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Why Are Some Public Officials Afraid of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Efforts?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
July 24, 2023

As recently as July 12, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted to bar diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts in the Department of Defense. This action was part of the national defense authorization bill that must be passed as part of the budgetary process. The slim Republican majority also included measures related to reproductive choice and gender affirming care. It is widely expected that the Senate version of the bill will not include these measures and the issues will be worked through a conference committee.

These actions are sadly consistent with those in several states. By one estimate, over a dozen states have legislative proposals or passed laws designed to ban or restrict the use of the concepts of DE& I in state government, particularly public colleges and universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a specific legislative tracker for these actions. The restrictions vary but include a ban on mandatory trainings, hiring preferences for underrepresented communities and the use of diversity statements related to DE& I in employment searches.

Typical of these measures is a law enacted in North Dakota that has a lengthy definition of “divisive concepts”. The first point is reasonable and contributes to a healthy climate for human rights by declaring it inappropriate to state that, “One race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex”. Yet the second point negates that by including in the definition, “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”. The point of the law is to prohibit the use of such concepts in teaching, curriculum and training. The other point is to enforce a concept of “intellectual diversity” that they fear to be at risk in their state.

The question arises then, why such concern about these very tentative steps toward greater sensitivity to concepts of race, gender and class in society? Lawmakers aside, why would the public support such action? At one level it must be that some are threatened by greater equity in society. Either that they have benefited from the current system, or they haven’t received the rewards (jobs, income, health, education, life satisfaction) and fear that “others” will get their share of the societal benefits. One must wonder what this reflects about our view of racism, sexism and homophobia. It seems clear that there needs to be a society-wide discussion of the definitions and causes of these attitudes.

The scholar Susan Gooden writes of “nervousness” in government which makes it tempting to avoid difficult discussions of race and equity. The actions of the legislatures and Governors exemplify these phenomena. The way these laws and associated regulations are phrased give pause to administrators in how they carry out their jobs. In Florida, PEN American has identified actions in response to Florida law where administrators preemptively remove books from shelves and subject them to review as they may be considered in violation of the state’s “anti-Woke” act.

Despite this trend in some sections of government, the private sector has expanded efforts to embrace DE& I. According to HR Dive, all 100 of the Fortune 100 firms have DE& I initiatives. The firms are concentrating on concerns such as diversity on boards, workforce and business content. While there is some concern about these actions being weak allyship there has been some notable movement by firms. The statements by Disney regarding the Florida “Don’t say gay” law and the Budweiser use of a trans influencer to promote their product has gotten much note and pushback despite being the most modest of corporate initiatives. As someone who works in the public sector and teaches in the private sector, I have participated in numerous trainings related to creating welcoming spaces and dealing with hidden forms of discrimination.

The United States is engaged in that “moral arc of the universe” described as long and bending toward justice by Dr. King. Housing, employment, health care and education show different outcomes for different groups of people. This indicates that work remains to be done. Legislators pretending that these issues do not exist only risks further isolation and polarization. Administrators are in the middle trying to live up to the standards of the profession. Modest actions which raise visibility of the issues of race and gender identity, train participants on how to encourage and manage in diverse environments and welcome people of all types to participate in society will make things better for all.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University in Boston teaching Economics. Ben is the author of a chapter on social equity and public administration in the recently published volume from Birkdale, Public Affairs Practicum. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Threads at bentafoya . All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

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