Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on DEI by the author. The next piece will explore why the contexts in which DEI is practiced are perceived as a threat.

Growing up in London, Stacey Gordon was one of the only Black children in her school. She never felt that she fit in. When her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, she thought things would be different. But in Brooklyn, she stuck out as “the British girl.” It wasn’t until she embraced her own unique background that she felt she belonged. Now she uses DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — instruction to help others do the same. But not every experience with DEI is positive.

A small business recently sought to implement a DEI program, but soon felt compelled to stop. As the company pursued diversity hires, long-time employees began to unexpectedly leave the business. After looking into why, company leaders learned that the more tenured employees found recent hires to be less experienced and competent at the job than past new hires, making the work more difficult. This detracted enough from their workplace experience that established employees sought employment elsewhere.

These stories point to a conundrum for those committed to expanding opportunity for all Americans: How do we support the values of diversity and inclusion without eroding other important values? American public opinion about racial and ethnic diversity complicates this further.

The majority of Americans of all races recognize the value of diversity in American life. A plurality of Americans of all races believe it is important for businesses to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. But a majority of Americans of all races also believe hiring and promotion at work should be based only on qualifications, even if this produces less diversity, and they do not believe race and ethnicity should be a factor in such workplace decisions. 

As recent events show, the conundrum gets even thornier when it comes to gender. The result is that some people’s experience with DEI is positive, while for others it is negative.

Negative experiences and associations with DEI initiatives would be enough of a challenge on their own. But in our time, a political cancer on America’s race and gender issues has metastasized, transforming negative experiences and associations with DEI into perceptions of threat.

The original motivations behind what eventually became DEI do not point to it as a source of threat. DEI has its roots in the 1960s civil rights movement, beginning with racial diversity training for businesses to assist with post-segregation diversification of the workforce. Later, efforts were made to ensure that minority employees felt included in public settings and the workplace. The concept of equity was added to promote the idea that some people may need unique support systems due to varied backgrounds and experiences. DEI also expanded its scope from race to include characteristics like religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

Americans can recognize that the differences among us — in viewpoint, experience, culture and physical characteristics — enrich our lives when we recognize the value of those differences and genuinely include those that have them. This is particularly true when diverse people come together to pursue a shared goal. There is greater debate about equity, such as whether we ought to pursue equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. But it is reasonable to recognize that individuals with different experiences may require customized support to progress in life.

Enter polarization.

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We live in a political and media environment (both social and traditional media) that rewards the stoking of division and the elevation of the extremes in our narratives through the immediate gratification produced by money, followers or clicks. These dynamics drive the social phenomenon of tribal hostility in politics that pushes Americans to greater political extremes. 

Such an environment cultivates the perception of an ongoing, political life-and-death struggle for the nation’s values, ideals and future. The culture-war perspective of factions within both major political parties is an example of this polarized politics in action. In such a high-stakes scenario, opposition and even simple differences can be perceived as significant threats or existential problems.

This plays out in various ways, on all sides, with DEI. The opportunities for immediate gratification that DEI offers political and media actors lead some to co-opt DEI in pursuit of their own agenda or narrative – often grounded in identity politics. The perceived threat from DEI leads others to describe it as an ideology that undermines their values and principles.

The polarized response to genuine concerns about some DEI efforts exacerbates perceptions of threat. Supporters of DEI sometimes frame DEI, knowingly or unknowingly, in terms of critical race theory — implying that DEI critics are motivated by discomfort with a potential loss of power. Natural, normal and healthy questions that arise when people in business or politics are learning about the ideas and methods of DEI can be portrayed as signs of malicious intent or a corrupt character. Such criticisms feel like personal attacks.

The lens through which some people promote or criticize DEI short-circuits healthy dialogue and debate over its merits. A Princeton professor who studies “prejudice and behavior change” wrote last year that “we don’t have good evidence for what works (in DEI). We’re treating a pandemic of discrimination and racial and religious resentment with untested drugs.” 

In a healthy political environment, a significant lack of evidence on the effectiveness of DEI staffing and programs would spark a debate over the impact of billions of dollars of investment in DEI in recent years. If DEI efforts are not effective, or if only certain DEI approaches are effective, then we ought to change our approach out of concern and respect for all involved. 

But in our polarized politics, our debate spirals into arguments over whether those with concerns about DEI are racist or transphobic. Lost in the polarized conflict is a search for the best ways to help America’s historically marginalized minorities while preserving essential American institutions and better applying important principles that have led to opportunity and prosperity for so many.

The motivation to help eliminate barriers and strengthen opportunity for historically marginalized Americans is worthy of support from people of all political ideologies. So too is the desire to preserve and promote basic ideas like fundamental fairness, rewarding hard work, and equality before the law. 

If we can rise above polarized political narratives — move beyond the dual narratives of blaming the system or blaming the victim, as called for by American Enterprise Institute scholar Ian Rowe — we have hope of arriving at a framework of principles that can unify Americans around aiding and assisting marginalized Americans. In other words, we can hope to pursue diversity and inclusion in a manner that builds belonging and protects opportunity for all Americans, rather than exacerbating division and perceptions of threat. 

The stories of Stacey Gordon and of the business that tried and stopped a DEI program will no longer be stories whose endings diverge. Rather, future stories can show how Americans figured out how to welcome everyone into the full promise of American equality and freedom, while preserving the essential ideals that help fulfill that promise.

Derek Monson is vice president of policy for Sutherland Institute, a principle-based think tank in Salt Lake City.