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The Debate Over DEI Programs
Juneteenth is just around the corner. Truth be told, I’m not yet sure of the best way to celebrate this important holiday. I like the idea of eating at Marie Bette, a Black-owned bakery, which has the best croissants in Charlottesville. I also think Jackie and I will watch Selma or Just Mercy or another movie about the unique and challenging experiences that Black Americans have faced in this country.
When it comes to thinking about the struggles African-Americans continue to face in this country, my views have evolved over the last fifteen years. For example, there is the issue of racial profiling. As a teenager, I knew that, on occasion, cops might profile a Black driver of a nice car and pull that driver over for no reason. I also knew of police brutality. Even though I was only eight at the time, I remember watching news reports of the Rodney King beating. But over the last decade, I have come to appreciate the extent of injustice in the American justice system.
Yes, racism has decreased over the last several decades. A good example is that, according to a recent Gallup survey, 94% of Americans are fine with a family member marrying someone of a different race. Compare this to only 4% in 1958. But while I believe individual acts of racism have dropped, I now believe that discrimination has been built into aspects of our economic and social institutions. In short, racism from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries impacts Blacks born into the 21st century.
The housing policy known as redlining is a great example of how the past impacts the present. There are disparities in wealth and the digital divide. Past racism also impacts the modern gaps we see with incarceration, drug arrests, health outcomes, and education outcomes. In thinking about these issues, I’ve been influenced by Ta Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, and Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be An Anti-Racist. I’ve also been influenced by Ezra Klein’s stimulating conversations and by the 1619 Project from the New York Times.
While I believe systemic racism exists, I take issue with Kendi’s argument that the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination and that the only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” As Christopher Caldwell argues of Kendi and other anti-racist advocates, “In their mind, the American system of politics, economics, and policing has been so corrupted by racial prejudice, and, since such prejudice explains the entire difference in socioeconomic status, anyone not actively engaged in this system-changing work is a collaborator with racism.” That is why, according to Kendi, Black conservatives, such as former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell or South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, are racists.
The anti-racist movement has helped to inform the DEI movement. As Tal Fortang writes, “DEI’s theorists and practitioners to view all social relations as a confrontation between oppressor and oppressed. They try to even the score by favoring members of the oppressed class in (diversity), aiming for equal outcomes between groups (equity), and altering any institutions that resist those goals (inclusion).”
Trader Joe’s recently implemented its own DEI program. In 2020, the company announced the Vernon Boykin Scholarship to support the educational goals of Black crew members and their immediate family members. There is also the fact that Trader Joe’s is making neighborhood diversity more of a consideration when planning new store locations. Another great example of DEI efforts come from Discover Financial Services. As I learned from a recent Freakonomics podcast, Rother Hochschild, Discover’s CEO, heard a talk by Ibram X. Kendi and decided to build a call center in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. When it comes to private companies taking the initiative to improve the lives of Black communities in America, I’m 100% on board.
Then there is the impact of the DEI movement on college campuses. In researching this subject, I read a fair amount about the University of Michigan. Ryan Mills and Isaac Shor analyzed data from this elite school and reported that the combined total salaries for all of U-M’s DEI employees increased nearly seven-fold from 2002 to 2021. Their analysis found that U-M had at least 167 staff members dedicated to DEI and other multicultural initiatives in 2021, more than four times the approximately 40 DEI staffers working on campus in 2002. It isn’t only University of Michigan, DEI efforts at most public and private universities have increased dramatically over the last two decades.
Mills and Shor report that the DEI movement has had a “blandifying” effect in the classroom, as students and professors fear that “committing even a minor slip up could put them in the crosshairs of DEI bureaucrats.” Mills and Shorr argue that DEI efforts, rather than make places more tolerant, actually create a campus where “students and staff are on the lookout for offenses against the politically correct orthodoxy.” Faculty members complain that students “call the police first for every little thing” and that "good intent has gone out the window.”
