Little more than a decade ago, DEI was just another arcane acronym, a clustering of three ideas, each to be weighed and evaluated against other societal values. The terms diversity, equity, and inclusion weren’t yet being used in the singular, as one all-inclusive, non-negotiable moral imperative. Nor had they coalesced into a bureaucratic juggernaut running roughshod over every aspect of national life.
They are now.
Seemingly in unison, and with almost no debate, nearly every major American institution – including federal, state, and local governments, universities and public schools, hospitals, insurance, media and technology companies and major retail brands – has agreed that the DEI infrastructure is essential to the nation’s proper functioning. From Amazon to Walmart, most major corporations have created and staffed DEI offices within their human resources bureaucracy. So have sanitation departments, police departments, physics departments, and the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, education and energy. Organizations that once argued against DEI now feel compelled to institute DEI training and hire DEI officers. So have organizations that are already richly diverse, such as the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
Many of these offices in turn work with a sprawling network of DEI consulting firms, training outfits, trade organizations and accrediting associations that support their efforts.
“Five years ago, if you said ‘DEI,’ people would’ve thought you were talking about the Digital Education Initiative,” Robert Sellers, University of Michigan’s first chief diversity officer, said in 2020. “Five years ago, if you said DEI was a core value of this institution, you would have an argument.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion is an intentionally vague term used to describe sanctioned favoritism in the name of social justice. Its Wikipedia entry indicates a lack of agreement on the definition, while Merriam-Webster.com and the Associated Press online style guide have no entry (the AP offers guidance on related terms).
Yet however defined, it's clear DEI is now much more than an academic craze or corporate affectation.
“It’s an industry in every sense of the word,” says Peter Schuck, professor emeritus of law at Yale. “My suspicion is that many of the offices don’t do what they say. But they’re hiring people, giving them titles and pretty good money. I don’t think they do nothing.”
It’s difficult to know how large the DEI Industrial Complex has become. The Bureau of Labor Statistics hasn’t assessed its size. Two decades ago, MIT professor Thomas Kochan estimated that diversity was already an $8 billion-a-year industry. Yet along with the addition of equity, inclusion, and like terms, the industry has surely grown an order of magnitude larger. Six years ago, McKinsey and Company estimated that American companies were spending $8 billion a year on diversity training alone. DEI hiring and training have only accelerated in the years since.
“In the scope and rapidity of institutional embrace,” writes Marti Gurri, a former CIA analyst who studies media and politics, “nothing like it has transpired since the conversion of Constantine.”
Yet in our time, no Roman Emperor has demanded a complete cultural transformation. No law was passed mandating DEI enactment. No federal court ruling has required its implementation. There was no clarion call on the order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” warning. No genuine public crisis matched the scale of the response.
The sources of this transformation are both deep and fairly recent. On one level, they can be traced back to the egalitarian movements that have long shaped American history – from the nation’s founding, through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the battles for women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and same-sex marriage. In other ways, the rapid transformation can seem no more explicable than an eccentric fashion trend, like men of the late 18th century wearing periwigs. However, a few pivot points of recent history bent its arc in DEI’s direction.
The push for affirmative action is the most obvious influence, a program first conceived during the Reconstruction era but then abandoned for nearly a century. Although triumphs for social justice, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights acts of the late 1950s and 1960s didn’t stop discrimination; the country would need to take more affirmative steps toward assisting minority groups and achieving more equitable outcomes, proponents argued. A controversial policy from the start (with the Supreme Court expected to curb its use in college admissions this term), affirmative action was further complicated by immigration reforms that allowed for more non-European immigrants, setting off a seismic demographic shift that continues to reverberate.
The diversity movement of the early 1990s was in part an attempt to capitalize on the new multicultural reality. Stressing individual and institutional benefits rather than moral failings, early corporate diversity training programs hewed to traditional values of equality and meritocracy. Creating a diverse workplace, R. Roosevelt Thomas wrote in the Harvard Business Review, in 1990, “should always be a question of pure competence and character unmuddled by birth.”
And in many ways it appears to have worked. Just look at the tech industry, where immigrants from East and South Asia have flourished. Nigerian immigrants are perhaps the most successful group in America, with nearly two-thirds holding college degrees. Doors have opened wide to the once-closeted LGBT community.
But in other ways, the recent explosion of DEI initiatives reflects shortcomings of earlier efforts, as suggested by the headline of 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Diversity Fails.” Even as high-achieving first- and second-generation immigrants have thrived in certain industries, particularly STEM fields, people of color remain scarce in senior institutional positions. There is also the deeper issue of what many in the post-George Floyd era have taken to calling systemic or structural racism, citing major disparities for black Americans in education, healthcare, homeownership, arrests, incarceration, and household wealth.
