Tuesday, Oct. 03, 2023|
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In our country, privilege for one often means oppression for another. The anti-racism movement acknowledges this reality — making the movement a target for politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last week signed into law a bill blocking public colleges from using federal or state funding on “diversity, equity and inclusion” programming.
This is a shift away from the relatively positive reception diversity efforts have enjoyed over the last two decades. Indeed, diversity initiatives were accepted because they maintained the silence about white privilege. The emergence of an anti-racism movement, however, broke that silence, and now even diversity efforts pose a threat to racial hierarchy in America.
The value of diversity was never more loudly trumpeted than after the 2003 Supreme Court case about race in college admissions. In an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court affirmed diversity as a compelling state interest that justified the consideration of race in admissions processes. Sustained monitoring would ensure consideration of race imparted the least harm possible to “other innocent persons competing for the benefit.” The term “innocent persons,” a quote from a 1978 affirmative action case, was code for white people.
In reality, there are no legitimate claims to innocence for those who benefit from white supremacy. Racial inequality in education is sustained by artificial district lines, school finance disparities and student tracking that enable white people to hoard high-quality K-12 education and access to elite colleges and universities.
Instead of setting the government’s sights on addressing such inequities, the Supreme Court affirmed diversity as a way to enhance learning in predominantly white institutions of higher education. The banner of “diversity” did the trick, allowing colleges and universities to consider those who lose on account of race without having to name those who win.
The give-and-take of race and racism, however, has been made increasingly clear over the last 20 years, coming into acute relief after the murder of George Floyd during the COVID-19 pandemic. The visibility of anti-racism education has increased as schools, corporations and other organizations committed to countering racial injustice.
In a landscape of deepening racial responsibility, the embrace of terms such as “equity” and “inclusion” alongside diversity pushes past demographic representation or positive workplace and classroom dynamics, compelling us all to ask: What have people of color been denied that white people have received? What would it look like to insist that marginalized communities finally enjoy resources and opportunities sufficient to thrive? How might power be more fairly shared with the racially excluded in our democracy? What are the obligations of white people as we move toward a more racially just society?
For a moment Americans seemed ready for more substantive, and frank, engagement with race that anti-racism education demanded, and that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives might finally engage.
Unfortunately, the moment was short-lived. By December 2021, at least 54 state-level bills had been introduced or adopted seeking to control how race and American history (as well as sex and gender) could be taught in American schools.
Florida has been a prime example. Last year Florida passed the “Stop WOKE Act,” banning public schools from teaching concepts such as white privilege, prohibiting required diversity and inclusion training in businesses, and proscribing instruction that might compel students to feel responsibility, guilt or anguish for benefits incurred from racial injustices, now and in the past.
Earlier this year, the governor characterized a leaked draft of the College Board’s new AP course on African American studies as “indoctrination.” It is no coincidence that the critiqued draft included critical race theory, Black feminism and Black Lives Matter — topics that go beyond demographic representation to raise substantive issues about power and who benefits from it.
The backlash against anti-racism initiatives is a scramble to avoid responsibility for the problem of race. Florida’s new law goes beyond critiquing ideas about race to silencing and censoring discourse about racial history in order to avoid accountability.
Bans on anti-racism education, diversity programming or any other attempts to honestly address race in the United States function by denying marginalized groups opportunities to pursue justice and by ensuring that white Americans don’t have to confront the injustices that have been maintained in their names.
Although Florida’s attack on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is a first, given the enduring appeal of white racial innocence, it certainly won’t be the last.
Osamudia James is a professor of law at the University of North Carolina.
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