Will DEI Die?

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, March 11, 2024 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime)

“DEI must die.”

– Elon Musk

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s, in conjunction with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, led to the creation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. These DEI initiatives are intended to ensure appropriate representation and participation of diverse individuals and groups in various types of organizations.

For more than one-half century, DEI initiatives were implemented without much interference. Then, as we moved into the 2020’s, some Republican conservative activists put together plans and a process into place to attack and eliminate DEI.

Nicholas Confessore does an excellent job of exposing what was done in his January 20, 2024 article for the New York Times, titled “‘America is Under Attack’: Inside the Anti-D.E.I. Crusade.”

Drawing upon thousands of documents the Times obtained through the freedom of information act, Confessore traces the origins of the “Crusade” back to early 2021 with work done by the Claremont Institute, a think tank in California, and follows it through 2022 into 2023, with initiatives launched against critical race theory and to abolish “diversity, equity and inclusion at Texas’ public universities” and higher education establishments in other states.

That was a major part of the anti-DEI movement nationally, when in June 2023, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in DEI with its ruling that race-based affirmative action admissions in higher education violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Even though the Supreme Court’s ruling applied only to higher education, it caused conservative activists to go after other organizations that employ DEI. In August, Andrea HSU of NPR reported:

In early August, Edward Blum, the strategist behind the affirmative action case, filed a lawsuit against the venture capital group Fearless Fund over grants it awards to black female entrepreneurs.

Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller has also been busy, asking the EEOC to investigate hiring practices aimed at increasing minority representation at a long list of companies including Kellogg’s, Hershey and Alaska Airlines.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a section titled “The Assault on DEI”, tracks what states have been doing before the Supreme Court affirmative action ruling and the impact after the ruling. The changes have been substantial, including: new legislation, axing diversity programs, censoring certain types of classroom instruction, and eliminating diversity-related titles and/or positions.

The possible decision the Supreme Court might render on business-related DEI was indicated in Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in the affirmative action case in which he emphasized that it is “unlawful…for an employer …to discriminate against any individual…because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

Given all of this, DEI is definitely in a regressive mode and it appears that it could be on its deathbed. The questions become: What has been the impact of DEI? Why is it being attacked? Should it die? And, if not, what can be done to save it?

The Impact of DEI Initiatives

To the best of our knowledge, there is no definitive study or research on the across-the-board impact that DEI initiatives have had on higher education or in the workplace.

The most comprehensive and informative data that we have reviewed comes from three sources: a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education; a 2023 report from the Pew Research Center; and a 2023 article by authors from Bain & Company published in the Harvard Business Review.

Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education

The Department of Education report titled Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education was issued in November 2016, near the end of Barack Obama’s second term as the president.

The report “shows the continuing education inequities and opportunity gaps in accessing and completing a quality postsecondary education”. Key findings include:

  • During the past 50 years, while the share of the population with a high school diploma has risen over time for Hispanic, Black, white and Asian adult U.S. residents, the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment has widened between Black and Hispanics compared to white adults.
  • For those students in college, more than 80 percent of Hispanic, Black, and Asian students have a gap between their financial needs and grant and scholarships, compared to 71 percent for white undergraduate students.
  • Nearly half of Asian students who enrolled in postsecondary education complete a bachelor’s degree, compared with fewer than one in five Hispanic and about one in five Black students.

The report identifies areas of focus that “research suggests can help advance diversity and inclusion on college campuses.” Those areas include:

  • Institutional commitment to promoting student diversity and inclusion on campus
  • Diversity across all levels of an institution
  • Outreach and recruitment of prospective students
  • Support services for students
  • Inclusive campus climate

It is highly unlikely that the Trump administration, which came into office in 2017, promoted any of those diversity and inclusion advancement areas nationally.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

The Pew Research Center survey report titled Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace, authored by Rachel Minkin, was released in May 2023 before the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision. The report was based upon responses of nearly 5,000 workers to an online survey conducted in February.

The survey found that a majority (56%) of the respondents felt that DEI at work was a good thing, but a much smaller percentage (around 30%) “place a lot of importance” on diversity workforce in their workplace.

Key findings from the Pew survey include the following:

  • Most workers (61%) have some experience with DEI measures at their workplace.
  • More than half the workers (54%) say their company or organization pays about the right amount of attention to increasing DEI.
  • Women (61%) are more likely than men (around 50%) to value diversity at work.
  • There are wide partisan differences in views — Democrats and Democratic leaning workers (78%) say focusing on DEI is a good thing, compared to 30% of Republican and Republican-leaning workers.
  • Many say being a man or being white is an advantage where they work, but “shares ranging from 45-57% say these traits make it neither easier or harder.”

