How the Right Uses the Bogeyman of “DEI” to Call for Upending Civil Rights Law

“We fight DEI because we see it as a mortal threat to the American Way of Life.”

Mother Jones illustration; Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

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On Sunday, the New York Times published a front-page investigation into the campaign by a cadre of think-tank-ists on the intellectual right to push state officials to expunge diversity, equity, and inclusion programs from higher education. 

Using a trove of documents, the report focused on Texas and efforts by the Claremont Institute—a think-tank that has tried to make the case for Trumpism (if not always Trump himself)—to end DEI. The Times‘ investigation chronicled Claremont’s officials and their allies’ back and forth. It shows their attempt to frame and brand their campaign. And it shows the aspiration of framing DEI—those “sweet-sounding, civically engaging words that seem unobjectionable and uncontroversial,” as Scott Yenor, Claremont’s senior director of state coalitions, put it—as a broadly pernicious ideology. 

The uncovered documents expose the underlying racist, misogynistic, and homophobic worldviews animating the activists’ larger cross-state crusade to eradicate “the leftist social justice revolution.” But, perhaps most interestingly, the investigation makes clear that the hope is to make DEI a synecdoche for a supposed regime of cultural decay—blaming civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s for a grand decline in American life. 

In this way, DEI follows Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the never-exhausting alphabet soup of acronyms-turned-bogeyman deployed by the American right to call for a rollback in civil rights protections. With its whiff of HR vernacular, DEI has been set up as the way leftist policies have been secretly adopted.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, recently wrote in the New Yorker, DEI is proving even more effective for the right than CRT. It sounds somewhat less abstract and can be extrapolated beyond education helping to “build a broader coalition by tapping into a common-sense perception of its inherent unfairness.” In waging war against it, activists on the right have aptly weaponized any criticism of DEI initiatives as evidence of “ideological rot.”

It is worth noting the response from Claremont to this fight being featured in the Times: doubling down. “We fight DEI because we see it as a mortal threat to the American Way of Life, wrote the Claremont Institute’s President Ryan P. Williams and Yenor in a response. They make clear that at the root of the problem is a “reigning civil rights ideology” stemming from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and its “administrative and jurisprudential offspring” that have “warped American law and culture and traded one set of racial preferences for another.”

The emails might have been secret. But this entire campaign is, at this point, basically public. Some on the right are increasingly vocal and transparent in their pursuit to discredit the landmark Civil Rights Act.

As Wired reported, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA called the legislation a “huge mistake” that produced “permanent DEI-type bureaucracy.” Christopher Rufo suggested the “ideological capture” of the Civil Rights Act does not mean it should be ended—instead, he argues it could be “reformed” in the name of a “new civil rights agenda” and for a “regime of full colorblind equality.” (Such changes, according to Rufo, should include amending the language of the legislation to state that it doesn’t allow for “state-sanctioned discrimination toward any racial group, whether in the minority or the majority.”) 

In their retort, Williams and Yenor also emphasize their opposition to identity politics and “modern feminism and the radical homosexual and transexual rights movements.” 

Yenor has run into these politics in a personal way. A Boise State University professor, he said in a 2021 speech that “independent women are more medicated, meddlesome, and quarrelsome than women need to be,” prompting Title IX complaints. Yenor charged that “mechanisms that secure civil rights” were becoming “threats to free inquiry and the freedom of the mind.”

There is way of thinking about anti-DEI as a “dog whistle.” But, increasingly, what we are seeing on the right is a very open plan to explain a direct attack on social progress. Is there anything, really, that needs decoding here?

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