Kevin M. Korous: Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t bad words

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz speaks at a press conference announcing the creation of the Utah Diversity and Inclusion Commission at the Utah State Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022.

It wasn’t long ago that we collectively shared the value of inclusivity. In 2020, the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion was released, in which former Gov. Gary Herbert said, “We can’t sit back and ignore the problem as if somehow it will magically go away.”

In 2022, the Utah Legislature publicly supported a bipartisan Utah Diversity and Inclusion Commission to implement diversity curriculum in public schools. During the press conference, State Rep. Mike Schultz said, “This is about bettering ourselves and educating future generations in the hope of finding more compassion and understanding.”

Yet here we stand defending our ground to even say the words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” without being cautioned in the workplace and incorrectly associated with Marxist ideology by far-right leaning conservatives. We have watched a faction of the Republican Party take a U-Turn at DEI Avenue disguised under a colorblindness approach to diversity, which will ultimately fall short of eradicating racial inequality.

The public ridicule on progress towards racial justice by Republican legislators is not unsuspected. Politicians have long leveraged race to pursue their goals at the cost of those from other racial backgrounds who could also benefit. For example, racial stereotypes like “welfare queen” have been used to disinform the public on federal aid programs, which provide a safety-net for working- and middle-class families.

The anti-DEI propaganda is no different.

Race has been employed to justify and maintain social hierarchies creating false guarantees that benefit those in power, such as loosening gun control laws and slashing funding for public schools and social services — see “Dying of Whiteness” as an example.

Evoking racial conflict creates the perception of scarcity, which in turn creates intergroup conflict. For example, anti-immigrant sentiment signals the perception of increased competition and subsequent job market threat even though immigrants can help strengthen our economic growth.

And while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made national news for his “Declaration of Economic Independence,” which claims the “elitist” and “ruling class” have exploited average working class Americans while at the same time amplifying anti-immigrant and anti-DEI sentiment; we see examples of this divisive language at work right here in Utah.

State Sen. John Johnson’s bill during the 2023 legislative session sought to ban DEI offices in higher education. His bill was met with strong opposition from our community and was tabled for interim study. One common talking point for Sen. Johnson is the Supreme Court’s decision on Affirmative Action. Like others, he draws the focus on race to falsely generalize that DEI is unconstitutional without providing substantial evidence to support these accusations within Utah’s public universities.

It is not just race that is currently being used to create divisions among communities who otherwise should be working together to elect leaders and advocate for policies that can benefit all members. The target of youth and adults who identify as transgender is another example that creates status hierarchies within the working class and also within LGBTQ+ communities. Yet, targeting the transgender community is one step towards targeting LGBTQ+ altogether.

We should recognize that DEI initiatives are inclusive of all backgrounds. Higher education institutions have never been culturally neutral because those with power to create and define institutional rules and standards have historically been from white middle-class backgrounds. Therefore, we should actively support students from underrepresented communities so that they have the resources to turn their merit and hard work into success. We can recognize students both as group members and as individuals, it does not have to be one or the other.

Ignoring the social, economic and cultural barriers to academic success is synonymous to asking students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

In “The Sum of US,” Heather McGhee suggests that solidarity dividends arise when people from diverse backgrounds come together to achieve a common goal. The overemphasis on race within DEI and the misappropriation of critical race theory and “wokeism” is a political ruse to disrupt social cohesion.

I urge Utahns to take a step back from the political fearmongering of “the other” and consider how solidarity can spark the change that produces benefits, instead of relying on false promises.

Kevin M. Korous, Salt Lake City, has a Ph.D. in family and human development from Arizona State University and currently works as an applied statistician.