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The Strange Death of DEI

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More Americans than you think support training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. And why are more and more corporations looking beyond it?

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Once considered the highest rising feature of America’s business spaces, the cliffs of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are slowly eroding under the reliable and unrelenting tide of American apathy. Fewer and fewer businesses are seeking to hire a chief diversity officer, and those who manage to get hired are finding their jobs often paired with other more traditional work responsibilities. DEI is increasingly perceived as incapable of sustaining itself, even as criticisms and concerns about litigation become more pronounced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rejection of race-conscious affirmative action.

The right in general has hardly been subdued in its attacks on DEI: from Ron DeSantis’ ban in Florida to former president Donald Trump’s ban on military DEI initiatives (repealed by the Biden administration in 2021). Beyond the legislative arena, hard critiques of DEI have come from sources such as the New York Post, whose editorial board asserted in May that DEI programs are “about nothing but rank racism,” as well as Heritage Foundation scholars arguing that DEI offices create “little more than … bureaucratic sound and fury on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Yet these stances hardly mirror the views of the general public—more than half of American workers (56%) believe that focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is a good thing, with almost a third (28%) ambivalent on the issue. Only 16% of Americans seem to share the opinions of the Post’s editorial board and the Heritage Foundation. This breakdown, combined with the decreased corporate interest in DEI, raises an incredibly important question: Why is DEI such a contentious issue?

Is it the fault of right-wingers high on culture war fumes seeking to undermine legitimate corporate initiatives aimed at ensuring a more comfortable and respectful workplace for employees from diverse backgrounds? I mean, even notably anti-woke presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy’s former company offers a DEI initiative, and famed conservative/Christian-friendly chains like Chick-fil-A have sparked ire from some on the right for DEI programs that, by all appearances, seem to stem from a legitimate desire for company betterment.

But anti-woke hawks and conservative boycotters cannot bear sole responsibility for DEI’s decline. If all the anti-DEI energy is coming from that 16%, one would not expect to see such a significant decline in corporate interest, particularly from major companies that trend to the political left. There has to be another variable. Could DEI itself be to blame? Has DEI fallen victim to entropy? Has legitimate theory been corrupted by poor practice? Or is there something inherent to corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that has caused American workplaces to question its usefulness?

DEI in Practice 

While it would be easy to rack up broad criticisms of corporate DEI programs from conservatives, I thought it better to talk to a professional to understand how DEI initiatives actually function. Mandice McAllister is the manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Warner Norcross & Judd, a corporate law firm headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We started out with the question one might naturally ask in such a situation: How is DEI defined by its practitioners?

“It’s about fairness,” says McAllister, who’s managed DEI at the firm for the past five years. “It’s about making sure people have fair access to opportunities and advancement. We’re Americans; we want things to be fair.” When asked what DEI practitioners are specifically looking for, she starts by addressing a common misconception about racial diversity in the workplace: “It’s not quotas.” Her team is looking for overrepresentation in hiring demographics and disparities in pay equity and promotion rates. To McAllister, meritocracy is what she’s looking for—but there’s a catch. “We love meritocracy; any organization taking this seriously knows that it’s not one.”

McAllister and her team have encountered their fair share of pushback at the various organizations for which they’ve carried out DEI training. When asked what some of the most common criticisms are, she gave me her top three: “We’re focusing too much on DEI, we’re wasting money and time, and it’s racially divisive.” And yet, McAllister, notes, “They’re often just not interested in sitting down and having a conversation” about why they’re so resistant.

One of the most controversial aspects of corporate DEI training is mandating it. For her part, McAllister says her thinking has evolved on the issue. “In 2020, I was pro-mandatory DEI. We had a required awareness training that covered sexual harassment, and it felt weird for one to be mandatory and one to not be.” Yet, as time went by, she came to believe it was undercutting her goal: “I don’t think making it mandatory is effective. When you try to mandate DEI, and we’re going to talk about [workplace racial dynamics], it can inflame racial tensions. You don’t have to come—you can decide to miss out on the information we present.”

DEI’s Weaknesses: Glitch or Feature?

Regarding the question of legitimate theory and poor practice, McAllister points out that different types of DEI training require different levels of information. For an awareness-based training, it’s simply not as heavy of a load. “I understand why people gravitate towards [awareness-based training] and why people with marginalized identities find that useful.”

Yet, for more outcome-oriented DEI sessions, the process is largely different, and McAllister doesn’t sugarcoat the issues at play and the less-than-stellar practice from some consultants. “All the workplace stuff requires a s*** ton of data—if you don’t have the data, it’s not persuasive. We have to be very robust in our methodology, and we haven’t been. Being able to articulate the meaning of the D, E, and I is critical. If you can’t present it to highlight the fundamental good in the training, it doesn’t work.”

Given that DEI is increasingly being paired with similar areas of corporate management, where’s the intersection between HR and DEI—is it a Venn diagram or two completely separate circles? Her answer takes me by surprise: “DEI isn’t generally seen as ‘company first.’” she admits. “HR is there to look out for the company and mitigate risk. And DEI can create some risk there.”

Well, that was unexpected. “In a sense, DEI consultants are buying into the corporate and capitalist game,” McAllister chuckles. But it’s different from the traditional HR focus on workplace performance: “I care about peace, justice, and human flourishing. Those are the things I’m trying to promote.” She closes our interview on another interesting note: “I’ve talked to conservatives about what they want in terms of racial relations, and they talk about things that are very familiar to me: parity, access, equality, things like that. A lot of times, it seems like we want the same stuff.”

