Standing firm against the escalating assault on equity, diversity, and inclusion

By Zara Abrams

Decades of research show the benefit of diversity for organizations, communities, and society. When faced with restrictive legislation, organizations and individuals can take bold action to defend progress and safeguard diversity efforts.

Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, also referred to as DEI) programs have flourished in recent years, helping academic institutions, industry, and other organizations promote equal opportunity, address bias, and reduce disparities while providing a sense of belonging at work or school. But a new wave of anti-EDI bills, lawsuits, and complaints have created barriers for the future of such efforts. Spurred in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision to ban affirmative action, conservative groups around the country are leveraging civil rights law to challenge a range of policies intended to make the country’s institutions fairer and more equitable.

Lawmakers have proposed at least 81 bills in 28 states and in the U.S. Congress aimed at curbing EDI efforts in higher education or eliminating them altogether (DEI Legislation Tracker, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2024). A subset of bills goes even further, greatly restricting what can be taught and even rewriting the mission statements of some institutions to erase ideas about diversity.

“These are bills that seem likely to devastate not just DEI in higher ed, but also the ability of students to access a wide array of ideas through campus programming,” said Jeremy C. Young, PhD, the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to human rights and free expression. “They would also prevent universities from determining for themselves what kind of programming and initiatives make sense for their students.”

EDI programs promote equal opportunity and representation among all groups, including—but not limited to—those that have been historically excluded. Decades of psychological research clearly show that diversity is beneficial for organizations, communities, education, and society as a whole (Gomez, L. E., & Bernet, P., Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 111, No. 4, 2019; Palid, O., et al.International Journal of STEM Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2023). Equal opportunity for all people, regardless of background, is also an ideal that, through amendments, has been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“Given the large number of problems we need to solve—whether it’s global warming, diseases, world wars—we need all hands on deck,” said Robert Sellers, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies diversity and racial identity. “If we do not have a diverse population examining these challenges, it has a huge impact on us all. We will suffer as a society.”

Education, preparation, advocacy, and collaboration are all critically needed to keep the wave of anti-DEI attempts at bay. But the challenges might also offer a chance for diversity advocates to rethink how best to approach and discuss equity, said John Dovidio, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology at Yale University who studies power and social relations.

“We’ve drawn the battle lines over the phrase ‘DEI.’ But if you assume that most people are good and want fairness, we probably can get to a much better place,” he said. “The resistance we’re seeing is a good opportunity for us to reflect upon our current approach.”

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