Things to consider before you dismiss DEI

A look at common hot takes on a hot issue

Intellectual and political fads come and go. The latest fad, on both the right and left, involves diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI; critical race theory, or CRT; and wokeness.

These overlapping terms once had specific meanings, but their definitions have expanded, as often happens with hot-button issues. In the interest of simplicity, I’ll just use the term DEI. My point today is to explain why the right — largely populated by white Americans — should not, in its rush to condemn all things related to DEI, neglect to take the problems of Black Americans seriously.

DEI deals with more than Black Americans, of course, but I will focus on them for now. DEI advocates would say they wish to improve life for this population, and they’re not wrong to do so. Compared with white Americans, Black Americans have shorter and less healthy lives. They have less income and wealth; they do less well in school and spend more time in prison. Americans of all stripes, including those on the right, have long espoused the idea of upward mobility — the American Dream. It’s something too few Black Americans participate in.

So if Black Americans, on average, lag white Americans, shouldn’t we take these disparities seriously? We don’t need strict numerical equality across racial or ethnic groups, but we can do much better than we have.

Any mention of racial issues, including DEI, raises many complaints and objections. I’ll address a few here. In later columns, I will discuss how we got here and where to go next.

“I’m not a racist. It doesn’t matter to me if someone is white, Black, purple, or green.”

Great. Shouldn’t you be concerned, anyway?

“Stop trying to guilt me. Nobody in my family owned slaves.”

Guilt need not have anything to do with this. If you broke something, yes, you should fix it. But if the pipes in your next-door neighbor’s house burst and flooded the house, it doesn’t matter why they broke. Your neighbor needs help; you should provide it if you count yourself a moral person and you can help.

“Racists will be racists; it’s a matter of the heart, and it’s on the decline.”

Yes, racist hearts are problematic, and it’s good that bigotry has been in retreat. Interracial marriage continues to grow, and few people are willing to admit to racist attitudes in public opinion surveys. But that’s not the end of the story. DEI talks about “systemic racism.” I think there’s something there.

Systemic racism? Slavery is gone and so is Jim Crow.”

What would you call a law that prohibits integrated schools if not an example of systemic racism? Many other government practices actively put Black Americans at a disadvantage, too. Many of them, like segregation, have been dismantled. It’s arguable that at least some of their effects continue, and that would happen even if nobody had a racist thought today. How long the effects last, or how important they are, we can debate.

“DEI teaches people to hate each other, based on skin color.”

If that’s true – and I’m not convinced it is — the response shouldn’t be to shout it down or ignore it altogether. Take a page from the 1960s Civil Rights movement, which did not return evil for evil. Instead, do some good. If that doesn’t appeal, consider the stopped clock. DEI advocates are not wrong in everything they say.

“DEI is anti-American.”

Sorry, can you be more specific?

“DEI teaches people to hate America.”

Perhaps some DEI advocates do; if that’s so, they should be grateful they live in a time and place that allows for dissent. It’s not the usual condition in human history for critics. But to the point. Is it hateful to acknowledge someone’s shortcomings? If you acknowledge your mother’s faults, does that mean you hate her? We can love America and acknowledge where we have gone wrong.

“DEI teaches Marxism. That’s why we should oppose it.”

Which flavor of Marxism are you talking about? The one that says people with wealth and income tend to have more political power — and are not afraid to use it to preserve what they have? Can we be honest and say that this is as true as the day is long? It’s called self-interest, something not in short supply.

“DEI says that capitalism is evil and racist.”

Here, DEI is wrong. A fully functioning free-market society (my preferred term) with a rule of just laws has done more to lift masses of people out of poverty than any economic system ever known. Certainly, societies that might be called capitalist — including the United States — have acted badly at times by denying the benefits of the market and just laws to some people. We should acknowledge that and look for ways to eliminate any government-imposed barriers people have — including Black Americans who may be dealing with the after-effects of laws and practices once implemented with a racist intent.

“DEI promotes the idea of ‘White Privilege.’ I may be white but I didn’t have any privilege. I came from nothing and busted my butt to get to where I am today.”

I can sympathize. My family wasn’t on welfare, but I grew up in a single-parent household and lacked many of the benefits that some contemporaries had. In college (I was the first in my family to attend), I felt disadvantaged compared to my classmates from Birmingham and other wealthy cities in Michigan.

But enough of me. Imagine that your life will suddenly be changed and you will be reborn as a 2-year old. Depending on a flip of the coin, you will either be a white person, in a white family, or a Black person, in a Black family. Think of the statistics about wealth, income, health and so forth. Which situation would give you an advantage in life?

I do not advocate that anyone wholeheartedly embrace DEI or CRT. But these ideas would not exist if there were not some unfortunate realities in American life. Those who care about the future of the republic ought to listen before they rush to attack — or panic.

John LaPlante is contributing editor and a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.