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Pivoting the DEI Narrative from Race to Disparities: Messaging Matters

Let's get real about how the DEI narrative has been politicized to focus on race and thereby make DEI ripe for legal review. We've seen a flurry of DEI cases go before the courts since the ruling this summer on diversity in college admissions processes. From law firm fellowship programs to challenges to the one exception provided for race-conscious admissions in military academies. There has also been pushback on DEI training by relying on a separate, protected basis under religious objections. With regard to DEI trainings, state legislators across the U.S. have also put forth bills that would prohibit mandatory DEI trainings or other DEI programs, such as banning diversity statements, prohibiting utilization of public funds for DEI programs and services, and disallowing establishment of DEI offices and employees.

In a prior post I mentioned how DEI was a driver for the so-called "Anti-Woke" movement. DEI has also been framed to make the "D", the part of the acronym representing Diversity, synonymous with racially motivated efforts. The strongest resistance to DEI has been grounded in a sentiment that people from "minority" populations are receiving preferential treatment and therefore, reverse discrimination is being endorsed by DEI programming. As such there's a belief that "majority" or dominant populations are being displaced unfairly and this has given rise to a constitutional legal basis to revisit, not eliminate, how DEI efforts are being implemented. Stricter scrutiny has now been legally established by the U.S. Supreme Court to re-confirm that the use of race, an historical thorn in American history, cannot be used to undermine the intent of equal protection. However, if DEI had not been selectively boxed into a race-driven cause and instead viewed under a broader, strategic lens to assess gaps in how experiences are perceived by any and all people, i.e., women, all other gender identities, all races, all ages, all abilities, all religions, all national origins, all people regardless of their unique demographic or other attributes. Yet, the race attribute has been the seemingly most controversial.

Thus, there is a great need to pivot the DEI narrative. After all, diversity simply translates to mean differences. However, diversity has never been officially defined as racial differences but over time, public opinion convinced us that race-consciousness was synonymous with DEI. And now after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the college admissions cases, strict scrutiny is stricter when using race for any reason and effectively requires necessity to do so. Therefore, race-neutral is a safe bet for moving DEI forward without fear of legal reprisal, even in private sector environments. So let's start thinking about the "D" in DEI as a cause for addressing disparities and closing the gap in how experiences are perceived by people regardless of their differences. In other words, let's lead DEI with a mindset that messaging matters.

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