Advocates aim to widen their reach in this window of opportunity, moving beyond the mere reversal of an order to proactively address structural issues.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
President Joe Biden signaled his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on his first day in office by rescinding a Trump executive order that had denied systemic racism’s existence and restricted diversity training within the federal government, its contractors, and its grant recipients.
Trump’s Sept. 22, 2020, executive order was aimed at silencing training that incorporated what’s known as critical race theory, or the idea that racism is interwoven into American society and gives some groups of people advantages over others. A Trump White House memo on the issue went so far as to suggest rooting out “ideologies that label entire groups of Americans as inherently racist or evil” in diversity training materials. Democrats and other Trump opponents labeled it a publicity stunt and a dog whistle aimed at appealing to Trump’s mostly white voter base in the Nov. 2 election.
Trump’s edict had affected nonprofits, government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and all others that worked under federal contracts or that aimed to apply for them at the time. Universities weren’t directly mentioned, but most rely on federal funding for financial aid and other programs.
Opponents said Trump’s order, though issued only four months before Biden took the oath of office as U.S. president, had a chilling effect on efforts to address racial disparities in the workplace after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Chauvin was fired as a police officer and is awaiting trial.
One judge agreed with opponents who claimed that Trump’s order violated their First Amendment rights.
On Dec. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman granted a preliminary injunction, blocking Trump’s order from being enforced. “Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success in proving violations of their constitutional rights,” Freeman wrote. “Moreover, as the government itself acknowledges, the work Plaintiffs perform is extremely important to historically underserved communities.”
“[Biden’s executive order] provides a great blueprint for any CEO who wants to uncover the roots of ethnic minority underrepresentation at different levels of the organization. That’s because it’s about identifying systemic issues.”
– Karen Brown, founder and managing director, Bridge Arrow
Yet DEI experts say the damage has been done and will take time and effort to overcome. “[Trump’s order] threatened to undo the progress we’ve made and undermined our ability to forge connections to each other,” said Karen Brown, founder and managing director of Bridge Arrow, a diversity and inclusion management consultancy based in Chicago. “It created confusion among the thousands of companies that do business with the government.”
Brown said many companies suspended their DEI programs out of fear their contracts would be canceled for violating the order. “I have a number of colleagues who’ve lost business to deliver training,” she said prior to Biden’s action. “It has caused a lot of harm and damage already.”
Yet Brown said Biden’s action has opened the door even wider by going beyond merely reversing Trump’s order. “[Biden’s executive order] provides a great blueprint for any CEO who wants to uncover the roots of ethnic minority underrepresentation at different levels of the organization,” Brown said. “That’s because it’s about identifying systemic issues.”
“You can identify those systemic issues for any underrepresented group, whether it’s based on gender, disability, LGBTQ+ or other identities,” she said. “Training is important, but it’s not transformational,” Brown said. “Setting metrics is just scratching the surface. You need to look at systemic issues.”
Leaders can do that by conducting an internal review to understand any barriers, inequities, injustices, and unfairness in the system, Brown said. The next step is to share the findings — first internally with the board, managers, and employees, and then with the public. “There must be action and accountability,” Brown said. “It requires going beyond the programs and counting heads.”
Instead, systemic change starts with making fundamental changes to policies, procedures, decision-making, and the role the company plays in society and in its communities, she said.
“Moving from aspiration to meaningful action will lead to sustainable change, where everyone benefits,” Brown said.
Others said that a more permanent solution is needed.
“I invite those conversations within the realm of trying to cultivate understanding and come to a place where we can have safe, productive, and effective workplace environments without it being at the expense of marginalized communities such as people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.”
– Farzana Nayani, DEI specialist, speaker, author, coach, and consultant
Farzana Nayani, a DEI specialist, speaker, author, coach, and consultant, said Biden’s actions will prove instrumental in letting people and businesses break through long-held beliefs to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. “People question, ‘If we talk about race, we’re making race a problem.’ That foundational thought is the heart of the issue,” she said.
“We know as [DEI] practitioners, you have to name and discuss the issue in order to dismantle it. By using descriptive words, that doesn’t mean we’re inviting division. We’re trying to invite unity,” Nayani said.
Nayani said she was heartened to see that Biden “doubled down” by going beyond merely overturning Trump’s order in working to ensure inclusion and equity. Biden’s order launched what the Biden White House called a “whole-of-government initiative to advance racial equity,” according to a summary. The order directed federal agencies to conduct internal reviews and devise plans to “address unequal barriers to opportunity in agency policies and programs.” The review, it said, should “ensure equity based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious minorities, and people with disabilities.”
The order also instructed the Office of Management and Budget to work to ensure the federal government more equitably invests in communities of color and that federal programs are available to people for whom English is not their first language.
Nayani said the key to workplace diversity and inclusion is to open up conversation. “I invite those conversations within the realm of trying to cultivate understanding and come to a place where we can have safe, productive, and effective workplace environments without it being at the expense of marginalized communities such as people of color and the LGBTQ+ community,” Nayani said.
