How Did DEI Become the New American Battlefield?

The country is wrenching its hands over attacks on diversity efforts in academia and the corporate structure. But how did we get here?

A few years ago, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was not a part of the nation’s conversation on race, but now it’s the centerpiece. Right wing attacks on programs aimed at ending discrimination while at the same time creating spaces for historically marginalized people is now part of the political discourse and the most well-known debate is that of former Harvard University president Claudine Gay on Jan. 2 under allegations of plagiarism by individuals who are bent on eliminating DEI.

Ironically, many people don’t even understand what DEI is and what it isn’t. Here is a breakdown of the what the acronym means, according to the National Association of Counties (NACo):

Diversity is the presence of different and multiple characteristics that make up individual and collective identities, including race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, socioeconomic status, language, and physical ability.

Equity is the process of identifying and removing the barriers that create disparities in the access to resources and means, and the achievement of fair treatment and equal opportunities to thrive.

Inclusion is the creation of environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported and valued to participate fully.But the roots of the current issue with DEI stem from an earlier fight over critical race theory (CRT).

In January of 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he made plans to block state colleges from having programs on diversity and CRT. The educational concept has become the lighting rod for conservatives, as they believe it to be an effort to rewrite American history and convince White people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty of their advantages. But its advocates say it is really just a way of thinking about American history through the lens of understanding the impact of racism. It was created by scholars between the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Rev. Al Sharpton marches with protesters in front of the Manhattan offices of Pershing Square Capital Management, which is led by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman.

Rev. Al Sharpton Demonstrates at Office of Hedge Fund Manager Who Targeted Claudine Gay

An Academic Puzzle

Don C. Sawyer, Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Fairfield University  in Fairfield, Conn., says that part of the issue is that the people who are fighting against CRT don’t really understand that it existed before now. 

“CRT had nothing to do with brainwashing students and making them feel bad about being white,” Sawyer explained. “Since critical thinking is not something that's used a lot, they're taking these talking points to say, ‘Okay, CRT politicians are saying it’s bad, so I'm against it.’ And if you ask those people, ‘What are you against?’ They struggle with articulating what they're against.

“And so the people who are in these positions of power and who are politically savvy, know that they can manipulate the people to do their work for them. And that's what we are seeing in this fight against CRT and now broader issues related to DEI,” Sawyer says.

In March 2023, Stanford Law School suspended its associate dean for DEI Tirien Steinbach, due to her outrage over the disruption by protesters of a Federalist Society speech by U.S. Appeals Court Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan. In a 2023 , Steinbach said, “I was asked to attend the event by the Federalist Society, the organizers of the student protest and the administration. My role was to observe and, if needed, de-escalate.” When Duncan asked for an administrator to intervene, Steinbach expressed herself. 

Since Gay’s resignation, the fight has continued as DEI has become the new American battlefield. Even students on Harvard’s campus are reportedly upset about the upheaval. “Many doubt her dedication to combating hate and to sustaining the pedagogical mission of the university — but the irony is that the bedrock of being Black and woman is to know nothing more intimately than fighting and surviving when the studies of your stories are deemed unimportant, and hate and violence are your everyday reality,” wrote senior Kyla Golding in a Harvard Crimson editorial.

Bill Ackman Claims That Martin Luther King Would Be 'Opposed' to DEI

A fear of backlash now peppers race and dialogue narratives in higher education because of what some would call misinterpreted remarks about campus anti-Semitism during a congressional hearing

“Most people would know that she's not anti-Semitic, but the ways in which the questions were answered, the people who are asking those questions didn't necessarily care if she was anti-Semitic or not, right? They're trying to prove a point,” said Sawyer. “Anytime that we see this, we shouldn't be surprised because we know that anytime there's been a perception of perceived racial shifts, specifically when black people, or other people of color, but mainly black people… anytime it's perceived that they're moving forward and they're getting benefits, it's always met with this backlash. This has happened throughout history. Any forward progress by communities of color has led to pushback.”

The Workplace Question

Promoting diversity in a workplace is still being debated and right-wing media is being used as a tool against it. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s latest criticism on X (formerly Twitter), towards efforts by United Airlines and Boeing to hire nonwhite pilots and factory workers is evidence of that. His statements on the topic were spurred in response to a user who speculated that IQ scores of United Airlines pilots who went to HBCUs were lower than the average IQ of Air Force pilots. 

“It will take an airplane crashing and killing hundreds of people for them to change this crazy policy of DIE,” Musk wrote, (perhaps intentionally) misspelling the DEI acronym. In another post, the businessman quote-tweeted someone else who had criticized Boeing’s diversity efforts. “Do you want to fly in an airplane where they prioritized DEI hiring over your safety? That is actually happening.” 

Everette Taylor, CEO of Kickstarter feels like the country is moving backwards with the recent attacks on DEI. He believes that it is important for him as a leader to bring change through his actions by speaking up for those who can't speak for themselves and create opportunities for people who look like him. 

“As we head into Black History Month 2024, there's a stark difference in how everything feels. We have people now blatantly attacking the importance of DEI, pushing harmful rhetoric. And some of it is coming from some of the most influential minds of our time. It's not that Black people didn't know that there were people out there that felt that way, it's the whiplash of this experience after the "progress" of the past couple of years,” he tells

According to an Associated Press story, opponents of workplace diversity programs are relying on a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to challenge equity policies. Edward Blum, the right wing activist who campaigned against and successfully defeated affirmative action in collegiate education, has been using the act to target the Fearless Fund,  a venture capital fund that invests in women of color-led businesses.Section 1981 was originally created to protect formerly enslaved people from economic exclusion. It’s a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and ethnicity when making and enforcing contracts. The clause specifically grants all individuals within the U.S. jurisdiction the same rights and benefits as White people.

But Blum, president of the conservative group American Alliance for Equal Rights, sued Fearless Fund in August, alleging that it engages in “explicit racial exclusion” by operating a grant program “open only to Black females.” He insists that Section 1981 prohibits discrimination against White people as well as anyone else.

Dr. Tia C. M. Tyree, a professor at Howard University’s School of Communications says there must be efforts to figure out how to live in the United States, in what she believes feels like an overwhelming, and concerning time as an African American. 

“There have been various times when socio political actions are put in place to assist African Americans under attack or in need of assistance. Many of those efforts are being dialed back, attacked or simply not funded,” Tyree tells “Just in the last few years, we've seen the waning of corporate support in many Black communities and institutions promised after the death of George Floyd; companies investing less in diversity initiatives; Texas Governor Greg Abbott's asserting that using DEI policies in hiring violates federal and state employment laws; Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt defunding DEI offices and programs in his state agencies and public colleges; and the U.S. Supreme Court ending affirmative action efforts in higher education.

"Together, these actions showcase a turning point in U.S. social consciousness that should be very concerning for African Americans,” said Tyree. 

So where does this leave African Americans in academia and the corporate structure? Sawyer thinks there will still be scrutiny aimed at them, and they will continue being questioned on whether or not they belong where they are, and if they got there on their own merits.

“I don't think this leaves us dead on arrival as Black people, because if we understand the history of this nation, Black people have never been given anything just because they were Black,” Sawyer said. “I don't remember a time when that was the case…I'm sure some people might wanna debate that, but being Black has never just been enough to get ahead.

“We have to keep our eyes open as we’re thinking about next steps and what this means for us," he continued. "We have to think about who we’re voting for and how we’re voting.”

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