In sum, while the Pew survey results tilt slightly toward supporting DEI and its impact, examined within the total context and broken out by the characteristics of the respondents, the results are mixed and variable.

How Investing in DEI Helps Companies Become More Adaptable

David Michels, Kevin Murphy and Karthik Venkataraman of Bain & Company’s article “How Investing in DEI Helps Companies Become More Adaptable” was posted in HBR on May 5, 2023. In this article, the three authors assert that high DEI scores correlate positively with a company’s “change power.”

They introduced the “change power” concept in their 2021 HBR article as a company’s ability to change, writing that their analysis disclosed that “companies with high change power had better financial performance, stronger culture and leadership, and more engaged and inspired employees.”

In this new article, they report “Among companies that Glassdoor has given the highest DEI scores, change power is 80% higher than other companies.” They discovered this through a detailed study of 79 large companies. That study showed “that every 0.1 improvement in DEI ratings for a company (on a 5-point scale) was linked to a corresponding 13% increase in the absolute change power on average.”

The authors found a high positive correlation between DEI and change power on three elements:

  • Purpose (75%) — which guides decisions and information action while creating a sense of belonging
  • Choreography (70%) — which helps an organization to be more dynamic, adjusting change priorities and sequencing action
  • Development (63%) — which prepares a company and builds both learning and change capability

The All-out Attack on DEI

As the foregoing material suggests, in general DEI appears to have had a somewhat positive effect in both higher education and in the workplace, but there are still a significant number of institutions, organizations, and individuals that it hasn’t touched. In spite of this, there is a concerted effort to close the glass door on DEI, and to eliminate its contribution to change power.

Why is there this all-out attack on DEI? There is no single or simple explanation, but three reasons come top of mind: It violates equal protection rights. It reduces the positions of the advantaged. It is a victim of mis- or disinformation.

DEI and Equal Protection Rights

The Supreme Court embraced and cited the equal protection rights provided in the 14th amendment against DEI initiatives in its affirmative action decision. This is truly and sadly ironic because the 14th amendment was passed by the Senate in 1866 after the conclusion of the Civil War, and ratified in 1868.

As Senate.gov notes, The Fourteenth Amendment was landmark legislation granting citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized” in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people. It also granted Congress the power to enforce the amendment, which led “to the passage of other landmark legislation in the 20th century including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson both commented on the irony of the majority’s decision in their dissenting opinions on the affirmative action case. As Time magazine reports:

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor observes,

“Today, this Court overruled decades of precedent and imposes a superficial rule of race blindness on the Nation.”

“The majority’s vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored.

In her dissent, Justice Brown Jackson declares:

“It would be deeply unfortunate if the Equal Protection Clause actually demanded this perverse, ahistorical, and counterproductive outcome. To impose this result in that Clause’s name when it requires no such thing, and to thereby obstruct our collective progress toward the full realization of the Clause’s promise, is truly a tragedy for us all.”

DEI and the Advantaged Groups

The misappropriation and misuse of the equal protection clause would not be a tragedy for the advantaged groups in society. It would reinforce their advantage.

The Pew DEI survey revealed that in their workplaces more respondents say that “being a man and being white makes it easier than say this makes it harder for someone to be successful. In contrast, “by double digit margins, more say being a woman, being Black, or being Hispanic makes it harder than say it makes it easier to be successful in the workplaces.

Could it be that striking out at and speaking out against DEI is designed by those who are advantaged and want to maintain that advantage? Aarti Iyer, currently a social scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, provides insights on that in her April 2022 Social and Personality Psychology Compass article, “Understanding advantaged groups’ opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion policies: The role of perceived threat”

In her article, Iyer discusses three types of threats that can explain advantaged groups’ opposition to DEI:

  • Resource threat — concern about losing access to outcomes and opportunities
  • Symbolic threat — concern about the introduction of new values, culture, and expectations
  • In-group morality threat — concern about their group’s role in perpetuating inequality

She also mentions two other types of threats:

  • Distinctiveness threat — concern about losing feeling of value and distinctiveness of your group
  • Existential threat — concern that another group presents a risk to safety or pre-eminence of your groups

DEI and Misinformation/Disinformation

The rising cacophony of challenges to DEI from conservative activists — and the use of social media to disseminate mis- and disinformation that overstates the case against the increasing diversity of this country — says that all of these threats are probably front and center for opponents of DEI.

