Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Alabama’s DEI ban underscores need for anti-bias programs, understanding

  In March, Alabama became one of at least 10 states that have signed anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bills into law.

  The bill, which follows a nationwide trend, bans public institutions, such as public colleges and other state-run institutions, from maintaining DEI offices and programs. Despite DEI programs being used to correct inequities within an organization and promote anti-bias efforts, supporters of the Alabama law and similar legislation across the nation have attacked DEI programs as “divisive.”

  Alabama state Sen. Will Barfoot, the bill’s sponsor, described his legislation as an attempt to “build bridges to celebrate what people have in common, not erect walls that silo people into the idea that their race, religion, and sexual orientation solely define who they are and how society should view them.”

  It may not be clear to Barfoot, but DEI builds bridges by promoting greater understanding. I should know. I have experienced firsthand the flattening of person and dignity that DEI tries to repair. When I graduated from college 20 years ago, I recognized that I would be seen by most as a Black woman, an identity seen through the lens of biases, conscious or unconscious. Whether it’s social settings, my neighborhood, workplaces or stores, I am constantly aware of what I am doing and what I represent as a Black woman in a country that my ancestors help build but whose institutions we are still fighting to obtain equal footing inside.

  There is a saying in the Black community that you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. I have found this to be true in so many professional instances where my experience, position, and credentials were immediately overlooked in favor of someone who doesn’t look like me. Furthermore, advocating for myself in many of these spaces quickly earned me the label of “angry Black woman.”

  So as Alabama – where the Southern Poverty Law Center is headquartered – bans what it deems to be “divisive concepts,” I am left thinking about the true cause of dissension in American society over DEI. I believe it is rooted in the rejection of our differences and denial of the inequities in this country.

  The myth of colorblindness and a universally equal republic has pervaded the United States for centuries. It’s used to dismiss systemic injustices and maintain the status quo of a majority-dominated society. A better understanding of this country and its society requires a recognition of the differences and inequities within it. These differences and inequities are made even more complex by people with intersecting identities, or intersectionality. Intersectionality acknowledges a person’s unique experiences with discrimination and oppression based on their intersecting identities.

  In other words, it’s not enough to recognize a person’s race but the other identities within one person, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar and pioneer of the concept of intersectionality, wrote, “any discourse about identity has to acknowledge how our identities are constructed through the intersection of multiple dimensions.”

  It’s this acknowledgment of human multiplicity that I have seen demonstrated wonderfully at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), like the one that I attended. Although the majority of students at my HBCU identified as Black, they possessed an array of intersecting identities that shaped their experiences with discrimination and oppression.

  To declare DEI programs unnecessary or harmful because they separate people already living in a stratified society dismisses those who feel unwelcome and excluded. It transforms those striving to be equally and fully included in society into scapegoats for societal tensions. It also offers a pass to those unwilling to use their privileges and positions to help level the playing field for all people.

  Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are not about division but making people aware of structural injustices. They provide safe spaces for people to exist until the scales of power are balanced. It is why we must support and defend DEI efforts from the type of attack we have seen in Alabama and other states.

  About the author: Maya Henson Carey is a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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