Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives Provide Excellent Cover To Do Nothing

After the protests…

“The Battle for the Soul of the Nation” was the tagline of the Biden-Harris campaign. In many ways it was a battle between the status quo of structural inequality and the promise of a new beginning. As Michele Alexander eloquently writes, this summer was not a racial reckoning; it simply unequivocally revealed the need for one.

While Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has been in fashion for some time, there was a noticeable spike in announcements and postings at the end of the summer. Universities purportedly in dire straits as a result of loss of tuition and room & board dollars, announced a plethora of chiefs and officers focused on diversity, equity, and/or inclusion.  Corporations issued statements (and reissued for Black History Month), and my LinkedIn feed has been full of Black men being promoted to positions they should have held in the first place.

The speed at which the announcements about DEI officers, pipeline initiatives, and Black History Month collaborations happened demonstrates that the means and the need always existed, but the will did not.  HBCUs have announced their largest donations in 150 years; how is that possible when bastions of privilege regularly rake in tens of millions of dollars annually from single donors? These are the things that reveal the cracks in the veneer of equal opportunity.

Unfortunately, like everything else, inauthentic statements and prescriptive pilot programs tokenize justice if there are no metrics of success and no accountability. Not every DEI position is created equally. Not every DEI statement has meaning. An institution can create positions and statements but without changing the culture of a place, there is only superficial diversity coupled with exclusion.  A mentor told me, “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” And, Malcolm X said being invited to a table doesn’t make you a diner. Being born in America doesn’t mean you automatically will be looked at and treated as a full citizen when you are Black or Brown.

Will Black women continue to experience trauma in the workplace as victims of white women’s tears? How does a DEI position on a police force change outcomes for Black and brown bodies?

In 2015, Ava DuVernay and Anna Holmes warned us about diversity checking a box rather than creating an inclusive environment to create actual change.  In 2021, President Biden reminds us that “advancing equity has to be everyone’s job.” The DEI officer has to be able to influence all levels of the organization, from the C-Suite to the rank and file; no one should be exempt from anti-racist or implicit bias training.

When considering institutional authenticity there are three things you should ask about the DEI Officer – who do they report to; do they have a budget, and can they hold people accountable? Additionally, are the people being served part of the feedback loop? Is the officer implementing programs or pilots?

We don’t need more short term poorly funded and executed pilots. We need long term plans that are embedded in the institutional culture.  This is a problem built into the fabric of our economy so there are no quick fixes. By “recognizing that the current system has reinforced systemic barriers that have prevented many Black Americans from the opportunity to earn success,” One Ten’s ten year plan might be just the model we need.



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