The Mis-informer and Dis-informer in Chief is former President Donald Trump. Although he no longer has the bully pulpit of the presidency, he uses every place from which he speaks or can send a message to be a bully. Even though this information is frequently counterfactual, it is perceived as true by the cult-like followers of the MAGA crowd.

And, as we noted in our June 15, 2023 blog, “Not Necessarily the News, Our American Preference for News Today,”

A new study from the Gallup and Knight Foundation finds that many Americans turn to individuals with public platforms for information and place a great deal of trust in those individuals.

Among the Top 20 individuals followed from the conservative side of the ledger were Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Sean Hannity, and Joe Rogan.

This led us to conclude back then, and to do so again today, that if the proponents of fake news and conspiracy theories had it their way:

They would elevate their free speech and their personal freedoms above all else and subjugate any who disagreed with them. They would storm the U.S. Capitol, proclaiming that this blatant act of domestic terrorism was an attempt to salvage the American democracy. They would be devoted followers of some public individuals who advocate reverse engineering to take the America back to simpler, whiter, and less equal times.

The Future of DEI

Given all of this, what is the future of DEI. Must it die as Elon Musk declared in a posting to X on December 15 saying, “The point was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination?”

We disagree with Musk’s point of view, but there should be no recrimination against him for his discrimination against DEI. We can state unequivocally that unlike Elon Musk, who thinks DEI must die and would put his own X (formerly Twitter) on its tombstone, we do not believe DEI must die.

Quite the contrary, we do not believe that DEI should be allowed to die. In fact, idealistically we believe DEI should be reborn in the fullness of its original intentions and construction.

Realistically — and we would add unfortunately — given today’s politically polarized environment and our divided country, that will not be possible. What will be possible is to put a less egalitarian and ambitious version of DEI in place.

We should use that reduced scope version of DEI to sustain America’s progress forward until such time when diversity, inclusion, and equality are not dirty words but a phrase that we the American people can embrace as our national marching orders for collaborating to create the more perfect union envisioned by our founders.

Thoughts are already being put forward for keeping DEI alive. For example, after the Supreme Court rendered its affirmative action decision in June, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report in September on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration outlining “strategies to increase diversity and opportunity in higher education.”

The press release announcing the report states “The report provides evidence for steps leaders can take to enhance socio-economic and racial diversity in colleges,” including:

  • Investing in targeted recruitment, outreach, and pathway programs…
  • Giving meaningful consideration in admissions to the adversity students have faced…
  • Increasing affordability, including through need-based aid…
  • Cultivating welcoming and supportive environments for students and providing comprehensive support programs…

In terms of DEI workplace programs, in July the Harvard Business Review published an article by Tina Opie and Ella F. Washington (two professors and experts in this area) titled “Why Companies Can — and Should — Recommit to DEI in the wake of the SCOTUS Decision.” Opie and Washington provide some recommendations on how to recommit, and conclude by recommending, “We believe corporate leaders should resist the urge or pressure to backpedal on commitments. Instead, they should enhance DEI in a manner that complies with the law, aligns with their organizational values, and benefits their businesses.”

As Taylor Telford points out in her December 27 Washington Post article, companies have modified their approaches to DEI. After being threatened with legal action, six firms, including JPMorgan Chase, American Airlines and Blackrock, took steps including “removing language that said certain programs were for underrepresented groups” and “modifying executives’ goals for increased racial representation in the workforce.”

In the opening to her February 18 Washington Post article, Telford notes,

After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, companies made big pledges about racial equity, hiring teams dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now corporate America is pulling back — cutting DEI jobs and outsourcing the work to consultants.

Whether these changes enhance firms’ commitment to DEI remains to be seen. It’s more probable that they eliminate any probability of a lawsuit, but at least they do not eliminate DEI altogether.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, in his remarks delivered on July 2, when he was to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (just two days before the 188th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), said:

We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings. Not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand without rancor or hatred, how this all happened, but it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our republic forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.

The Civil Rights Act provided the platform for giving birth to DEI initiatives, and concerned citizens brought them to life to make this nation a fairer and better place. Concerned citizens will keep DEI initiatives alive during these trying and troubling times. Together they will say:

DEI must not die.