Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Yes, efforts to eliminate DEI programs are rooted in racism

  Right-wing activists who have long criticized liberalism and “wokeness” in higher education and helped force the resignation of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s first African American president, have now set their sights on ending the diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs that these activists claim helped place figures like Gay in her job in the first place.

  Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who played a pivotal role in forcing Gay’s resignation, stated this view bluntly on X – formerly known as Twitter– following Gay’s ouster: “Today, we celebrate victory. Tomorrow, we get back to the fight. We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”

  The DEI initiatives and programs at the center of these controversies aim to help organizations identify and more effectively tackle disparities or inequities in their organizations.

  In the past year, a number of states have begun to dismantle their DEI programs. Alabama, Utah, Texas, and Florida have all passed and signed into law anti-DEI legislation ranging from prohibiting diversity training to terminating all positions associated with DEI efforts. Florida lawmakers have restricted the teaching of what they call racially “divisive” subject matter in public schools, colleges and universities. Legislatures in more than two dozen additional states are considering similar measures.

  Critics of these measures say they are racist. DEI opponents are quick to deny this.

  Is opposition to DEI programs unrelated to racism? Or does racism play an important role in opposition to DEI programs?

  We are survey researchers who study how racial attitudes affect Americans’ attitudes toward public policies. In a recent poll, we investigated what, if any, influence racism may have on public opinion toward DEI programs.

Implausible claims about DEI

  Utah Gov. Spencer Cox defended anti-DEI measures in his state by characterizing them as reaffirming the ideal of colorblindness in American society.

  “We used to aspire toward the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. of a future where our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,’” he said. “Now, Americans are accused of systemic racism for quoting these same immortal words of Dr. King. Up is down.”

  But statements by other conservative politicians and commentators seem more transparently racist.

  Following the deadly accident that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, several Republican elected officials and candidates claimed — implausibly — that DEI policies were responsible. One conservative commentator reposted video footage of a news conference on the tragedy held by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who is Black, with the comment, “This is Baltimore’s DEI mayor commenting on the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. It’s going to get so, so much worse. Prepare accordingly.”

  In our January 2024 survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,064 U.S. adults, we sought to identify what influence racism may have on public opinion about DEI programs. We asked respondents, “From the following list, please indicate if you believe the indicated professionals and/or members of institutions should or should not receive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training.”

  The list included medical professionals, teachers, police officers, members of the U.S. armed forces, public sector employees, and private sector employees.

  Next, we assessed respondents’ racial attitudes with questions that measure their acknowledgment of the existence of racism in the U.S. and their emotional reaction to the problem of racism in the nation. We also asked respondents about their partisan identity, ideological affiliation, and demographic characteristics.

‘Huge’ impact on support for DEI

  We found that a strong majority of Americans support DEI training for each of the professions we listed in the survey. On average, 7 in 10 Americans support DEI training for medical professionals, teachers, police officers, members of the U.S. armed forces, and public employees, while 65% of Americans support this training for private sector employees.

  However, among Americans with negative racial attitudes – which is a phrase used by scholars of public opinion to characterize respondents who hold prejudicial, stereotypical, or racist views of people of color – support for DEI training was much lower.

  On average, only 46% of Americans who believe that racial problems are rare support DEI training; 45% of those who are not angry that racism exists support DEI training, and 38% of those who do not believe that white people have advantages because of their skin color support DEI training programs.

  Next, we summed up interviewees’ responses across questions to create an overall measure of support for DEI training and analyzed how negative racial attitudes affect support for DEI. We did this while taking into account characteristics such as gender identity, age, education, income, race, political party identification, and ideology.

  After taking these characteristics into account, we found that the effect of negative racial attitudes on support for DEI programs was huge. Support for DEI programs was 73 percentage points lower among individuals with the most negative racial attitudes compared to those with the most positive attitudes.

  This doesn’t mean that every person who opposes DEI training is racist. But it does mean that people with the most negative racial attitudes are, on average, most opposed to DEI training.

  Many Americans understandably wish that the nation has achieved Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a “colorblind” society. But the troubling connection between racism and opposition to DEI programs highlights that there is still work to be done until the nation’s citizens are truly judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

  About the authors: Tatishe Nteta is a provost professor of political science and Director of the UMass Amherst Poll at UMass Amherst. Adam Eichen is a PhD student in political science at UMass Amherst. Douglas Rice is an associate professor of political science and legal studies at UMass Amherst. Jesse Rhodes is an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst. Justin H. Gross is an associate professor of political science and computational social science at UMass Amherst.

  This article was published by The Conversation. 

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