By trying to demolish DEI initiatives, Va. Republicans dig in on history’s wrong side

Diversity initiatives exist because injustice indisputably existed and continues. Those initiatives, like all government endeavors, are imperfect, but where abuses exist, address them — legislatively, if necessary.

May 8, 2023 12:09 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (right) shakes hands with House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and talks with other Republican lawmakers shortly after House Republicans approved legislation ending school mask mandates. (Photo by Kate Masters)

It’s a drumbeat these days in the party of Big MAGA: Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is something to be despised, defeated and destroyed. In the past couple of weeks, Virginia’s most powerful Republicans have joined the parade by pandering in a legislative election year to the GOP’s white, anti-DEI base.

First, the state’s chief diversity officer, Martin D. Brown, told a gathering of faculty and staff at Virginia Military Institute — a school riven recently by allegations of racism, sexism and resistance to diversity and inclusion  — that diversity is the “wrong mission” and is “dead.”

The comments, as first reported by The Washington Post, are stunning considering that Brown is specifically tasked under a 2020 law to advance diverse, equitable and inclusive policies throughout state government.

Imagine the superintendent of the Virginia State police telling motorists, “Feel free to disregard the speed limit, we’re not going to stop you!” Brown and Youngkin, who hired Brown in November, have a legal duty to faithfully execute Virginia’s laws. Brown conceded as much.

“We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore. It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility, treating — living the golden rule, right?” the Post, citing a recording of the event last month, quoted Brown as saying.

Brown may not like the work he’s paid to do. If he and the governor can bring a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly around to their point of view, the law can be changed through the due process of representative democracy. That’s one of the things November’s election is about.

Until that happens, Youngkin could (and should) command Brown to do the work of the commonwealth’s chief diversity officer rather than undermining it. Or he could fire him, as many have implored him to do. Among them is Youngkin’s predecessor, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, America’s first elected Black governor and a Democrat who had previously been a vocal supporter of Youngkin’s.

Youngkin, instead, is siding with Brown and traveling the state articulating his consistent position against DEI programs, saying he supports equal opportunity but not “equal outcomes.”

Asked for elaboration, Youngkin’s press secretary, Macaulay Porter, referred to remarks the governor made in a streamed interview with the Milken Institute shortly after Brown’s comments at VMI. (Go to the 14:50 mark.)

“These concepts — five, seven, 10 years ago — were laudable. It was about creating inclusive environments where people felt like … they had access and could be engaged. It was about making sure that we understood that diversity of thought, which comes from diversity of life experience, results in better outcomes, and all the academic data points to this. What we’ve seen, of course, is that this has gone in a very, very excessive area where all of a sudden, the idea that we should compromise excellence, we should compromise merit, in pursuit of a goal for equal outcomes is the real challenge. And we see it manifested in real decisions,” he said.

Then last week, the Republican leaders of Virginia’s House of Delegates picked up the baton.

Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, asked the General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, to study how non-instructional administrative staff, “particularly Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) positions,” contribute to rising costs of college education in Virginia. The development was first reported Friday by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“One such report stated that approximately 1,100 in-state students could receive a full-tuition scholarship for the amount spent on DEI salaries,” Gilbert and Kilgore wrote to JLARC executive director Hal Greer. They were citing a Virginia Association of Scholars report titled “Should Virginians Pay for University ‘Diversity’ Leftism? ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ and Leftist Ideology at Virginia Universities.”

The Republican Party has become a refuge for seething white antipathy toward anything that calls out the wrongs done for hundreds of years to generations of African Americans and other Americans of color.

The modern GOP has been clear in its unambiguous appeal to aggrieved and frightened white, straight men for a long time. But until recently, the party — not all Republicans, but a significant and noisy element — avoided making it as harshly clear as it has since 2020. At times, it plays out like a contest to see who among them can most forcefully plant a flag in a pre-1954 Jim Crow America and drag the rest of the country back there.

In Tennessee, the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives undertook the self-defeating act of expelling two Black members who, along with a white colleague, disrupted House proceedings to protest the state’s liberal gun rights laws after six people were shot dead at a private school a few miles from the state Capitol. The white representative survived her expulsion attempt by one vote, something she attributed to her skin color.

Republican-ruled states, especially in the South, have effectively canceled any public school history curricula that provide a frank accounting of their states’ and the nation’s shameful history of slavery and the institutionalized discrimination that endured long after Appomattox Court House and the 13th Amendment.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott provided a telling insight about his regard for “the others” recently when he referred to five members of a Honduran family, including women and children, allegedly slain by a neighbor with an assault-style rifle last week as “illegal aliens.” The governor’s mouthpieces have since attempted damage control, but his callous tweet endures in infamy.

Diversity initiatives exist because injustice indisputably existed and continues. Those initiatives, like all government endeavors, are imperfect, but where abuses exist, address them — legislatively, if necessary.

But defying existing law and taking a sledgehammer to DEI to leverage white grievance in an election year is reprehensible and risks leaving the party that brought about the emancipation of enslaved Americans mired on the wrong side of modern history.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]