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Opinion: Why rolling back diversity programs shows pure cowardice

Masked young people hold signs promoting diversity
Supporters of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court on June 29, 2023. The justices ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Schools, companies, government organizations and individuals are throwing out diversity, equity and inclusion practices, confirming suspicions that many never truly valued the case for DEI and instead prioritize status quo opportunity hoarding. The result is that DEI experts within organizations and employees of color have less power to change discriminatory practices, and may fear that speaking honestly will jeopardize their livelihoods.

Since last summer, the Supreme Court overturned race-based affirmative action in college admissions, Harvard University’s Claudine Gay was pushed to resign as part of a right-wing campaign to undermine DEI efforts, and the University of Florida terminated all DEI positions. In March, Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Chief Diversity Officer resigned after fierce backlash to her defining “privilege” in broad, widely accepted terms (as “unearned benefits” often conferred to white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual and other individuals from dominant groups).

That same week, a federal judge in Texas ruled that a 55-year-old federal agency’s mandate of creating opportunities for minority-owned businesses was unconstitutional. Unless overturned on appeal, this ruling is poised to send shock waves through local, state and federal agencies, invalidating legitimate findings that people of color are disadvantaged in quantifiable and concrete ways.

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Conservatives are calling for an end to colleges’ diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. I’m a DEI officer at UCLA and find their fears to be unfounded.

Dec. 2, 2023

The private sector also is increasingly littered with casualties of diversity department eliminations, layoffs, resignations and budget cuts. The American Alliance for Equal Rights — a nonprofit headed by Edward Blum, who led the fight to topple affirmative action in college admissions — sued a Black-woman-owned venture capital firm called the Fearless Fund to stop it from providing exclusive seed capital grants to Black female entrepreneurs. The AAER also sent threatening letters to law firms demanding that they cancel diversity programs, prompting some to retreat. Wall Street is largely abandoning DEI, which will reverse progress at institutions with inexcusably low diversity. (Only 5% of JPMorgan Chase’s and 3.7% of Goldman Sachs’ senior leadership are Black, respectively, and just seven of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs were people of color in 2023.)

While legislation to end DEI has proliferated in a matter of months, it took decades to create diversity infrastructure. It wasn’t until 1991, for example, that Congress amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to correct gaps that prevented legal relief in some racial discrimination lawsuits. Over time, steps were taken to institute federal reporting requirements for large companies to ensure compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, earmark government funds in federal contracting and appropriations for minority groups, mitigate discriminatory housing and banking practices and force universities to develop inclusive recruiting strategies to counter de facto white affirmative action (e.g., legacy admissions).

The purpose of these programs is to remediate past and present discrimination. Racial wealth and achievement gaps are largely byproducts of 1934 to 1968, when 98% of all government-backed home loans were given to white families, leaving Black household wealth at $6,674 compared to $70,786 for white households (adjusted for inflation). In 1961, President Kennedy implemented “affirmative action” to limit discrimination in government contracting — a recognition of centuries-old racism restricting equitable economic, career and educational opportunities. Black farmers receive financial set-asides from the government, including funding access through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, because the Department of Agriculture has discriminated against them for decades.

This month, as we celebrate Juneteenth and Pride, it’s worth remembering the power of a collective saying “no.”

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The need for these policies is just as critical today. The median income in 2021 was $77,999 for white households and $48,297 for Black households, and American Black families have 13 cents of wealth for every $1 held by white families. College-educated Black Americans have less wealth than white Americans with high school diplomas.

There’s also modern-day redlining in housing — borrowers of color pay more for home loans regardless of their wealth or credit score and are more often victims of predatory banking practices regardless of income. The Black-white unemployment gap has remained roughly 2 to 1 since 1972. Black college enrollment is on a years-long decline that will be exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision. After Michigan banned race-based affirmative action in college admissions in 2006, Black enrollment dropped 44% by 2021. These data show how racist and discriminatory practices continue to shape employment, school admissions, banking practices, wages and housing.

Even if imperfect, diversity initiatives are necessary efforts to offer corrective solutions that provide fairer access to jobs, education, business opportunities, home ownership and the American Dream. And they are meaningless if we can’t consider race.

In addition, these efforts don’t just benefit people of color. White women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action; studies have shown the policy has gotten them jobs and promotions at higher rates than people of color. Over time, DEI initiatives have expanded to remove chronic barriers to entry for a broader umbrella of historically disadvantaged groups, including LGBTQ people, veterans and people with disabilities.

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Dismantling affirmative action and weaponizing race-neutral thinking are sending us backward on disrupting historic discrimination. We need to fight back by dropping the apathy and cowardice and getting on offense instead. In the long game, that means bringing more lawsuits to challenge the censorship of history in schools and of racial awareness in workplace training. In the short game it means boycotting and voicing opposition to businesses and other institutions, including in education and government, that actively uphold racial discrimination and roll back DEI policy.

Now is the time to prove allyship isn’t performative, especially by white people. Americans need to recognize that standing with people of color to safeguard inclusion means safeguarding everyone’s rights — including their own.

Fatimah Gilliam is the author of “Race Rules: What Your Black Friend Won’t Tell You” and a diversity, negotiations and leadership expert, lawyer, consultant and speaker. On Instagram: @fatimah_gilliam.

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