A few weeks ago, Elon Musk tweeted on X that “DEI must DIE.” Generally, I ignore anything that Musk says—after all, it’s not like we share similar ideologies about, well, anything. The thing is, that tweet stirred something in me that I had to sit with. Upon deeper reflection, I actually agree with him—just not for the same reasons and not with the same outcome in mind. It’s not because I don’t believe in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts but because the way in which we have tried to engage with DEI initiatives is little more than the performative, which in the current climate isn’t moving any needles. If we are being honest, it is probably doing more harm than good.
Over the last several years, we have seen DEI work become targeted by folks of all shades of ideology on the right. We have seen more seemingly moderate folks backpedal on their support of inclusion.
At the same time, far too many in the DEI field seem to operate in silos where they are disconnected from these attacks and assume that their work with individual organizations and groups will be enough. Meanwhile, actual white supremacist movements continue to grow, and people who are against anti-racist policies hold far too many public offices and other positions of power across this nation. Thus, the “anti-woke” crowd is amassing wins.
Harvard University’s first Black president recently resigned after coming under fire for her congressional testimony and accusations of plagiarism. However, what has been missed in all the tensions and media reporting was the fact that Claudine Gay was targeted by right-wing activists such as Christopher Rufo who are against the idea of critical race theory (CRT).
Rufo is a documentary filmmaker turned conservative activist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who several years ago started gaining national prominence after appearing regularly on Fox News and who has regularly tweeted his intentions to dismantle CRT and DEI efforts nationally.
In March 2021, Rufo tweeted: “We have successfully frozen their brand—”critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
After Gay’s resignation was made public, this was Rufo’s response: “This is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions. We will expose you. We will outmaneuver you. And we will not stop fighting until we have restored colorblind equality in our great nation.”
At the same time that DEI providers and cheerleaders felt they were making significant headway, they failed to read the larger landscape, which was that this work was going to be attacked. They not only failed to read the room, they failed to prepare for the inevitable backlash.
Any measurement of racial progress in the United States has been followed up with significant backlash. Starting with the Reconstruction era. Why weren’t we ready for the backlash? Why did we accept empty pledges from corporations, Black Lives Matter signage, and a new federal holiday? Why did we accept a few DEI officers at organizations and corporations as progress? Why did we accept talented tenth Black folks and folks of color earning astronomical rates of pay as “experts” on race and diversity, when the material conditions for most Black folks remained unchanged?
The commodification of DEI work into a major industry disconnected it from its more grassroots and radical siblings, anti-racism and racial justice, which has meant that too many DEI practitioners operate in silos based on whiteness and capitalism. Where too often the goal is to racially diversify the tables without actually shifting power and who holds that power. To create white people with brown and Black faces.
As a result, DEI as a field relies on white benevolence, guilt, and nebulous hope instead of radical change. Too often, DEI initiatives operate within the existing framework of the culture of whiteness and assume that knowledge alone is going to create a shift towards justice. Instead, these efforts are plunked down within the existing framework of injustice, using metrics of whiteness to gauge progress.
Do we really not understand what Audre Lorde told us? “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” Why are we allowing what should be radical and revolutionary work to exist and play nice with the culture of whiteness? Why do we think we can leapfrog over building beloved community to work together to dismantle white supremacy?
As long as organizations think that bringing in a trainer for a few sessions is going to create an inclusive environment, they are setting themselves and everyone else up for failure.
Knowledge in a thriving culture of anti-knowledge isn’t going to make white people less racist. Treating diversity as an add-on in a professional setting doesn’t create the buy-in and long-term commitment an organization needs to make change. What it does is set DEI officers and staffers up for failure and create animosity amongst staff.
Conservative activists are, painfully, better organized than we are. They understand their community. They read the room and they are prepared. They literally tell us what they are planning and we dismiss it. We have allowed them to successfully get the upper hand here and far too many of us fail to connect the dots because we aren’t playing the long game of change. They are.
The list of colleges and universities across the country that are quietly and sometimes not-so-quietly doing away with their DEI statements, officers, and coursework continues to grow. None of which bodes well for our future.
All the while, those of us who offer anti-racist or DEI-style training are lamenting the lack of real work being done and the real financial fallout from this change. As painful as it is—and trust me, it is painful, as my once busy speaking/training calendar is bare—I am more concerned about the larger implications and power that folks like Rufo and his ilk are amassing. How far back do these folks plan on taking us? How far away from a new millennium-style Jim Crow are we?
As I write this, I know not one anti-racist speaker/trainer locally or nationally—and I know quite a few—who are booked for MLK Day or who have more than a handful of engagements on their calendars this year. Myself included. Prior to 2021, I was booked by late summer for January and February.
A few days ago, I reached out to a potential client about scheduling a session they had wanted to book, only to learn that my contact there, a DEI officer, was no longer at the organization. They had been in the position less than a year. This is not the first time I have seen this in the last two years.
More importantly though, what is going on in these communities and organizations that not long ago were “eager” for these events and speakers? They were eager to declare that Black lives matter. The economy may be finicky, but I hardly doubt that this shift is strictly financial. I also doubt that they have shifted their efforts to strictly focusing on the plight of Palestinians or the Jewish diaspora or the folks in the Congo.
If I had to speculate, on a non-conscious level, the work of activists such as Rufo is planting seeds, along with some weariness of activism.
The thing is, the conditions that made us loudly proclaim that Black lives matter haven’t changed. Niani Finlayson was a 27-year-old Black woman who, several days before Christmas, called 911 for help as she was being attacked by a former boyfriend. A Los Angeles county sheriff’s deputy responded to the call and shot and killed Finlayson. Turns out this deputy had killed another person under similar circumstances in 2020. A woman is being attacked in a domestic violence situation and calls the police, only to be killed by the police herself.
While the rallying call in 2020 was to defund the police, funding for police nationwide continues to grow and the police continue to harm Black people and other marginalized people. Consider the fact that in Jackson, Miss., Black men are being killed by the police and put in pauper’s graves without their family’s knowledge or consent. Imagine your loved one, killed by the police and they not only attempt to cover it up but they don’t even allow you to have closure with your loved ones remains. Heartache on top of heartbreak.
Here’s the thing: If we can break free from the hold that the DEI silo and commodification seems to have on us, we can move forward. Ultimately, it will require being intentional in this work and creating a shared framework and narrative beyond beating people over the head with white supremacy jargon and anger. There has to be relational building and there has to be a commitment beyond booking speaking and training work.
DEI people need to work with more grassroots activists and organizers and bring that knowledge into their work. People need a reason to invest beyond their job. They need a “heart, soul and head” reason to want to stay committed beyond a few news cycles and the mandatory training. We need a long game and one that is not measured in upholding whiteness. We also need a long-term investment of resources, material, and otherwise. If we can take the bleakness of this moment—after the momentum of a few years ago—and turn it into a learning moment with an action plan, all is not lost.
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