As educators and government leaders trying to address the impact of deeply embedded racism come under political fire, professionals who are engaged in that work say that it has been distorted and politicized.
Attacks on what has become known as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work have been ongoing for several years, but in Wisconsin they reached a new intensity in the last month.
In the compromise legislation to boost local government funding that GOP lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers negotiated in early June, Republicans successfully retained language that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) summarized as “making sure that we don’t have any kind of DEI being funded around the state.”
And at their final meeting to amend the state’s 2023-25 budget a few weeks later, the Republican majority on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee cut $32 million from the University of Wisconsin system, specifying that the sum was aimed at eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion programs and positions.
Signing the budget Wednesday, Evers used his partial veto power to delete that language and restore the positions, although he was not able to restore the $32 million in funding.
Lawmakers and others attacking diversity, equity and inclusion programs have charged they are “divisive” and that they “base everything on a lens of gender, race and economic class,” in the words of Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake) before the finance committee voted on the UW budget last month.
A poster of talking points that Republicans prepared when they announced the local government funding deal touted that it “prohibits race based hiring (DEI) in all Wisconsin municipalities.”
Professionals who work in the diversity, equity and inclusion field, however, say that such descriptions of DEI programs, policies and related practices convey a false picture of that work, their objectives and their methods.
Schools, universities and workplaces have increasingly turned to diversity, equity and inclusion to actively seek to welcome people from historically excluded groups and to foster inclusive, nondiscriminatory schools and workplaces.
“Diversity, whether people like it or not, that’s just sort of a reality,” says William Welburn, who retired from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2021 after serving as a vice president in the university’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity, he says, is a way to talk about where on the spectrum a business, organization or community lies — from one where everyone is from the same ethnic and cultural background to one in which people reflect a wide range of cultures and backgrounds.
Equity “provides a legal framework” that governments or organizations can use as they seek to ensure that “everyone in a given organization has the opportunity to get the most from that organization, or from that town or from that school,” Welburn says.
“Inclusion is, in my view, a strategy,” he adds. “You make a conscious decision to create, build and sustain an environment” that welcomes and encourages diversity so that a wider range of people feel that they can belong.
Welburn is baffled by the backlash against all three. “By establishing policy or legal frameworks that ensure the equity of everyone — does that frighten people?” he asks. “Or is it something else going on in their minds that causes them to have this extraordinarily negative reaction to DEI?”
Race-based hiring has been going on throughout U.S. history, just not the way DEI critics describe it, he contends. “Inequality has ensured that people of color, who also happen to be low-income, get the most challenging jobs in society — along with, often historically, white immigrants.”
He adds that if race-based hiring was happening in the way that DEI critics describe, “we would see substantially more in the way of people of color, and specifically African Americans, in positions of authority and failing miserably.”
Welburn finds contemporary DEI programs, whether in private industry, nonprofit organizations or educational institutions, to be much less aggressive than the militant campaigns centered on power that Black activists and their allies pursued in the 1960s in the 1970s, when he was in college.
“What you saw in those movements was an effort to really change the dynamics of power and authority,” Welburn says. “DEI is far more modest, because DEI says, ‘We’re not going to change structures in that way, we just want to have a part of that. We just want representation there. We want those obstacles to success to somehow be removed.’”
At the Middleton-Cross Plains School District in western Dane County, Deputy Superintendent Sherri Cyra says the district’s attention to diversity, equity and inclusion is part of its commitment to improving learning for everyone.
That includes “acknowledging the fact that all of the people or constituents we’re serving are not the same,” Cyra says. But it’s not a zero-sum proposition, she adds. “It’s not about taking away from someone in order to give someone else. Making the environment more supportive for all students doesn’t mean making it less supportive for others.”
Research shows that students learn more effectively when they feel socially, emotionally and psychologically safe, Cyra says. Without the sense of safety, support and belonging, it’s more difficult for them “to develop that trust, to take cognitive risks and make the academic progress that they need to make.”
Percy Brown Jr., who previously headed diversity efforts for the school district, says that during his time there, “our aim was to make sure that our staff reflected the demographics of the students.”
