Why DEI is “Controversial”
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
Mike Lroy, UW Credit Union mural, Madison, Wisconsin, 2020. Courtesy of the UW Credit Union and the artist
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.
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.”
Mari Ward, “We the People,” 2019, mixed media.
Courtesy of the New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio
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.
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.
What a Difference a Year Doesn’t Make
One year ago, a young man climbed onto a rooftop in the town where I live and shot 82 rounds into a crowd that had gathered to watch the Fourth of July parade. Seven people died. Forty-eight were injured. A child was paralyzed. The military-style attack took one minute.
The story became national news, partly for the ironic confluence of the crime and the holiday. People were there to celebrate freedom. Instead, they fled and hid. Parents threw their bodies over their children’s to save their lives. Afterward, parade-goers described the exact moment they realized the music had stopped and that what they had thought were marching-band drumbeats were actually the sound of automatic gunfire.
An even more bitter irony is this: Only days before, President Biden had signed into law a bipartisan bill intended to prevent dangerous people from acquiring firearms. The legislation, which also included increased investment in our shaky mental health system, ended nearly thirty years of gridlock in Washington over how to address escalating gun violence in the United States. This was progress, but with a terrible omission. The crucial part of the bill banning assault weapons was blocked by Republicans.
Michele Graves, “A Life is A Life” (Colt AR 233), 2019, pig heart encased in resin, canvas with organ tissue and acrylic, 60 x 67 x 4 1/2”. Courtesy of Epiphany Center for the Arts, Chicago
Earlier this month my town marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting with a somber ceremony followed by a police-protected walk along the parade route. The event, more Memorial Day than Independence Day, was caring and tasteful. A moment of silence marked the exact time of the shooting. The names of the dead were read aloud. Speakers then attempted to process the aftermath.
Kindness Rock Garden, Park District of Highland Park Rose Garden, 2022. Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune
Our mayor, Nancy Rottering, who is a class act, spoke first with her usual mix of clarity, intelligence, and what seems to be genuine compassion. The usual pols were there too, front and center — Governor JB Pritzker, Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton. All Democrats, all pro-gun control. Depending on your affiliation, and I heard both sides from neighbors, they were either there to lend moral support or to grandstand for votes. Fortunately, politicking was kept to a minimum and none of them spoke. Instead, a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi took turns at the podium. They talked about grief and trauma, resilience and healing, faith.
Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have
a play produced on Broadway, with “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Courtesy of the New York Times. Photo: David Attie
The town’s poet laureate read a poem, the town’s librarian sang the national anthem, the town’s string quartet cast a spell. Kindness rocks painted by local children were given away to be placed in a garden that will serve as a memorial until something more permanent is erected. Volunteers slipped quietly through the crowd handing out water, and when a man fainted from the heat he was gently revived.
The theme of the day was kindness. For an hour those present shared a sense of community, a feeling that we are a like-minded, well-intended people who have suffered an inexplicable blow, but that we will proceed together to bring about change. And we have, to an extent. In January Governor Pritzker signed a bill outlawing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Illinois.
And yet. State laws don’t really work. If you live in Chicago and you want a military-style weapon, all you have to do is drive to Indiana.
Greed and fear and the mad clinging to a perverted interpretation of the second amendment carry greater weight than preservation of life. So the gun lobby wins and we are bogged down in an endless legal process while Americans continue to die from gun violence at an astounding rate.
Ask yourself, are you surprised anymore to hear of the latest shooting? A shooter has to kill at least three to even make the news. Outrage has faded to stock condolences and battle-weary numbness. At public gatherings it seems perfectly normal to hand over our bags to be searched, happy to prove that we, at least, aren’t packing. We choose sturdy shoes in case we’ll have to run. The change that should have happened didn’t and now we just adapt, trudging forward into a time of lowered expectations.
This bogging down in process and ratcheting down of hope reminds me of a student’s response to a question I posed on an exam about Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’d asked if they thought there had been significant progress in race relations in American society since the play’s first performance in 1959. The student, who is Black and perhaps 19 years old, answered with the sharp, serene, scoffing confidence that only the young can muster. Progress was a false notion, she wrote. If you call it progress it means the thing still exists. There shouldn’t be “progress.” Racism should just end. I think about that comment a lot and how it applies to many things. Intentions only go so far.
The New York Times reports that as of this July 4, there were more than 330 mass shootings in the United States. Which is nothing compared to total gun deaths. As horrible as mass shootings are, they represent a small fraction of shooting deaths in our country, over half of which are suicides. The fact is, if you really want to kill somebody in this country, it’s easy to get a firearm to do it with.
The horse has left the barn. Or rather, the guns have left the gun shops. At one point we could have made it difficult for people to get guns. Now, it may be too late. Even if we banned gun sales for eternity starting today — dream on, but just suppose — we could never collect the hundreds of millions of privately owned firearms that are already out there. How could we expect people to give up their guns in the interest of public safety knowing the guy next door might be, probably is, sitting on his own private arsenal?
Pablo Picasso, “The Old Guitarist,” 1903/04, oil on canvas, 48 x 33”.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Might there be an altogether different tack? A way to be, as a nation, that makes people less inclined to want to kill?
The memorial ceremony was bracketed by music, beginning with several somber pieces grounded by a mournful cello and ending with a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.” These performances enveloped the event in art, which may be the very best we can do. The speeches were good but calls to action feel stale by now. What I remember is the consoling music. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” That morning it was music that cast the protective spell of peace and comfort that words couldn’t quite accomplish.
President Barak Obama leads the singing of Amazing Grace at funeral of Reverend
Clementa Pinckney, Charleston, South Carolina, 2015, still from video. Courtesy of ABC News
Of course, even music wasn’t enough to soothe the savage breast of the shooter, who, according to one report, was a music-obsessed amateur rapper. We’ll probably never know what was in his mind or what made him pick up a gun that morning. But maybe we should try to figure it out. Finding that out may be our only real hope for fixing what’s wrong with our country.