The Conservative Response

Talking to McAllister revealed key insights about the on-the-ground struggles DEI practitioners face. According to her, many of the problems are practice issues, not true philosophical issues—she’s a true believer operating in good faith, and her honest evaluation of an industry she’s invested years into is a useful one. But while she addressed the question of theory and practice and voiced some critiques of the politicization of her industry, I still felt it necessary to sit down with a conservative to hear the opposition case—but not the typical one. I thought it would prove far more interesting to talk to someone who represents an alternative to both hardline DEI rejection and the more-or-less traditional DEI perspective of an advocate like McAllister.

Ismael Hernandez of the Freedom & Virtue Institute is a different kind of racial thinker. Born in Cuba, he writes in his recent book Not Tragically Colored about being an ex-Marxist and maintains that his journey to America was the catalyst for a deep philosophical transformation that led him to rediscover the values of self-reliance and personal liberty. In sharp contrast to McAllister, he gives me a notably less positive definition of DEI: “It’s an attempt to fabricate diversity by feeding people cultural and social information that’s outcome-based and views equity as a central outcome.” He views much of the modern DEI-scape as based on faulty assumptions. “It’s the belief that racism is connected to the organization’s intrinsic components. Where is the incentive to succeed?” he asks. “The definition is impersonal and about structures. We’re not asking the question about the human person.”

Hernandez nevertheless maintains a remarkable openness to many of the terms used by non-conservative “racial justice” advocates. “I love diversity,” he says. “If you want to call what I’m doing DEI, do it—I’m simply providing an alternate framework.” Yet it quickly becomes apparent how Hernandez’ philosophical approach is anything but simple—it starts at his conception of the human person. “There’s a fundamental sameness to human dignity,” he asserts. “We have the same dignity and the same brokenness.”

“We need each other,” Hernandez insists. “It’s a universal experience of human frailty. You can feel an experience, intuitively, without having to use religion, of human brokenness.” He acknowledges that these intuitive experiences are felt differently by different people, seemingly a point in favor of a more intersectional worldview, yet immediately uses that acknowledgement to drill down to one of his core issues with the typical approach to DEI: “The problem is not the different modes of training; it’s the assumptions. Their approach pays inordinate attention to race at the heart of identity; when you do that, unwittingly you are inserting a human construct at the heart of human identity.”

This human construct, Hernandez argues, leads us to apply our human biases and prejudices to the study of that identity, exemplified in several diversity trainings he attended in the early 2000s. “In DEI, we don’t give any benefit of the doubt to blacks, stereotyped as oppressed, or whites, stereotyped as oppressors. It gives us an understanding of American racism that allows no disagreement,” he continues. “It’s dialectically antagonistic—when you’re seen as a specimen of a group, how do you expect people to come together for anything, work included? You’re loading the gun by which the company shoots itself.”

As might be expected, Hernandez approaches DEI differently. He calls his version Commonality Training, a three-step-process that begins with the dignity of the human person, then applies that dignity to a given organization’s mission and values, and finally translates that applied dignity into virtuous workplace behavior. He tells me the focus on commonality is very intentional: “In modern DEI, it’s absent. It’s instead about controlled dialogue that frames the encounter with ideological poles. It’s collectivist—we’re prisoners of the categories that precede us.” To Hernandez, Commonality Training isn’t anti-DEI but a robust alternative. “We are seeing a hunger for people who want to do diversity but are scared. We are here to compete with the culturally prominent model of DEI,” he affirms. “We don’t want them to control the term anti-racist.”

The Future of Race

For me, researching DEI and understanding racial questions is more than a pet interest or a mere question of corporate policy. As a nonwhite American, it’s a journey that revisits a host of other deep questions I’ve had throughout my life about unity, justice, and belonging. Hernandez touched on this aspect in our interview: “It’s a secondary, not primary, element of identity. It doesn’t mean you avoid it. It means you’re giving it its proper place. If that’s your framework in anthropology, it affects sociology.” And it does—an improper view of race, whether through ignorance or hyper-fixation, can wreak tremendous havoc on one’s ability to be hopeful about life in America.

And yet I’m reminded of a story Hernandez told me halfway through our interview. In 1962, John F. Kennedy visited the NASA Space Center to oversee America’s continuing progress in the Space Race. During the course of the visit, President Kennedy saw a black sanitation worker carrying a broom and asked about his function at the Center. Without hesitation, the man responded, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

It’s a quite possibly an apocryphal story, one told by everyone from Hernandez to Zuckerberg. But as a journalist, I know that even dubious stories contain a hint of truth, if only in the aspirations they represent. Even if JFK never told that story, someone did. It’s a cultural representation of something larger—the profoundly American belief that human dignity and purpose, to be found in the seemingly mundane and the ordinary, even given the racial prejudice felt by a black low-income janitor in 1962, can propel humanity to unimaginable heights of achievement. That’s human flourishing. That’s human dignity. And in the course of our often-heated debates on race, diversity, and justice, those are the things we must be pursuing: in boardrooms, on college campuses—wherever the power of American dynamism leads us. If we realize we want the same things, then maybe we can also realize we have much more in common than we think.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.