Many conservatives celebrated the resignation of Harvard University’s first president of color, Claudine Gay, as a triumph against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in higher education. The anti-DEI crusader Christopher Rufo posted the following immediately after she resigned:
The conflation of Gay’s embattled presidency with broader DEI efforts is the latest in the political right’s intensifying attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in American institutions. According to data from GDELT, Fox News mentioned the topic over 1,000 times on air in 2023 – a five-fold increase from its 216 mentions in 2022. Prominent Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, have all repeatedly criticized DEI initiatives. And Oklahoma recently joined Florida, Texas, and Iowa in banning state universities and/or agencies from having DEI bureaucracies.
The backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion frequently frames DEI initiatives as tantamount to anti-white indoctrination. Donald Trump, for example, said he banned racial sensitivity training from federal agencies back in 2020 because “it’s racist.” DeSantis described diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as “discrimination, indoctrination, and exclusion” back in May 2023 when signing a Florida bill into law banning DEI initiatives from public colleges in the state. And Elon Musk recently wrote, “DEI must DIE. The point was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination.”
Those attacks should surely resonate with a Republican Party base that views discrimination against whites as a much more serious societal problem than discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, I noted back in 2021 how similar mischaracterizations of “critical race theory” as anti-white reflected the growing potency of white racial grievances in Republican Party politics.
Yet, while diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are unsurprisingly unpopular with Republicans, the figure below shows that public opinion was squarely on the side of DEI in all three of the 2023 polls that I found on the topic.
A majority (56%) of those surveyed in a February 2023 Pew poll said that focusing on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is mainly a good thing, compared to just 16% who thought it was mainly a bad thing. DEI initiatives were similarly popular in a March 2023 YouGov poll, with support for having them on college campuses doubling opposition (56% to 28% respectively). A plurality of respondents in that same poll supported the government mandating DEI initiatives at public universities.
Banning DEI initiatives, on the other hand, was exceedingly unpopular. Two-thirds of Americans surveyed in a March 2023 USA Today/Ipsos poll opposed prohibiting corporations from requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Most Republicans (52%) in the survey even opposed banning corporations from requiring their employees to complete training around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Public support for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs is almost certainly buoyed by the fact that very few Americans have had bad personal experiences with DEI. According to the same February 2023 Pew poll, only 9% of Americans who’ve participated in DEI initiatives at work (52% of those who work for companies with 10 or more employees) said that this training had a negative impact on the workplace. In stark contrast with the political right’s current moral panic over diversity, equity, and inclusion, 57% percent of workers surveyed by Pew reported positive experiences with DEI training.
The strong public support for these initiatives is also consistent with DEI’s stated purpose of advancing equal opportunities for groups who have historically been excluded from higher education and discriminated against in the workplace. After all, public opinion has long supported the principle of racial equality in employment and education.
But the mischaracterization of DEI initiatives as “discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination” poses a big threat to public support for these programs in 2024. The American public has historically opposed policies aimed at achieving equality of outcomes (e.g., affirmative action). Opposition to DEI will inevitably increase if conservative activists succeed in their attempts to frame all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as discriminating against white Americans.