Mills and Shor offer a number of anecdotes, such as when a Michigan professor was referred to the Office of Institutional Equity for the crime of seeking a “quick powwow” with a student. A music professor got in trouble after showing the film Othello, in which Laurence Olivier portrays the title character in blackface. It isn’t just University of Michigan. I recently spoke to a professor at an elite university who no longer can use the word “marijuana” (it’s pejorative towards Mexicans) or the word “prostitute” (sex worker is preferred).
It’s important to observe that DEI theory is connected with Critical Race Theory in the sense that DEI and CRT activists view the world as a confrontation between oppressor and oppressed, and they want to uproot entire systems of legal oppression. Given the stakes, these activists are okay with doing whatever it takes to fix intolerable injustices, even if means rejecting free speech and basic human decency. There is no better example than looking at with happened at Stanford Law School on March 9, 2023.
The Stanford Federalist Society invited Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan to give a speech and answer questions on the Fifth Circuit’s recent jurisprudence. Before the event, associate dean for DEI, Tirien Steinbach, sent out an email alerting students that “numerous senators, advocacy groups, think tanks, and judicial accountability groups” oppose Judge Duncan because of his legal advocacy “regarding marriage equality and transgender, voting, reproductive, and immigrants’ rights.”
When Duncan arrived on campus, posters denounced him for crimes against women, gays, blacks and trans people. As Judge Duncan entered the room, students yelled, “I hope your daughter gets raped.” When the Federalist Society president tried to introduce Duncan, the heckling continued. Unable to speak for more than several seconds, Duncan asked for an administrator to intervene.
Tirien Steinbach took the podium with prepared remarks. She said, “For many people in this law school who work here, who study here, and who live here, your advocacy, your opinions from the bench….your work has caused harm.” She asked of Duncan: “Do you have something so incredible and important to say about Twitter, Guns and Covid that it is worth the division of these people? Is the juice [his talk] worth the squeeze [pain caused by his presence]?” It is noteworthy that Steinbach made these comments before Duncan had said anything substantive. As Tal Fortang observes about the DEI and CRT community, “merely platforming someone who holds certain views is harmful.” In other words, Duncan’s presence “harmed” Stanford Law students.
Two days later after the event, Jenny Martinez, the law school dean, and Marc Tessier-Lavinge, Stanford’s president, apologized to the judge (Judge Duncan never delivered his prepared remarks) and made crystal clear that the protesters and administrators had violated Stanford policy. But the DEI activists didn’t stop. They lined the halls to protest, demanding that Martinez expel certain conservative students.
Thankfully, the protests didn’t work. On March 22, Dean Martinez issued a ten-page memorandum to all students. Martinez observed, “When a disruption occurs and the speaker asks for an administrator to help restore order, the administrator who responds should not insert themselves into debate with their own criticism of the speaker’s views and the suggestion that the speaker reconsider whether what they plan to say is worth saying.” Referencing the DEI mission of inclusion, Martinez argued that Conservatives at Stanford are every bit as deserving of inclusion as anyone else. Martinez explained, “The commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion means that we must protect free expression of all views.” Martinez also observed that the core of any good lawyer’s training is the ability to reckon intelligently with difficult opposing arguments. Steinbach, meanwhile, was put on administrative leave.
I agree with the DEI mission in the sense that being around people with different perspectives and life experiences adds value to organizations, businesses, schools, ect. But diversity should go beyond skin color and gender. Diversity means having diverse ideas. What happened at Stanford was problematic, because Stanford students didn’t just believe that Judge Duncan was wrong. They thought he was evil and, thus, deserving of abusive treatment. It isn’t just Stanford. The bubbles and echo chambers have made interacting with our political opponents much harder. Our lack of knowledge of the humanity of the other side leads us to view “the other” as evil. The way forward is listen to our political opponents, not shout them down. When we listen to those with whom we disagree, we truly build a culture of diversity and inclusion.