“I listen to understand the perspective,” she said. “We try to protect the experiences and lives of Black and indigenous people of color because they’re largely victim to bias, microaggressions, and systemic oppressive systems. At the same time, there needs to be a coming together of how people can work together in the workplace. That requires deep listening and some difficult conversations,” Nayani said.
How can that be accomplished?
Nayani holds what she calls “healing sessions” with workers placed in different groups. “It’s a way of holding space around the trauma that every community feels,” she said. “[It involves] sharing of the pain and deep experiences to be understood, processed without harming the other group.”
After the workforce reunites, Nayani said, employees can work together to focus on strategy, processes, procedures, and continuing with DEI training.
“The missing piece is empathy and a movement toward a greater collective existence,” she said. “It’s a way to heal workplaces and organizations so we can move together and advance collective understanding and equity for the marginalized communities.”
The process, which started in the Civil Rights era, has generated interest because now, business leaders understand that a diverse team makes for greater profitability, Nayani said. “We used to have to make the case for the why. Now people want to know the how and to move beyond training,” she said. “They want strategy, embedded within an organization. Leadership is willing to do the work. It’s just a question now of implementation.”
Higher ed seeks diversity minus a national edict
Trump’s executive order led to some colleges and universities ceasing their diversity efforts and canceling events, while others refused to comply. Some higher-education contracts were canceled, while others were frightened about the future of their federally funded grants, according to media reports.
One example: University of Michigan President Mark S. Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D., issued a statement on Sept. 26, 2020, saying “the educational efforts this [Trump’s] order seeks to prohibit are critical to much-needed action to create equitable economic and social opportunities for all members of society; to confront our blind spots; and to encourage us all to be better teachers, scholars, and citizens.
“We declare our unwavering commitment toward actively dismantling all forms of structural oppression as well as constructing an environment where we treat each person with dignity and respect,” Dr. Schlissel said in the statement.
“Many of us recognize that we are in a critical window of opportunity. We’re trying to leverage this moment where people are more interested, open and ‘woke’ to learning more, having discussions, and participating in professional development on these important issues.”
– Deborah S. Willis, Ph.D., creator and senior program lead, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Certificate program, University of Michigan
Others recognized the Trump order’s misconception and kept forging ahead. “It demonstrated a misunderstanding of the learning objectives” of DEI programs, said Deborah S. Willis, Ph.D., creator and senior program lead of the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Certificate program.
The Michigan graduate school’s officials evaluate their program using a cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence — the Intercultural Development Inventory. Organizations use it to build intercultural competence and to achieve domestic and international DEI goals and outcomes.
Indeed, students have become the drivers of the diversity effort, Dr. Willis said. That’s because prospective employers want to hire people committed to and trained in DEI, and the students want to make sure their prospective employers are truly committed to the social justice and DEI values those companies or organizations proclaim, Dr. Willis said.
Yet Trump’s action harkened to an ongoing debate over higher education’s role in advancing DEI.
“We need a clear federal law with administrative procedures and best practices. Otherwise, it becomes an accident of timing.”
Michael A. Olivas, Ph.D., J.D., the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law, emeritus, at the University of Houston Law Center
The share of Americans saying colleges and universities have a negative effect “on the way things are going in the country these days” has increased by 12 percentage points since 2012, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican. From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country jumped to 59% from 37% among this group. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive, the Pew survey showed.
“Many of us recognize that we are in a critical window of opportunity,” Dr. Willis said. “We’re trying to leverage this moment where people are more interested, open and ‘woke’ to learning more, having discussions, and participating in professional development on these important issues.”
Michael A. Olivas, Ph.D., J.D., the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law, emeritus, at the University of Houston Law Center, said the best solution would be to include Biden’s order and other nuances of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as Title IX, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), public service scholarships, and loan forgiveness, into a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
He described Trump’s order as more “a steam whistle going down the Mississippi River than a dog whistle,” and said that it was poorly lawyered.
“The long haul is to put these things into legislation,” said Dr. Olivas, who taught immigration, entertainment, and higher-education law for 38 years and is a former general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.
“We need a clear federal law with administrative procedures and best practices,” he said. “Otherwise, it becomes an accident of timing.”
“If laws are enacted with the intent of dismantling structural and systemic inequities, perhaps today’s conversations will not be the conversations we’re having 30 years from now in 21st century America.”
– Paulette Granberry Russell, J.D., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education
Paulette Granberry Russell, J.D., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said it’s too early to predict which of Biden’s priorities — DACA, immigration, health equities, free public community college access, and others — can or will be incorporated into legislation.
It’s also uncertain whether Biden can muster the necessary support of the U.S. House and Senate to enshrine such DEI policies into law, such as happened with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
If Biden succeeds in codifying his policies, DEI advocates would benefit from the resulting guidelines, regulations, and expectations, Granberry Russell said. “If laws are enacted with the intent of dismantling structural and systemic inequities,” she said, “perhaps today’s conversations will not be the conversations we’re having 30 years from now in 21st century America.”