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Why DEI is “Controversial” Bill Lasarow

Imagine if CalArts held a news conference to announce that Mark Bradford would return to his alma mater to assume a leadership role as Dean of the School of Art. However, after the announcement, one group of local conservative activists with ties to the school registered their disapproval. Bradford is well known for his interest in local community activism and diversification through Art + Practice, which he co-founded a decade ago. On top of that he is a gay man.

Mark Bradford, “Juice,” 2003, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 84”. Courtesy © Mark Bradford.

The disgruntled conservative group finds enough allies (or has some of its own people) on the school’s Board of Trustees that they are able to have the terms of Bradford’s hiring diminished. What had been agreed to, five years with tenure established, to no early tenure and a single year. As a Black man who co-founded an organization that the conservative group regards as leftist, donors affiliated with the group inform the Board that donations would dry up.

Imagine that Cal Art’s Faculty Senate points out that the outside influence of political or politically motivated actors is never acceptable, but they are ignored. Bradford reluctantly decides, despite the long and positive relationship he has had with the school, to decline the revised job offer. In short order CalArts President Ravi Rajan tenders his resignation.

Finally, imagine that word of the account of the political intrusion reaches Governor Gavin Newsom, and the Governor sides with the activists, stating that “Anyone with a past advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion is not welcome at CalArts or any other California institution of higher learning.” The state legislature backs him up by passing a bill prohibiting DEI programs in public colleges (CalArts is a private school).

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana, March 15, 2022. Mark Sanders, a professor of English and Africana studies, is at left. Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Peter Ringenberg.

OK, that last really is a bridge too far. Way too far, your bullshit detector can be turned to low and the story would be laughable. So, yes, this would not, could not happen in California. It would be a subject of ridicule. But in certain states not only can it happen, it has happened.

Last year Nicole Hannah-Jones, author of the 1619 Project, had her hiring by the University of North Carolina blow up in much this fashion. She accepted a subsequent offer to head the journalism department at Howard University instead.

And it has now happened again, this time at Texas A&M, following the public announcement of the hiring of Dr. Kathleen McElroy. The terms were as described in the above fantasy scenario. Thanks to the efforts of an alumni group, The Rudder Association, Inc. (so named for its founding family — and founded in 2020), going by the tagline “To Preserve, Protect and Perpetuate the Texas Aggie Culture, the Spirit of Aggieland and its Core Values and Traditions.” They declared “the morass of identity policies known on our campuses as DEI” as the basis for their successful effort to effectively force the withdrawal of the University’s hiring of Ms. McElroy.

Kathleen McElroy, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media, and a graduate of Texas A&M, in her apartment in Austin. Photo: Joe Timmerman. Courtesy of The Texas Tribune.

The after-the-fact reversal quickly led to the resignation of the school’s President Dr. Kathryn Banks. The faculty senate responded that the imposition of outside influence was neither welcome nor appropriate. Of course, Banks and the Trustees could have thanked the group for their input and then dismissed it. What if a group of very liberal alumni had demanded the same withdrawal of support because Dr. McElroy’s progressive credentials were insufficient? The anomaly was the withdrawal of support after the hiring decision had been made and announced, not that it resulted from the pressure of a very conservative group of former Aggies.

The irony is that had they exercised this influence prior to the public announcement the case would probably never have become a national cause célèbre. But the core problem would have remained, and it is anybody’s guess to what degree “the morass of identity policies” is influencing hiring practices in the nation’s colleges and beyond. “Morass” is a heavily loaded term that suggests excess. A more honest framing would be to simply state conservatives’ opposition to DEI on some basis, but like a range of conservative cultural positions from systemic racism, to abortion to gun “rights,” these are matters of faith and emotion. And most of all, identity.

Mike Lroy, UW Credit Union mural, Madison, Wisconsin, 2020. Courtesy of the UW Credit Union and the artist.

The emotionalism is and has long been rooted in fear of replacement. What is controversial about Drs. McElroy, Hannah-Jones, and no doubt others less in the public eye, is that diversity, equity, and inclusion to many implies a threat of the loss of a special status, and the fear that once-suppressed groups of people will seek revenge. It is, and remains, a feature of American history and culture dating from, well, 1619, and a world vastly different from that of the 21st century. In that dark side of America, Alexander Stephens could state with conviction that for the Confederacy “its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

Now re-read the made-up quote I attributed to Governor Newsom. Substitute Governor Greg Abbott for Newsom, and Texas for California. What we have is a contemporary version of Mr. Stephens’ infamous Cornerstone Speech from which I have quoted.

Mari Ward, “We the People,” 2019, mixed media. Courtesy of the New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

The fundamental truth of DEI is that it has nothing to do with identity policies; that was and remains the domain of white supremacists descended from Mr. Stephens, who was the Vice-President of the Confederate States. DEI is exactly the opposite, a measured and sustained effort to eradicate preferences and special rights to any group, to any identity. To render identity, in legal and cultural terms, irrelevant. When I hear certain leaders, right up to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, utter platitudes about “color blindness,” what I see is precisely the opposite. The Court’s Shelby County decision, like the Rudder Association blockage, marks a revival of the very worst conduct in our generally bright history by treating it as normal. Normal it once was, and we have taken more than 150 years to render it abnormal once and for all. But that is easier said than done.

That is why when I hear or read about the “controversial” policies of DEI and those institutional leaders who are committed to it, such as Dr. McElroy, what I see is a willful regression. And that, dear friends, is where the controversy truly lies. The Kathleen McElroys of America are properly counted among our heroes.

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