More recently, a spate of widely publicized police killings of unarmed African Americans has galvanized a growing belief, especially among progressives and especially since Donald Trump’s election, that America is an irredeemably racist nation. In 2020, in the wake of the Floyd murder and in advance of a fraught election, a moral panic set in. Having increased their ranks, social justice entrepreneurs and bureaucrats were poised to implement an ideological agenda and compound their institutional power.
Although no hard numbers exist on the exact size of the industry, the “DEIfication” of America” is clear. From Rochester, New York, to San Diego, Calif., cash-strapped municipalities have found the funds to staff DEI offices. Startups and small companies that once relied on their own employees to promote an inclusive culture now feel compelled to hire diversity consultants and sensitivity trainers to set them straight. The field is so vast it has born a sub-field: recruiting agencies for DEI consultants. So-called “authenticity readers” tell publishing companies what are acceptable depictions of marginalized groups and who is entitled to tell their stories. Master’s degree and certificate programs in DEI leadership at schools like Cornell, Georgetown, and Yale offer new and lucrative bureaucratic careers.
At Ohio State University, for example, the average DEI staff salary is $78,000, according to public information gathered by economist Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute – about $103,000 with fringe benefits. Not to be outdone by its Big Ten conference rival, the University of Michigan pays its diversity officers $94,000 on average – about $124,000 with benefits. Until he retired from the position last summer, Michigan’s chief diversity officer, Robert Sellers, was paid over $431,000 a year. His wife, Tabbye Chavous, now has the job, at the vice provost rank and a salary of $380,000.
For smaller organizations that cannot afford a full-time equity officer, there are other options for shoring up social justice bona fides – namely, working with any of the hundreds of DEI consulting agencies that have risen like mushrooms after a night’s rain, most of them led by “BIPOC” millennials. With some firms, the social justice goals are unmistakable. The Racial Equity Institute is “committed to the work of anti-racist transformation” and challenging “patterns of power” on behalf of big-name clients like the Harvard Business School, Ben & Jerry’s, and the American Civil Liberties Union. With others, the appeal has less to do with social change than exploring marketing opportunities and creating a “"with-it” company culture, where progressive politics complement the office foosball tables and kombucha on tap.
“Diversity wins!” declares the management consultancy McKinsey & Company. Certainly diversity officers have been winning, although opposition is building in Florida and elsewhere, where the wider woke agenda that includes DEI has advanced. Even minimally trained practitioners are in high demand, and signs of their influence abound.
Wells Fargo offers cheaper loans to companies that meet racial and gender quotas. Private equity and venture capital firms like BlackRock and KKR declare their commitment to racial “equity.” Bank of America tells its employees they are implicated in a white supremacist system. Lockheed Martin asks its executives to “deconstruct their white male privilege.” Major tech companies like Google publicly chart the “Black+ and Latinx+” people they’ve hired, and assure the public that Artificial Intelligence will prioritize the DEI political agenda. ChapGPT, an AI model that can generate remarkably cogent writing, is been designed with a liberal bias, summarily rejecting requests that don’t conform to the algorithm’s notions of “positivity, equality and inclusivity.” Disney instructs employees to question colorblind beliefs espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Fire departments are told to lower their physical fitness requirements for women. Similarly, universities are dropping standardized tests to yield more admissions of certain minorities (typically not Asians). And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hoping to award more “films of color,” inspects Oscar-nominated films for cast and crew diversity. (Netflix has been a notable exception, last May laying off dozens of employees working on such issues. Under Elon Musk, Twitter is also flouting woke orthodoxies.)
In education, college students are required to take DEI-prescribed courses. Community college employees in California are evaluated on their DEI competencies. Loyalty oaths to the DEI dogma are demanded of professors. Applicants to tenure-track positions, including those in math and physics, are rejected out of hand if their mandatory DEI statements are found wanting. Increasingly, DEI administrators are involved in hiring, promotion, and course content decisions.
“Academic departments are always thinking, ‘We need to run this by Diversity,’” says Glenn Ricketts, public affairs officer for the National Association of Scholars.
