The backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not a bad weather event. It didn’t simply happen. Still, those rooting for DEI’s demise act as if the recent resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, whom some see as a figurehead for such initiatives, was a naturally occurring tornado warning, rather than a confluence of events with a lot of calculation behind them.
Many leading the charge in the current attacks are disingenuous about why they’re doing so and how their efforts are playing out. But as cynical as their methods are, the anti-DEI brigade seems genuinely deluded about what will happen if they get what they want. Even if they did succeed in eliminating DEI initiatives from all American institutions, it wouldn’t automatically result in the total ideological reset they desire.
To be fair, DEI programs had been facing setbacks well before Claudine Gay (briefly, confoundingly) became a household name. According to The New York Times, hiring for DEI roles has plunged over the past two years, and the number of investor calls mentioning DEI has fallen as well. Part of the reason is that in times of economic instability, DEI programs tend to be the first to get defunded. But realistically, the DEI boom that followed the George Floyd protest movement of 2020 would have been difficult to maintain in full, even with perfect economic conditions.
Of course, the entire time that boom was happening, conservative politicians, media outlets, and think tanks were busy painting it as a Marxist pox on society. No description of any institution striving to reduce bias from its practices was too broad or nefarious. As The Wall Street Journal wrote in a premature obituary for DEI this week, “Diversity meant ideological conformity. Equity meant discrimination. Inclusion meant blurring the sexes.” What has been happening in recent months is the logical conclusion of nearly four years of this kind of framing.
What happened next galvanized a vast political network against these programs: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, effectively banning affirmative action in the United States. Along with the Dobbs decision, it was exactly the kind of unpopular verdict liberals feared from a six-to-three SCOTUS after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020. The dominos fell pretty swiftly afterward. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton sent letters to 51 law firms, urging them to back away from DEI, which he claimed was now legally dubious. Shortly afterward, 13 GOP state attorneys general placed similar pressure on Fortune 100 companies. Ultimately, more than 20 states followed Florida and Texas by weighing or passing new laws against DEI.
Even with so much obvious political energy going toward abolishing DEI, that Wall Street Journal op-ed this week still contends, “Claudine Gay’s resignation proved we are moving away from this harmful ideology.” The author cynically acts as if DEI is a transplanted organ that the body of America rejected, rather than that someone with a very sharp knife is trying hard to carve it out.
An international crisis becomes an opportunity
A month after Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and triggering an international crisis, billionaire investor Bill Ackman sent a letter to the president of his alma mater. In the letter, which he published online, Ackman took Gay to task for her support of Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, which he claimed did not “support Jewish, Asian, and non-L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. white students.”
Ackman would soon become one of the loudest voices calling for Gay’s resignation, despite the fact that he had already gone public with his grudge against her affinity for DEI, not to mention that he attributed her very hiring to Harvard caving in to the DEI mob.
Once fears of antisemitism on Harvard and other college campuses reached a fever pitch, House Republicans assembled a hearing with the obvious aim of taking down some beleaguered Ivy Leaguers. Although the conservative outrage machine had been directing citizens toward the cause of DEI on college campuses for many months at that point, GOP members of Congress couched their ire within the noble cause of defending Jewish students.
“I think DEI is a fraud and what we’re seeing now on campuses is proof of that,” said Burgess Owens, Utah Republican chair of the House Higher Education subcommittee which convened that hearing.
Although Gay and the other university heads could have certainly better answered the question on whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate student conduct policies, the fact that DEI came up at all in this hearing smacks of craven opportunism. It also trivializes the actual trauma of the Jewish students they were supposedly looking out for.
Where we won’t go from here
The New York Times’s blockbuster report on how the anti-DEI push took off—which neglects to mention that the Paper of Record gave anti-CRT architect Christopher Rufo column space to rail against DEI last summer—is packed with juicy details. Private exchanges between members of the Claremont and Manhattan Institutes suggest that some of the people most averse to DEI seem to view nonwhite/non-straight people as lesser, unqualified, or generally yucky. What is perhaps most revealing, though, is that the anti-DEI backlash may have begun with the explicit goal of ending “the leftist social justice revolution.”
The conservative braintrust claims they want to restore meritocracy, to promote diversity of thought over other kinds of diversity, and of course, to protect Jewish students, but it’s really much simpler than all that. They seem to think that mandating a minimum threshold of diversity in schools, boardrooms, and media is brainwashing people to be more liberal. Furthermore, they can’t conceive of DEI as anything other than the left’s own calculated political strategy to win hearts and minds, instead of an end unto itself.
Just look at the executive order Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued last January banning “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.” All of these cynically deployed conquests are in service of the naïve belief that it’s possible to eliminate “indoctrination” from college campuses with the stroke of a pen. College-educated voters often lean left, therefore college is an indoctrination factory. What other explanation could there be! It’s certainly not possible that some liberal issues are just organically popular.
DEI is the new CRT, is the new BLM—another scary acronym that is coming after your kids. Unfortunately, the attacks on it are indeed gaining traction. As some companies abandon their 2020 commitments to DEI, others are looking for loopholes and gray areas to continue their aims, perhaps under another name. If these programs do survive, though, rest assured, the people attacking DEI now will soon find a new thing to call what they’re really against.