Workplace Wokeness Helps Corporations Ignore Labor Problems | Opinion

You may have missed the two niche, highly online scandals of food magazine Bon Appétit and podcast producer Gimlet Media. The first happened over the summer, and the second has unfolded over the last few weeks. Together, they reveal how labor unrest works (or doesn't) in our elite knowledge economy—and how young, highly credentialed white-collar workers habitually undercut their own legitimate grievances to the benefit of corporate employers.

Bon Appétit's public crisis, the better-publicized of the two, began in June when pictures surfaced of then-editor in chief Adam Rapoport in a racially insensitive Halloween costume. Accusations of unfair treatment of non-white employees at the magazine quickly followed, the most egregious of which was that some were not paid for appearing in the magazine's popular YouTube videos. Rapoport and several other employees resigned—some in protest, some in disgrace—while others swore off appearing in future videos.

In February, long after the Bon Appétit scandal died down, Reply All—Gimlet's flagship podcast—began a four-episode series about it. Reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni uncovered that Bon Appétit's race problem stemmed from a labor problem. The magazine's office had a strict hierarchy. At the bottom were test kitchen workers (many of whom had years of diverse experience in restaurants and other professional kitchens) and above them—literally, a floor above—were the editors, writers and managers (some of whom, including Rapoport himself, had little or no prior experience with food journalism).

Lower-level staff had very few opportunities to move up or get their recipes published, short of cultivating personal relationships with someone upstairs. Rapoport, previously style editor at GQ, was hired to be an authoritative tastemaker. Racial disparities emerged as he brought in editors who shared his urbane, haute-bourgeois tastes—the tastes of an overwhelmingly white class of people—and they borrowed some of his authority. (Take, for example, a since-deleted video in which a white chef declares the "proper" way to eat Vietnamese pho, on the sole basis of his personal taste.) So it shouldn't be surprising that what began as a class problem ended up looking like a race problem. White and nonwhite, male and female employees alike complained about the company's competitive, "high school" environment in which class- and, by extension, race-specific tastes were required for upward mobility.

For years leading up to last summer's public scandal, lower-level employees called to diversify the editorial staff, institute diversity trainings and reevaluate the company's stance on race issues. But it's clear, from Reply All's account, that shifting people around in the hierarchy couldn't change the hierarchy. When Bon Appétit did start recruiting people of color for upper-floor positions and holding meetings about diversity, nothing changed.

After Reply All released the second of its planned four episodes on Bon Appétit, however, former Gimlet producer Eric Eddings accused Pinnamaneni and Reply All host PJ Vogt of creating "a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet." The two podcasters responded with lengthy apologies and immediately resigned. A remaining Reply All cohost released a two-minute episode acknowledging, in what is by now a familiar bureaucratic dialect, "multiple instances of troubling behavior" that "prompted a reckoning." He placed the show on hiatus until the remaining staff could "get to the bottom" of their "systemic editorial failure."

Bon Appetit Adam Rapoport
Adam Rapoport speaks onstage during the Ellie Awards 2019 at Brooklyn Steel on March 14, 2019 in New York City. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

But with Gimlet as at Bon Appétit, what at first seemed to be a race problem was at its core a labor problem. Vogt and Pinnamaneni had earned their coworker's resentment by pushing back against efforts to unionize—at least in part because Vogt held a quasi-leadership role and Reply All was relatively detached from other Gimlet shows, so organizers did not include its staff until late in the process. But since several nonwhite Gimlet employees had been at the forefront of the unionization effort, Eddings reduced the labor dispute to one more case of discrimination, painted in the broad-strokes language of "toxicity."

Something about our knowledge economy makes situations like these possible, even inevitable. For one thing, it places "content creators" in an ambiguous role between workers and employers. Vogt and Rapoport, by all reports, exercised strict and even abrasive control as middle managers, but were placed in that position by their own employers, who expected them to impose their tastes on the content they produced—and let them take the fall when scandal hit. They were middlemen. They acted as a buffer between workers and the parent companies (Spotify and Condé Nast, respectively) that were in a position to make labor concessions, but couldn't be so easily painted as villains in stories about discrimination.

Our increasingly fluid, style-obsessed elite media and entertainment industry recasts the traditional middle manager as a public-facing "creator" or "influencer." Companies elevate particular individuals and market their personal tastes to the public—making them potential subjects for scandal when those tastes turn out to be unwoke. This is particularly easy in an individualistic culture that understands self-expression and personal tastes to be authoritative declarations about reality, worth building societies and organizations around. Those who (rightly or wrongly) cry discrimination think this way, too. Their demands always target these individual middlemen, and never require structural change: bring minority representation to the board (rather than making the board accountable to workers), fire a middle manager who said something offensive, institute diversity trainings, vaguely reflect on the company values.

None of these demands require employers to actually provide something to employees, except perhaps lectures about how prejudiced they are. They are often little more than alternate routes to becoming the next elevated individual oneself, climbing the hierarchy rather than changing it. And by making a good show of taking on racism—a problem they know they have no chance of solving—companies avoid labor problems they can solve, but that would be worse for the bottom line. It's easier to hire more diverse middlemen, fire less diverse ones and institute anti-racism trainings than to negotiate with a union, increase compensation or cater less exclusively to elite tastes. Corporate America would rather face a plague of race scandals than a handful of labor ones.

Racial discrimination can be a real problem in offices and a racist boss should face accountability. What's more, labor disputes are not always about labor alone. But even though lines can get blurry, giving labor concerns a backseat to vague accusations of "toxic dynamics" and reducing labor demands to personal attacks on middlemen lets those in real positions of power off the hook. To his credit, Eddings has hedged his criticism of Vogt and Pinnamaneni since his original tweet thread, saying "this all stems from choices made by" the founders of Gimlet. He is probably right. But Vogt and Pinnamaneni are still gone.

College campuses were the prototype for all this. It's there that the rising generation of white-collar workers learned to use identity-based discrimination as the template for every dispute. It's there that they learned to obsess over middlemen. Bureaucratic offices, ostensibly instituted to make students feel more at home, always took the heat for student unrest, and universities always responded by hiring new administrators. Protests came and went; trustees and endowments remained untouched.

If the 21st century represents a new gilded age, this is no small part of the reason. Labor problems, class differences and the elevation of individual style and personal connections over skill and experience persist unaddressed while well-educated, white-collar workers focus on problems that are easier for their bosses to pretend to fix. Even many unions are more concerned with culture war causes and political influence than with representing workers. But when labor takes a back seat to identity, capital plays woke, and it wins.

Philip Jeffery is Deputy Opinion Editor at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.