Rethink DEI

I don’t often find myself in agreement with Speaker Robin Vos, but I think he’s right about diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The other day Vos pandered to a hard-right Milwaukee radio audience by saying that he would move to cut $14 million from the UW budget that goes to fund DEI program staff. But just because he was pandering doesn’t make him wrong.

“If we don’t figure a way to take race out of every single conversation and go to the color blind society that Martin Luther King talked about, I think it’s going to make even more division than we’ve had in the past,” Vos said. What can I say? I think Vos is absolutely right about that.

DEI has become a very lucrative (estimated to be $3.4 billion) self-perpetuating industry, not only in academia but also in the corporate world. When managers don’t know what to do about pressure, coming from a few activists or a handful of employees, to do something about race and gender issues, they set up a DEI program and hope it all just goes away and everybody gets back to their jobs. Nobody ever stops to evaluate these programs to see if they’re actually helping.

The evidence is that not only are DEI programs not helping, they’re making things worse. In January a columnist in the New York Times (of all places) reported:

There’s little evidence that many of these initiatives work. And the specific type of diversity training that is currently in vogue — mandatory training that blames dominant groups for D.E.I. problems — may well have a net negative effect on the outcomes managers claim to care about. Over the years, social scientists who have conducted careful reviews of the evidence base for diversity training have frequently come to discouraging conclusions. Though diversity training workshops have been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s, few of them are ever subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is “disappointing,” wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors in a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology article, “considering the frequency with which calls for diversity training emerge in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.”

The fundamental problem with these programs is that the ideology behind them conflicts with both common sense and long-held American values. As Vos said, the vast majority of us want a color blind society and most of us recognize that, while we’ve made great progress toward that goal, we’ve still got a ways to go.

But the “cutting edge” view in the DEI world is that we can’t address past discrimination without discriminating now to make up for it. Too many of these programs ask people to accept their own deep-seated racism or “unconscious bias.” There is a huge disconnect here. You’re asking people who have grown up believing that being a racist is one of the very worst things you can be to accept the notion that they’re racists simply because of the color of their skin. Whatever you might actually think, whatever you might actually have done as an individual doesn’t matter. It’s about identity groups, good ones and bad ones.

Nobody outside of DEI staff views the world this way. In fact, it’s ludicrous. So when your company or your department forces you into one of these programs you leave it changed for the worse. It’s natural for employees to feel resentful and wrongfully accused. If you weren’t a racist going in, you might well be one coming out.

If a generation of DEI programs had been working this protest would not have been necessary.

In fact, what’s going on on the UW Madison campus right now points up the failure of these programs. Last week a student posted a racist rant on social media. Students confronted the chancellor and demanded that the student be expelled. Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, a former law school dean, pointed out that the post, however awful, was protected by the First Amendment and that she didn’t have any authority to expel a student for something she had done off campus.

Mnookin is probably right about that, but I think the protestors are missing the point. The point is that all of these years of DEI programs on campus have gotten us nowhere. Demanding more of the same is the definition of insanity.

Better to dismantle it all, as Vos suggests, and go back to basics. We should reestablish the goal of a color blind society, of a meritocracy. And we should enforce laws against discrimination, instead of employing discrimination to somehow make up for past mistakes. Because discrimination is not the cure but the common enemy, not the medicine but the cancer to be eradicated.

Vos’ gambit here might be purely symbolic. The Legislature can cut $14 million from the UW budget and direct that it come from DEI programs, but Gov. Tony Evers will probably be able to line item veto the language and he’s said that he’ll do just that. Such is the reality of the current Democratic Party. What’s more encouraging is that UW System President Jay Rothman responded to Vos’ proposal with vaguely sympathetic comments about looking into this general area. Significantly, Rothman did not rush to a defense of DEI.

Here’s a standard for success in the future. When things are working properly UW students will not go off on racist tirades and protestors will have no need to confront the chancellor. Everybody will just go to class.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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