The industry’s reach can also be seen in the many Orwellian examples of exclusion in the name of inclusion, of reprisals in the name of tolerance. Invariably, they feature an agitated clutch of activists browbeating administrators and executives into apologizing for an alleged trespass against an ostensibly vulnerable constituency. When that has been deemed insufficient or when senior executives have sensed a threat to their own legitimacy, they’ve offered up scapegoats on false or flimsy pretexts. That might be a decades-long New York Times reporter, a head curator at a major art museum, an adjunct art history professor, a second-year law student, or a janitor at a pricey New England college. (The list is long.)
Often enough, the inquisitions have turned into public relations debacles for major institutions. But despite the intense criticism and public chagrin, the movement marches on.
The expansion “happened gradually at first, and people didn’t recognize the tremendous growth,” Perry says. “But after George Floyd, it really accelerated. It became supercharged. And nobody wanted to criticize it because they would been seen as racists.”
Not playing along with the DEI protocols can end an academic career. For example, when Gordon Klein, a UCLA accounting lecturer, dismissed a request to grade black students more leniently in 2020, the school’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office intervened to have him put on leave and banned from campus. A counter-protest soon reversed that. However, when Klein also declined to write a DEI statement explaining how his work helped “underrepresented and underserved populations,” he was denied a standard merit raise, despite excellent teaching evaluations. (He is suing for defamation and other alleged harms.)
Scores of professors and students have also been subject to capricious, secretive, and career-destroying investigations by Title IX officers, who work hand-in-glove with DEI administrators, focusing on gender discrimination and sexual harassment. As writer and former Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis recounts in “Unwanted Advances,” individuals can be brought up on charges without any semblance of due process, as she was, simply for “wrongthink” – that is, for having expressed thoughts that someone found objectionable. With activist-administrators assuming the role of grand inquisitors, “the traditional ideal of the university – as a refuge for complexity, a setting for free exchange of ideas – is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear,” she writes. And it would appear that students and professors would have it no other way. By and large, they want more bureaucratic intervention and regulations, not less.
As more institutions create DEI offices and hire ever more managers to run them, the enterprise inevitably becomes self-justifying. According to Parkinson’s Law, bureaucracy needs to create more work, however unnecessary or unproductive, to keep growing. Growth itself becomes the overriding imperative. The DEI movement needs the pretext of inequities, real or contrived, to maintain and expand its bureaucratic presence. As Malcolm Kyeyume, a Swedish commentator and self-described Marxist, writes: “Managerialism requires intermediation and intermediation requires a justifying ideology.”
From the 2021 Heritage Foundation report "Diversity University: DEI Bloat in the Academy."
Ten years ago, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg found that the ratio of administrators to students had doubled since 1975. With the expansion of DEI, there are more administrators than ever, most of whom have no academic background. On average, according to a Heritage Foundation study, major universities across the country currently employ 45 “diversicrats,” as Perry calls them. With few exceptions, they outnumber the faculty in history departments, often two or three to one.
At Michigan, Perry wasn’t able to find anyone with the words “diversity,” “equity,” or “inclusion” in his job title until 2004; and for the next decade, such positions generally remained centralized at the provost level, working for the university as a whole. But in 2016, Michigan president Mark Schlissel announced that the university would invest $85 million in DEI programs. Soon after, equity offices began to “metastasize like a cancer,” Perry says, across every college, department, and division, from the college of pharmacy to the school’s botanical garden and arboretum, where a full-time DEI manager is now “institutionalizing co-liberatory futures.” All the while, black enrollment at Michigan has dropped by nearly 50% since 1996.
Despite the titles and the handsome salaries, most DEI administrative positions are support staff jobs, not teaching or research positions. In contrast with the provisions of Title IX, DEI is not mandated by law; it is entirely optional. DEI officers nevertheless exert enormous influence, in part because so few people oppose them. The thinking seems to be that if you’re against the expanding and intrusive diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda, you must be for the opposite – discrimination, inequality, and exclusion.
“By telling themselves that they’re making the world a better place, they get to throw their weight around,” says Ricketts. “They have a lot of money, a lot of leverage, and a lot of people who just don’t want to butt heads with them – people who just want to go along to get along. People who are thinking, ‘If we embrace DEI, nobody can accuse us of being racist or whatever.’ They’re trying to cover their backsides.”
Some organizations, it seems, are merely trying to keep up with cultural trends.
Consider Tucson, Ariz., where diversity is not a buzzy talking point but an everyday reality. With a population that is 44% Hispanic, 43% white and only 4.6% black, the city has had no major racial incidents in decades. Yet like hundreds of others communities, Tucson suddenly decided in direct response to the George Floyd murder 1,600 miles away that it needed an office of equity. To many observers, it seemed that the city was just “getting jiggy with it,” pretending to solve a problem that didn’t exist. After a two-year search, it hired Laurice Walker, the youngest chief equity officer in the country, at age 28, with a salary of $145,000 – nearly three and a half times what Tucson’s mayor, Regina Romero, earns.
