Editor’s note: Sophia A. Nelson, a former investigative counsel in the US Congress, has worked for many years as a consultant on diversity and inclusion issues. She is the author of the book “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It’s been three years since the death of George Floyd, which prompted thousands of businesses across the country to create programs fostering workplace diversity or to shore up existing programs.
And sadly, attacks on programs in academia promoting diversity, equity and inclusion are quickening, too.
I shuddered when I read recent headlines about a long-tenured University of Texas at Austin professor and former New York Times journalist, Kathleen McElroy, who was disrespected by Texas A&M University officials who offered her a job — and then pulled the rug out from underneath her.
The university initially welcomed McElroy with open arms and held a lavish signing ceremony as they brought her onboard to create a new journalism program. But her appointment came under attack from opponents on campus, including those who disapproved of McElroy’s work over the years promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.
News reports said that Texas A&M officials had encountered widespread “upset and rancor” from DEI opponents on campus who expressed consternation over, among other things, her earlier affiliation with The New York Times, where she had worked as an editor for many years.
As the pressure campaign ramped up, the university administration furiously backpedaled, downgrading the offer to McElroy from a fully tenured professorship to a one-year untenured appointment from which she could have been fired at any time. It’s hardly surprising that she chose to remain at her current job.
But the fallout from the DEI controversy didn’t affect just McElroy’s career. Texas A&M announced on Friday that its president, Katherine Banks, was leaving her position over the controversy. Banks’ resignation came a few days after the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences tendered his resignation to avoid being “a needless distraction” as the school attempts to repair its tattered reputation.
To all of this I say — what a tragic loss. All the more so because programs that foster greater inclusion and that celebrate diversity should not be seen as distractions or political liabilities that universities can backpedal away from as quickly as they can. These programs should be lifted up and celebrated.
Over the course of my professional life, the title I have cherished most is not attorney, author or congressional counsel — it has been diversity trainer. For years, I have counseled scores of managers, administrators, business leaders and academics about training and retaining people of color and how to create workplaces that are truly inclusive.
Diversity and inclusion work is not just important to me personally — it’s vitally important to our collective success as a country. It has opened up greater opportunities in our society while helping drive greater workplace success. And yet, 20 years after I started working in the diversity field, there can be no doubt that the future of DEI programs is in peril.
We witnessed another sign of the backlash against the racial reckoning with the dismal Supreme Court ruling last month forbidding the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The court jettisoned decades of precedent in its Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard ruling on affirmative action, and as a result, race can no longer be considered when determining which qualified applicants to admit.
But the fallout from that ruling goes far beyond colleges. Those of us who are advocates for greater inclusion are now waiting for the other shoe to drop, aware that initiatives that champion diversity or racial equity could be in even greater jeopardy.
We saw an example of this earlier this month when a group of conservative attorneys general demanded that large companies abandon race-based quotas and preferences in hiring, promotion and contracting — and they threatened legal action if the companies failed to comply.
In a letter addressed to “Fortune 100 CEOs,” the attorneys general wrote that “companies that engage in racial discrimination should and will face serious legal consequences.” Of course, it’s laughable to assert that racially conscious remedies such as DEI programs amount to racial discrimination. Race was used for decades to keep people of color out of the corridors of power; remedying that problem requires that race be a central consideration.
It’s imperative that people of color and those who value diverse workspaces vigorously push back against efforts to turn back the clock. Now we may need to engage in a bit of strong-arming of our own, and we need to be every bit as organized as the groups striving to erase decades of racial progress.
It’s important to make clear to corporate leaders, including our captains of industry, that after pledging to commit millions of dollars to diversity efforts when they felt public pressure in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder three years ago it is simply inexcusable to abandon those commitments now. We must hold them to their word. We shouldn’t allow them to get away with anything less.
I know firsthand that these vitally important efforts can be challenging and uncomfortable to put into place. It was always tough work to open eyes and hearts and change people’s perspectives — and it’s harder than ever now as conservatives rally their forces to oppose racial progress.
My admonition to corporate leaders is, grow a backbone and push back against these conservative threats. There is a big difference between doing the important day-to-day, year-in, year-out work of diversity and true inclusion, instead of just using it to score PR points when these causes are fashionable.
It is a fiction to assert that unqualified Blacks or other racial minorities have somehow been admitted to colleges over qualified White students. It is just as much a myth that Whites in corporate America suffer adverse impact when robust and grounded diversity programs are in place. These programs actually help create workplaces that are more functional and more productive.
They seek out the best candidates for the jobs they seek to fill and then focus on fostering emotional intelligence development and wellness — all in accordance with the obvious goals of bolstering the company’s bottom line and helping give the best possible shine to its brand.
If diversity efforts are allowed to die, we will lose the progress that it took us the past half-century to achieve. Our corporate and academic leaders must stand up and move us ahead toward a truly egalitarian and opportunity-based society.
Many Americans seem to have forgotten how the most recent push to create a more just America began: The worldwide protests during the summer of 2020 offered us important lessons about honoring human dignity and the deep connections shared by all of humanity.
Those lessons were profound and unforgettable. We need to fight to honor them. Diversity, equity and inclusion is all about not just having a multiplicity of genders or skin colors. It’s about encouraging a diversity of thought, talent and creativity. And that’s something from which every workplace and every classroom can benefit.