With Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading the Republican assault on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs and a New York Times op-ed dismissing D.E.I. training as counterproductive, it is important to revisit a 1966 speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where he defended what we now call Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
In Florida, as part of its effort to block what they derisively label as woke behavior, DeSantis signed a “Stop WOKE Act” that he defended as “freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent, whether it be in the classroom or in the workplace.” The “pernicious ideologies” included Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Focusing on the psychological impact of DEI training sessions on white participants, the authors of the Times op-ed claimed “If diversity trainings have no impact whatsoever, that would mean that perhaps billions of dollars are being wasted annually in the United States on these efforts. But there’s a darker possibility: Some diversity initiatives might actually worsen the D.E.I. climates of the organizations that pay for them.”
For Dr. King, the “pernicious” ideology was white racism and he was not concerned with possible averse psychological impact of DEI on whites. Instead, King focused on the legal benefits of DEI for African Americans. Opponents of Civil Rights laws claimed, “legislation is not effective in bringing about the changes that we need in human relations. According to Dr. King, “This argument says that you've got to change the heart in order to solve the problem; that you can't change the heart through legislation.” King acknowledged. “It may be true that you can't legislate integration but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men.”
The Times piece actually recognized this. It quoted Robert Livingston, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who works as a diversity consultant, who offered a simple approach. Livingston argued DEI training should “Focus on actions and behaviors rather than hearts and minds.”
I help conduct DEI training sessions for school and school district leaders in New York State. They are not sensitivity sessions where we try to convince people to like each other. We stress that implementing DEI policies means obeying state law. It means establishing institutional guidelines so all stakeholders understand what constitutes acceptable behavior. We also discuss how DEI experiences benefits all of their students by helping prepare them for life in a very diverse world where they will need to work with people who are different from them whether they like those people or not.
One of the big phony issues raised by opponents of DEI is concern about which bathrooms transgender children should use. My grandson is a freshman at SUNY-New Paltz. In his dormitory all the bathrooms are considered all gender and they are available for use by all of the students who live there. The sinks are in a central part of the bathroom with small independent alcoves, with doors that lock, for the toilets and showers. When I visited, I appreciated the privacy and think all gender bathrooms should be available everywhere and would solve a problem that really doesn’t really exist anyway.
DEI policies help ensure fundamental constitutional rights for all people such as “equal protection of the laws.” Bottom line, diversity, equity and inclusion strength our schools, communities, and nation.