiatives, suggesting their largesse was motivated more by self-interest than magnanimity.

Wokeness as a Benefit

If the most desirable employees are increasingly also the wokest, then large firms can use politics as a way to keep them around and to draw in new employees. To some people, being able to be woke at work is worth something, and the money firms shell out for wokeness is a measure of that worth.

It’s not unusual for businesses to offer so-called nonpecuniary benefits like health insurance or gym access. A culture, or having a certain set of values, can be a form of compensation as well, insofar as workers may be willing to forgo pay in order to be a part of it.

Corporations have used such cultural practices to keep employees happy. Research on many of America’s largest corporations finds, for example, that firms are more likely to engage in "corporate social responsibility" as unemployment insurance payments rise—in other words, that the typically liberal values articulated in corporate social responsibility initiatives serve the bottom line by keeping employees on the payroll.

By contrast, companies looking to keep politics out of the workplace have suffered consequences. Two tech firms that recently banned political discussion, Basecamp and Coinbase, suffered mass resignations: Roughly a third of Basecamp’s 57 employees quit, as did about 60 Coinbase employees. Both firms pay well, but to these employees, that money was apparently less valuable than the political culture of their workplace.

Celebration of political protest, high-profile speakers, and other hallmarks of corporate wokeness are just the other side of this coin. Just as employees leave when the culture changes, they go to places where their values are celebrated—to companies and universities that profess to be woke.

The diversity industry was worth an estimated $8 billion two decades ago. It’s almost certainly grown exponentially since then—not because it works, but because for a select group, the product it sells is often more important than getting paid.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. He was previously a staff writer with the Washington Free Beacon.