State of Disunion

The Evisceration of Diversity Programs Is Upon Us

Right-wing lawmakers are dismantling efforts to remedy the damage of segregation and the slavery that preceded it. But for Black and brown people to thrive in American life, diversity cannot be a relic of the past.

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There is a child in America—a worker, a dreamer—whose hard work will never be recognized. They will struggle and toil for little or no end. At best, their labors will be co-opted and stolen; at worst, it will be as dust—forgotten and buried. This person will try to better themselves, to push and aspire, to develop into everything they want to be, and the world will castigate them, diminish them, limit them, erase them. There will be no helping hand, no seeking eye for what might have been missed. They were born obsolete and must die the same way—all because they have the wrong color. And for all of these miseries, these losses, this unfulfilled promise, these long-deferred dreams, conservatives in this country would like us to believe that the person described is most likely white.

It is a provocative argument that has been promoted across the halls of power from reactionary think tanks to the Supreme Court of the United States, a judo flip of rhetoric that turns anticipated outrage into white defensiveness faster than you can say “woke.” Like a snare trap, white racial victimhood is put forward as bait—for racially marginalized parties to sneer and mock, as we have every right to—only to make a white audience uncomfortable with how hostile our dismissal sounds. And as these people begin to consider all of their life’s hardships—the doors that would not open, the windows that were stuck, the humiliating jobs, the hostile spaces—the white spectator begins to believe that this victimhood is real and the opponents to such blatant mendacity are the ones “going too far.”

“Not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” such a white person might say, distorting Dr. King’s quote by pulling it far out of context. “We can’t fix racism with more racism,” they will insist, adding, “I don’t even see color.” The deeper the justifications go, the more defensive they become; the less white people want to accept the nature of racism in a country built on it, the tighter is the snare. Cinch, snap: The white person is caught in the web of their own excuses, dangling in the upside-down world of logic they now can’t escape.

But that presumes that they ever wanted to be free.

This emotional reaction, this inelegant rhetorical reversal, is designed to be open and alluring. There is no real subterfuge here, no trick. It is simply an excuse to go where such a person already wanted to be. The trap isn’t painful; it is safe. No different than any other form of denial, racial ignorance protects from self-examination, introspection, interrogation and the revelations that must necessarily emerge. In the hold of this emotional reaction, there is no need to ask about structural inequities, ongoing disparities, the natural consequences of a peaceful movement that ends at the point of a bullet, or even how unburdened their lives must have been without the freight of more than 400 years of wholesale forced labor, torture, and exclusion. In fact, the atrocities are inverted: Acknowledging that any of this happened is abusive to whiteness, suppressive, oppressive the same way that selling children away from their parents must have been. And if they become victims—of Blackness and diversity—then they are the ones to whom restitution is owed. The white people caught in this thinking imagine they are weightless as the blood rushes to their heads and demand that the world shift its orientation to accommodate them, so they can reject the truth they so desperately want to avoid: None of this was ever fair.

Merit has never been the watchword for any era in the United States; openness has never been our commitment. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act might have succeeded in ending the full scope of state-sanctioned white supremacy, but those laws did not, by themselves, create equality. And even if we assume that the world changed immediately after their passage—that Black people had full access and full freedom as equal citizens—it was only for a fleeting moment. Barely 12 years passed between the assassination of Dr. King and the election of a man to the presidency who stood a few scant miles away from the site of the Freedom Summer murders and over the bloody marker promised a program of “states’ rights.” Former California governor Ronald Reagan launched his campaign in Mississippi—the first time then and since the state has seen one—and called it “morning in America.” For whom? Even setting aside centuries of slavery, there was barely an effort to unravel the 100 years of segregation that had warped every aspect of Black life, limited and diminished every dream, stifled every hope until we choked on the pain of it. When, exactly, did the pendulum have enough momentum to swing in the opposite direction?