Because Hispanic students accounted for about 9% of the enrollment, the goal was for the same proportion of staff members, especially certified teachers, to be Hispanic. Nevertheless, Brown says, “we wanted a highly qualified staff, so we weren’t watering down the process to hire somebody simply because of the color of their skin.”
Brown stepped down from the Middleton district this year to serve as a full-time consultant, something he’d been doing part-time for five years. He says he has differences with some in the DEI field, and prefers calling his work “humanitarianism.” But he’s sharply critical of sweeping condemnation of DEI work.
“That’s where I get ticked off because all they’re doing is drawing generalizations,” Brown says. “They think any and everybody that does DEI work has the same approach and the same philosophy.”
Demographic change, as communities of color become a larger segment of the population, makes the work critical, he says. And he considers inclusion a step toward improving safety in the workplace.
“Inclusion is about employees being able to come into their work environment and feel a sense of belonging, and not feeling judged because of who they are, in relation to how they identify with their gender, or how they identify racially,” Brown says.
In his work this year in Wisconsin and across the country, “I’ve been helping school districts deal with the uptick of hate speech and misogynistic language,” he adds. The Legislature’s effort to block schools and workplaces from addressing such hostile environments “does harm to the organization, because you won’t be able to diversify. And if you can’t diversify with the changing demographics, what’s ultimately going to happen to your institutions, they’ll collapse.”
The problem with ‘colorblind’
Weeks before the budget committee voted to cut $32 million from the UW budget and tied that to eliminating DEI efforts, Vos, the Assembly speaker, highlighted Republicans’ intention to do away with diversity programs.
At a June 15 press conference before the Assembly floor session that day, Vos mocked DEI as the work of liberals and progressives.
“For people on the left, it’s become their new religion,” Vos said. “They no longer go to church on Sunday, but my are they trying to make sure that everybody is evangelized on campus, that there’s only one acceptable viewpoint.”
For Joyce Caldwell, addressing racism, diversity, equity and inclusion is at the center of her Christian faith as a longtime lay leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Based in Milwaukee, Caldwell, who is white, and Rev. Marilyn Miller, a retired Lutheran pastor who is Black, work as a team with faith-based groups to help them understand systemic racism. They consult with organizations and churches to analyze how they operate and how they can change “to lead for racial equity,” they state on their website.
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Faith groups have grown increasingly interested in this work, because “that’s what the gospel calls the church to do,” Caldwell says.
“For some it’s a recognition of how the church has been complicit for hundreds of years in shaping some attitudes of exclusion, how the church has supported racism” at times in its history, she adds.
She sees a different lesson in waning church attendance.
“I would say people aren’t going to church any more because some churches have turned people off because of their exclusion,” she says. “DEI isn’t their religion. It’s the fact that the church hasn’t acknowledged how it has hurt and harmed people.”
At the June 15 press conference Vos also defended the GOP plan to cut the UW DEI programs by referring to one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in U.S. history.
“It’s ironic that we have gone from a time in the 1960s where famously Martin Luther King said we want a colorblind society, and now people are saying no, we want race, color and gender to be a part of everything and almost mandated for what people should believe,” Vos said.
It’s an argument that consultant Percy Brown says he has heard before, and one that he rejects.
At the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, King spoke about white and Black children holding hands in friendship. But in the decades since then, “people have misconstrued that as Dr. King advocating for a colorblind society,” Brown says. “That’s not what he was saying.”
Brown argues that King was advocating for the full humanity of Black people in the face of centuries of being enslaved and at a time when Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation.
“Dr. King fully understood who he was as a Black man and as a Black American,” he says. “He knew, as a human being, that he should be able to be loved as a Black person by somebody who’s not Black. Because he knew that to be Black meant that you are receiving every negative stereotype possible to be placed on a human being.”
Proponents of DEI practices and training say that “colorblindness” is not enough, since people from marginalized communities continue to face challenges that others do not, and that situation won’t be improved by simply ignoring society’s inequities.
Brown, whose grandfather was an educator and civil rights activist in the Mississippi Delta and whose father was among the first African Americans to integrate a white high school in Mississippi in the 1960s, says that he pushes back when he hears claims that King called for “a colorblind approach” in American society.
“For me, it’s basically saying I’m invisible to you,” Brown says. “When you see me, I want you to see a Black American, because I’m proud of who I am as a Black American.”
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