DEI Can Die (or Not), but Let’s Have Something Consistently Dedicated to Black People

by Kenneth Hawkins

A friend told the whole world, or at least anyone who knew him through LinkedIn, that he’d support DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), no matter what our Florida governor decided. That might get him fired because he was only recently hired as a college instructor and is unprotected by tenure. I salute my friend for standing on business, as the colloquium goes. That said, I would like to qualify my agreement. 

Before you get upset and think here’s another Black man who doesn’t choose us because he’s critical of DEI, know that I do support diversity insomuch that Black people, and Black males in particular, should be the first group to be served through DEI. I don’t think DEI has contributed enough to support Black students over the years. And while what I’m saying is true, we should not – and I would like to emphasize this point – abscond from such a policy. As a Black man, I don’t believe we can afford to fully upend any racial initiative, no matter how slow it is to offer change. We should garner what we can while, simultaneously, legislating for more impactful policies. Indeed, we should hold onto DEI, but, Black people need DEI to be more focused on us because we simply aren’t getting the privileges it has given to others.

A Harvard Business Review article (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016) suggests DEI initiatives have failed Black men economically and professionally. The article, called “Why Diversity Programs Fail And What Works Better,” says:

Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, the proportion of Black men in management increased just slightly — from 3 percent to 3.3 percent — from 1985 to 2014. White women saw bigger gains from 1985 to 2000 — rising from 22 percent to 29 percent of managers — but their numbers haven’t budged since then. Even in Silicon Valley, where many leaders tout the need to increase diversity for both business and social justice reasons, bread-and-butter tech jobs remain dominated by White men.

More recent data suggests not much has changed. Because DEI covers many marginalized groups, companies, and institutions claim their spaces are diverse given what DEI addresses. So if Black men are not supported through the initiative, it doesn’t mean DEI doesn’t work; it means just not for them, or at least, not for them – yet. 

But if DEI’s goal is to raise the most socially and economically impacted among us, then has DEI met its purpose? If we cannot use these initiatives to feed our families or increase our corporate positions, then DEI has failed because it continues to save the other “Whites” among us. Black women have garnered some success through DEI, but not much, and certainly not as much as White women who, too, have used affirmative action, another policy intended to advance Black people in the workplace. 

Specifically, Black men are underachieving from pre-kindergarten to high school, having DEI-related practices in place at every end of this spectrum. I do understand that DEI is an all-inclusive practice, but for any practice that addresses disenfranchisement, it would seem to me that before it can cover the social afflictions of other groups, Black people must be at the top of the agenda, and this hasn’t been the case.

According to a William’s Institute study, a seminal report on LGBT poverty, Black LGBT are twice as likely to suffer poverty than their White counterparts. There may be many factors for this, including that cisgender Whites are doing far better economically than Black cisgender, suggesting that gender and race are at the heart of the phenomenon rather than gender alone. 

“African American men in same-sex couples are more than six times more likely to be poor than White men in same-sex couples, and African American women with female partners are three times more likely to be poor than are White women with female partners.” Holistically, however, the LGBT community is achieving financial success yearly, climbing down from 23 percent poverty in 2020 to 17 percent the following year. Nonetheless, DEI, in this instance, has improved the quality of life of Black LGBT very little Whereas whites, LGBT or not, are still doing comparatively well.

DEI may not be the balm to cure all the social upheaval that causes economic and social disparities, but it should at least begin to address some aspects that would make us less marginalized. It’s not like DEI isn’t at most institutions because it very much is. I mean given the sheer ubiquity of DEI, there should be empirical and palpable improvements for Blacks. Maybe DEI programs lack funding or full buy-in from institutions, but some groups are elevating. At DEI functions, often there are few Black people there, and I don’t believe it’s a function of our interest per se; I think DEI simply speaks to other groups better. In a Forbes article, J. G. Asare develops this point, writing: “Many of the people hired into corporations to lead DEI efforts are not Black. The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ is important to consider. Black professionals experience some of the most severe forms of marginalization and harm in the workplace.”

Despite my reservations about DEI, I think the end of it is a win for structural racism. The intent to sever DEI, as the Florida governor has done by signing a bill to end DEI in public institutions, is something other governors are considering. Doing this would undermine public school systems that are already trying to support Black students; or the dissolution of DEI would disincentivize corporations to adhere to an equity policy. 

In a recent Tampa Bay Times article D. Kumar notes that the NAACP, livid over the demise of DEI in Florida, has recommended athletes forgo consideration of playing for any of the state’s colleges or universities. I am with them in spirit, but the NAACP should have been as vitriolic about their position several years ago when they saw DEI was not favorable for us. Take Florida’s English Language Arts statewide assessment as an example. White students surpassed Blacks nearly by half in performance. And while there have been gains academically here and across the country, the achievement gap persists. 

The inequality of the kind of education and other opportunities that Black people get infrequently, cannot be placed entirely at the feet of DEI. Our fight is multifaceted, but in terms of policy, DEI is used the most as an answer to social disparities. I don’t intend to infer that others shouldn’t benefit from DEI policies, but unless there is a degree of intentionality, others will succeed where Black people have not. 

Remove DEI or save it, either way, let’s have a policy that works for us and this can only happen if those behind said initiative are careful to protect its purpose and intent.

Kenneth Hawkins is an associate professor who teaches African American Literature and English Composition at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. He holds a doctorate in community college leadership from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. 

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  1. DEI should remain but until you funnel more support to students as they matriculate through the campus experience, the number will remail low. I know I did the work!!!

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