Advocates sound alarm after shuttering of House office promoting diversity

Advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs are sounding the alarm after a key department on Capitol Hill was dissolved amid backlash to the movement.

The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) was disbanded this week as part of a government spending bill passed earlier this month, the office’s president, Sesha Joi Moon, told CNN. It’s the latest blow to the DEI movement, which has come under mounting criticism from Republicans over the past several years.

Now, supporters of DEI are sounding the alarm, warning that the elimination of such programs and offices will roll back progress made when it comes to fighting discrimination in various areas of society.

“The elimination of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion is a tremendous loss, not only for the U.S. House of Representatives, but for the advancement of equity and opportunity in America overall,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said in a statement to The Hill.

Beatty, the first-ever chair of the Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, has been a strong proponent of DEI practices as limitations on the programs have spread throughout the country.

“ODI’s dissolution is a significant setback in the conservative war on D&I, endangering the creation of policies that will promote opportunity and uplift underserved communities throughout this country,” Beatty added.

Advocates for DEI policies and programs say the practice helps close systemic barriers that keep people of color, women and LGBTQ communities from accessing career and education opportunities.

Janet Stovall, Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at NeuroLeadership Institute, said focus on these programs picked up in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, an event that led to wider discussions involving representation in the workforce, among other issues.

But the effort to promote DEI programs also sparked backlash, especially from the right, members of whom argue that they push a divisive left-wing agenda under the guise of advocating for inclusion.

Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) last year introduced a bill to abolish ODI, saying it promoted “cultural Marxism” in the workplace.

“These offices start with the premise that white people are inheritably racist and oppressive,” he said at the time. “The House of Representatives does not need bureaucrats promoting this divisive ideology.”

High-profile Republicans across the country have similarly criticized DEI programs, turning it into a political weapon for the second straight election cycle in a row.

“Whenever you have something that looks like a significant advance, there will be a pushback,” Stovall told The Hill. “When you think about what happened in 2020, race had not been discussed in the workplace that much since the Civil Rights Movement. And of course, when you move the big rock in the United States, it always affects every other aspect of diversity there is.”

But Stovall said the effort to stifle DEI will only hurt corporate America.

She pointed out that when it comes to racial diversity, companies that don’t practice racial diversity could alienate 30 percent of their talent pool — Black, Latino and Asian Americans. Women, she added, make up 51 percent of that talent pool.

“There’s no company that’s going to make it and thrive in the world if you ignore essentially 80 percent of the talent pool,” Stovall said. “You run the risk of reducing your talent pool, the quality of your talent pool and you run the risk of inhibiting your innovation.”

Though Black Americans make up slightly more than 13 percent of the country’s population, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau Data, only 5.9 percent of all chief executives in the U.S. are Black. About 85 percent of all chief executives are white, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These disparities persist in federal positions, too.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which was instrumental in advocating for the creation of the ODI, found in 2022 that though the U.S. population is almost 40 percent people of color, only about 18 percent of all top House staff are people of color.

LaShonda Brenson, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, warned that the dissolution of the ODI has placed democracy itself at risk.

“[W]e are not just losing an office; we are losing ground in our collective pursuit of a truly representative democracy,” Brenson said.

The dissolution of the office comes as Republican lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced or passed more than 100 bills this legislative session to either restrict or regulate DEI initiatives, according to an NBC News analysis.

Last May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill into law banning the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on DEI programs.

“If you look at the way this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination,” DeSantis said at the time.

And, after the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision to overturn affirmative action, 13 Republican attorneys general sent a letter to Fortune 100 corporations warning them to refrain from using racial preferences in hiring and promotion decisions.

Meanwhile, in December, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) garnered scrutiny when he said that the signing of diversity statements as part of the hiring process were “bordering on evil” and that his state would no longer have “diversity statements that you have to sign to get hired.”

Cox later said his comments were taken out of context by the media and stressed that he supported diversity.

“The patent disrespect that many of my Republican colleagues have demonstrated towards people of color only reinforces the need for inclusive policies,” Beatty argued following the disbandment of the diversity office.

As the battle over DEI continues, some have tried to point out that DEI policies have shown to be beneficial for companies.

In 2022, a study by the University of Georgia and Stevens Institute of Technology found that firms appointing Black chief executives on average saw their market capitalization jump 3.1 percent within three days of the announcement.

And contrary to worries that unqualified candidates would receive promotions simply for being part of a minority community, the study found that 93 percent of Black CEOs have advanced degrees, compared to 53 percent of white executives, and 1.6 more years of education than their white peers.

Pro-DEI advocates have been working to dispel the idea that DEI policies put unqualified people in positions of power, but the anti-DEI movement has begun weaponizing the term against Black leaders.

After the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge earlier this week, some took to social media to blame the tragedy on Mayor Brandon Scott (D), labeling him the “DEI mayor.”

Scott said those comments come from critics who “don’t have the courage to say the n-word.”

Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) brushed off such rhetoric as “pathetic conspiracy theories.”

“It’s disgusting and irresponsible for people not only to try and exploit a tragedy like this but to put lies on top of it, apparently for partisan political gain, at a time when people are still hurting from the deaths that were caused by this accident and all the negative consequences that have flowed from it,” Ivey told The Hill.

Stovall said the narrative around diversity, equity and inclusion has to change in order for the true benefit of the practice to be seen.

“The problem is, especially in the corporate world, is that we see everything as a zero-sum game,” she said. “We think that if one person gets something, it means I lose something. It’s a scarcity mentality. What we really need to understand is that if we believe in diversity, if we habituate inclusion, if we build systems that sustain equity, everybody benefits.”

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