That the answer to this question is abundantly clear with any thought applied to it is precisely why the conservative movement and those who are willingly ensnared by it do not want to think. They want to be aggrieved and to stew in it, to cultivate the petty smallness of mind and heart to justify cruelties that they inherited from cultural predecessors who blocked school doorways and screamed death threats at children, who said and did nothing as crosses were burned outside of dormitories and students were spat on and humiliated and preached their own inferiority by professors who held their futures at hand. It would be safer to their egos and the structure of supremacy that bolsters them to believe that desegregation did too much than accept that it was not enough.

In response to this revanchist revision of American racial dynamics, the defenders of diversity have often fallen into two camps: to reason, or to plead. The former pile-up facts and figures and demonstrated truths about the value of different races and perspectives—on learning environments and business decisions and political consensus. They try to untwist the logic that white defensiveness has tied into an impossible knot, as if what underlies the belief that Black people have never achieved anything on our own merit is a lack of appropriately quantified evidence. Their approach is the opposite of the pleaders, who attempt with moral suasion to reach the cold and shriveled hearts that do not want to be warmed. These people try arguments about ethics, history, debts of duty and honor to appeal to the sense of justice in people who are keenly aware of how much of their success is unjust. 

And as they have wasted their time on reports and studies or good faith advocacy, the white reactionaries have dismantled effort after effort to remedy the damage of segregation and the slavery that preceded it. Using millions in shadowed donor funding, think-tanks and conservative activists have orchestrated a coordinated campaign to strip diversity provisions from every level of society—from government to education—and its branches have borne the rancid fruit. The Supreme Court has wiped out affirmative action. Republican-run states have abridged or abolished their diversity initiatives, with Florida at the forefront as Governor Ron DeSantis uses every power at his disposal to erase Black history. Like former Harvard president Claudine Gay, those who have striven for and acquired rare positions of influence are purged from their roles, while those of us without such esteem are promised never to get the chance to try. Books are banned; history is abridged; resources are broken and hidden until their shattered remnants are impossible to recreate. Even as the abstract concept of “diversity” remains popular, the work to unmake everything that accommodates it continues apace.

For the possibility of equality to remain, for Black and brown people to thrive in American life, diversity cannot continue to be a relic of the past. We have spent too much time on preservation of a movement that was a living process, driven by living goals. Our predecessors did not endure threats, survive cruelty, organize, march and protest for the sake of a colorblind world that would only recognize their humanity shorn of Blackness. They persisted for the sake of an integrated one that would see Blackness as humanity.

Integration is the answer to the silent question we have refused to ask. A better United States—a flourishing future for this nation—demands integration for its success. It is not the erasure of individual history, talent, meaning or purpose, but the acceptance of all the ways in which those differences can and do create magnificence. Integration asks us to see and respect the common humanity of each other because we are unique, not in spite of it. Integration has no persistent racial disparities—because there is no disparate treatment. Integration does not accept the achievement of some at the cost of many; only the success of all of us is enough. For those who reason, integration can be found in data; for those who entreat, integration carries a moral legacy. This term is explicitly designed to invoke the Civil Rights Movement, to recenter the drive and purpose of that movement on the people who made it happen rather than the generosity of white memory. Integration does not require a defense; it creates its own argument. Instead, segregation needs to explain its value.

Affirmative action, DEI, minority- and women-oriented grants, LGBTQ+ equality—all are simply tools for an integrated society, where no one is set aside for who they are but recognized for what they can be. Integration takes the bait out of the trap; it creates affirmation rather than defensiveness; it asks us not to seek out what makes a given candidate insufficient, but what makes them special.

Imagine, instead of seeing headlines about Republicans and conservatives eviscerating diversity initiatives, we read “Ron DeSantis Guts Integration Efforts.” We can (and should) attach the label to everything that encourages the marginalized to take up space, because segregation is the reality of rejecting these programs. The problem of pre–Civil Rights America was not that there were no Black people anywhere; it was that we were confined to what white people would allow us to be. To accept the absence of integration is to put ourselves back in a box. I simply refuse.

To rile the country, to unmake progress, the neo-segregationists want us to believe that the person born for obsolescence in a diverse world is white. To challenge them, we don’t need to prove that the person at the center of this social abandonment is still Black. We need to ask for a world where no one is abandoned.


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