Not that the mayor is complaining. “I think this position is about putting an equity lens into all that we do,” Romero said in May, by which she means – well, nobody is quite sure what “equity” means, particularly with respect to federal legislation clearly prohibiting positive and negative discrimination alike.
But trying to get out in front of the DEI train can also result in getting run over by it.
When the city council of Asheville, N.C., hired Kimberlee Archie as its first equity and inclusion manager, its members probably didn’t anticipate being accused of having a “white supremacy culture.” After all, city manager Debra Campbell is black, as are three of the seven women making up the city council. The council had cut police funding and unanimously approved a reparations resolution. Archie nevertheless complained that her colleagues still weren’t doing enough to advance racial equity. “What I describe it as is kind of like the bobblehead effect,” she said in 2020. “We'd be in meetings … and people's heads are nodding as if they are in agreement. However, their actions didn't back that up.”
The drama in western North Carolina illustrates a dilemma that organizations face going forward. They can pursue an aggressive political agenda in which white supremacy is considered the country’s defining ethos (per The New York Times’ "1619 Project") and present discrimination as the only remedy to past discrimination (see Ibram X. Kendi). Or they take the path of least resistance, paying rhetorical tribute to DEI enforcers as the “bobbleheads” that Archie disparages but doing little more than that. After all, they still have universities, businesses, and sanitation departments to run, alumni and investors to satisfy, students to teach, research to pursue, roads to be paved, sewage to be treated, costs to be minimized, and profits to be maximized.
Perhaps, too, senior administrators and executives are beginning to realize that, despite the moral panic of 2020, the most culturally diverse country in the world might not be irredeemably racist, even if it’s no longer acceptable to say so. The United States twice elected an African American man named Barack Hussein Obama as president. His first attorney general was a black man, who would be replaced by a black woman. His vice president would pick a woman of mixed race as his running mate. The mayors of 12 of the 20 largest U.S. cities are black, including the four largest cities. Likewise, many of the people whom Americans most admire – artists, athletes, musicians, scientists, writers – are black. Lately most winners of MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants are people of color. Gay marriage is legal, and enjoys wide public support, even among conservatives. The disabled, neurodivergent, and gender-divergent are applauded for their courage and resilience. And nonwhite groups, particularly Asians, Latinos, and African immigrants, have been remarkably upwardly mobile (often without official favoritism).
Like other DEI advocates, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education declined to answer questions for this article. Its officers are too busy traveling to conferences to do so, a spokeswoman said.
Clearly, troubling disparities persist for African Americans. What’s much less clear is that racism, systemic or not, remains the principal cause of these disparities or that a caste of equity commissars will reverse them. And now, it would seem that narrowing these disparities runs counter to their self-interest.
“I don’t want to deny that there’s genuine goodwill on the part of some of these programs,” says Prof. Schuck, stressing that he hasn’t examined their inner workings. “But some of these conflicts are not capable of being solved by these gestures. They have to justify their own jobs, their own budgets, however. And that creates the potential for a lot of mischief. They end up trafficking in controversy and righteousness, which produces the deformities we’ve been seeing in policies and conduct.”
Still, to hear DEI officers, it’s they who are beleaguered and overwhelmed. Yes, they have important-sounding jobs and rather vague responsibilities. They are accountable to nobody, really. Rather than fighting “the man,” they now are the man, or at least the gender-neutral term for man in this context. But this also means that they are starting to catch flak, particularly as the evidence mounts that the institutions they advise and admonish aren’t actually becoming more fair, open, and welcoming. They’re not even becoming more ethnically diverse.
Like other DEI advocates, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education has declined to answer questions for this article. Its officers are too busy traveling to conferences to do so, a spokeswoman said.
But at a recent association meeting, Anneliese Singh of Tulane University invoked Rosa Parks’ refusal to take a back seat to discrimination. Although Parks was a housekeeper and diversicrats have comfortable university sinecures, their struggles are analogously distressing, Singh suggested. The latter, too, are on the “front lines” in a harrowing war. However, she said, her colleagues needed to remember what mattered most: Looking out for themselves.
“It is not self-indulgence,” she said, now quoting the feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lord. “It is self-preservation. And that is an act of political warfare.”
For the moment, it’s a war Singh and her DEI colleagues are clearly winning.