Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been at the center of arguments among various groups, from politicians to social activists, in recent months. Billionaires have now entered the debate.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, took to his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, on Jan. 3 to condemn DEI (also known as IE&D) after hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman wrote an essay saying that the practice could lead to “racism against white people.”
“DEI is just another word for racism,” Musk wrote. “Shame on anyone who uses it.”
The post caused a stir online and led to criticism from fellow billionaire businessman Mark Cuban, who responded by proclaiming in a post on X that DEI is good for business.
“You may not agree, but I take it as a given that there are people of various races, ethnicities, orientation … that are regularly excluded from hiring consideration,” Cuban wrote. “By extending our hiring search to include them, we can find people that are more qualified. The loss of DEI-phobic companies is my gain.”
DEI has long been a contentious topic in the workplace. Fueled by the anti-woke movement, conservative groups and politicians have promoted or signed legislation in the past few years to prohibit businesses and educational institutions from giving preferential consideration based on race or ethnicity.
The Associated Press reported recently that opponents of workplace diversity programs are leveraging Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to challenge equity policies as well as funding to minority-owned businesses. The section, originally designed to protect formerly enslaved people, grants all individuals within the U.S. jurisdiction the same rights and benefits as “enjoyed by white citizens” in contractual relationships.
Painting a ‘False Narrative’
In response to Musk’s comments, Rita Parker, vice president of global DEI at information management firm Access in Boston, said the essence of DEI does not meet the definition of racism.
“Racism is holding discriminatory beliefs or prejudices against an individual, community or institution, which is not the definition of DEI and what the principles are trying to achieve,” she said.
Ella F. Washington, professor of the practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said Musk’s condemnation of DEI “severely trivializes the very real effects and continued impacts of true racism.”
“Statements like this paint the false narrative that we live in a post-racial, equity-driven meritocracy where considering identity is simply to give advantages to people of color and women,” she said.
The workplace has long been plagued by discrimination against members of underrepresented communities. Such employment practices led to the creation of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Washington explained that the U.S. workplace is now neither equal nor equitable, underscoring the importance of DEI. A 2022 report by SHRM found that 20 percent of HR professionals say their organizations’ overall policies and practices are not at all fair or only somewhat fair.
Musk’s post reminded Washington of decades ago when workers’ race, gender or class dictated whether or not they were chosen for a job, resulting in the systemic inequalities we see today.
“No DEI practitioner will tell you that DEI is about taking anything from a group of people, because it’s not,” she added. “Instead, they will remind you how vital it is that you investigate why you believe any group has an innate entitlement to any set of opportunities or resources.”
Handling the DEI Backlash
Nearly 60 percent of executives said they believe backlash against DEI measures has increased since the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions last June, according to a November survey by Littler. Yet 57 percent of executives said their organizations have expanded DEI programs over the past year.
But many other businesses gutted their DEI departments amid budget cuts, layoffs and hiring freezes over the past few years, and reports show that attrition rates for diversity and inclusion roles have outpaced those of non-DEI roles.
Neal Goodman, president emeritus of Global Dynamics Inc., a company that offers cross-cultural training and other services in Aventura, Fla., said organizations that promoted DEI after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 are now dismantling these initiatives amid the recent backlash.
“It was ironic that the same corporate institutions that were perpetuating bias later became one of the hopeful supporters of DEI,” he said. “These organizations should be rededicating themselves to these causes because inclusive organizations have better retention rates, are more innovative and are more profitable.”
Washington said it isn’t wrong for HR to feel concerned about backlash their company might get from outspoken media figures. She recommended that employers:
- Stay abreast of any legislation that can impact them.
- Assess the concerns raised surrounding DEI, including accusations of reverse discrimination, to avoid lawsuits.
- Evaluate DEI strategies with an emphasis on equity and inclusion, as “that is at the very heart and soul of good DEI work,” she said.
Washington explained that DEI today is simply the successor to policies that once helped protect children from unfair labor practices, create space for women in the workforce and shield people with disabilities from discrimination.
“I believe unequivocally that DEI is not just a fad or a political platform,” she said. “It is the search for a better work environment where everyone has equitable access to opportunities and a fair work culture.”