When diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work was thrust into the national spotlight, it was on the heels of universally condemned, horrific tragedies: the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. DEI efforts, which have existed for decades in higher education and the corporate sector, quickly became one of the ways we as a society sought to fix the wrongs of racial injustice.
Just three years later, the term DEI has become weaponized and cast as the villain in the economic or social issue of the moment. This year alone, it’s been blamed for a bank collapse, a train derailment, and, most recently, antisemitism on college campuses.
How we got here
In reality, anti-diversity activists have been working towards this moment for decades. Edward Blum, the activist funding legal challenges to affirmative action, grants for Black women entrepreneurs, and fellowship programs for law firm associates, has been pursuing this mission for over 30 years. (Blum describes these cases as “anti-discrimination” efforts). A nonprofit founded by Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban and anti-diversity executive order, has filed at least a dozen complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission targeting companies’ DEI efforts, from hiring programs to carrying merchandise that celebrates Pride. (They accuse the companies of “misleading customers and shareholders” with these policies).
In all of these cases, ideologues are mischaracterizing the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Their strategy is working: critiquing DEI has become more mainstream. Increasingly, even people who likely support some of the most common and visible examples of these efforts (parental leave, fair pay, and hiring processes that promote objectivity and mitigate bias) are questioning whether the movement that produced these policies has gone astray.
What makes the anti-DEI narrative so compelling
During the pandemic, with a more captive national audience, many diversity and inclusion advocates have rightly pushed hard for change. In doing so, we haven’t always left room for conversation, questions, or nuance. Instead, we have in some instances adopted the role of moral authority, positioning anyone who doesn’t agree with our perspective, or perhaps simply doesn’t understand it, as not just wrong, but bad. As a result, many people who previously perceived themselves as egalitarian, on the side of progress, and pro-diversity became scared of being judged.
I’ve worked with leaders who care deeply about building fair, inclusive companies, but have been too nervous to ask questions like, “If we set diversity goals, does that mean we’re discriminating against everyone else?”
While extreme views and intentional efforts to undermine DEI of course exist, there are many more people who are interested in learning. Inclusion is a skill that can be built over time, but people need space and support to make progress on that journey. While DEI advocates shouldn’t minimize the harm that words and actions can cause, making room for dialogue, leading with curiosity, and recognizing that values-aligned people may sometimes have differences of opinion are important steps for engaging a wider audience.
When DEI advocates don’t make space for good faith questions posed by people who are seeking to understand, we create a vacuum of information that is right now being filled by a more threatening and factually incorrect set of answers: that creating a level playing field for one group means taking opportunity away from another (it doesn’t), that any consideration of someone’s background is inherently discriminatory (it isn’t), that DEI is about giving unfair advantages to marginalized groups instead of correcting for real systemic inequalities (it’s not).
Still, I believe a large majority of people think that diversity, equity, and inclusion are values worth pursuing, even if they’re skeptical about how some of the work has been done in the past.
Where do we go from here?
First and foremost, we can’t let “DEI” be defined by bad faith actors with sinister agendas which include dismantling voting rights and other civil rights laws that have been core to our nation for decades.
Instead of fighting over an acronym, we should recenter the conversation on the actual principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and appeal to people who believe in what those ideas represent. To that end, we must proactively explain what diversity, equity, and inclusion work is, and even more importantly, what it’s not. It’s not about categorizing people as either “oppressors” or “oppressed,” based on their identities. It’s not about punishing people for who they are or supporting certain groups to the detriment of others. Instead, diversity is about casting a wide talent net to find a more representative group of skilled candidates or students. Equity is about designing systems and processes so that people from all backgrounds have a fair opportunity to do their best. Inclusion is about creating cultures where everyone can be their true self and thrive.
We must be precise about the gaps DEI work is seeking to close, like uneven access to opportunities, differences in promotion rates that indicate some people get more opportunities for growth than others, and demoralizing experiences of bias and discrimination that make it impossible for someone to do their best work. And as new generations enter the workforce or head to college campuses, we can help them understand their role in overcoming these obstacles and communicate the benefit of working and learning in diverse communities.
Instead of drawing a line in the sand, pro-DEI vs. anti-DEI, with us or against us, we should look for common values, consider how fairness can benefit everyone, and engage in meaningful dialogue.
While it’s not surprising to see the pendulum swing back on DEI after two years of intense focus (throughout history, progress on the part of marginalized groups has often been met with backlash), it’s on all of us to decide how far it swings. The more that we can unite behind shared beliefs, the greater chances we’ll have in fighting back against a coordinated campaign that seeks to divide our nation and erase the civil rights progress we’ve made over the last two generations.
Joelle Emerson is the founder and CEO of Paradigm.
More must-read commentary published by Fortune:
- Economic pessimists’ bet on a 2023 recession failed. Why are they doubling down in 2024?
- COVID-19 v. Flu: A ‘much more serious threat,’ new study into long-term risks concludes
- Access to modern stoves could be a game-changer for Africa’s economic development–and help cut the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emitted by the world’s planes and ships
- The U.S.-led digital trade world order is under attack–by the U.S.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
Author: Joelle Emerson