A split image of Martin Luther King Jr. in a suit, with a modern man with a curly afro looking up with pride

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion industry could not exist without the Civil Rights Movement and owes a debt to the labor and thought leadership of Black activists and freedom fighters. Yet rather than acknowledging and responding to its roots in organizing against White supremacy, DEI has developed into an industry that focuses on surface-level, individualistic engagement, and the bottom line—that is, on the ways DEI can boost profitability. For the DEI industry to achieve its foundational goals, it must shift its focus away from profitability and toward acknowledging and dismantling White supremacy.

The History of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Under a warm August sun in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led more than 200,000 people in a march to Washington, D.C. Many remember this moment for Dr. King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the podium atop the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, the reflecting pool stretching to the Washington Monument and the Capitol in the distance. Addressing the crowd gathered that day, he eloquently buttressed the calls for civil rights yet to be bestowed upon Black Americans. Specific goals included: “a comprehensive civil rights bill that would do away with segregated public accommodations; protection of the right to vote; mechanisms for seeking redress of violations of constitutional rights; desegregation of all public schools in 1963; a massive federal works program to train and place unemployed workers; and a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment.”

[DEI] work began in order to achieve Dr. King’s dream, the roots of which have always been about unraveling the anti-Black racism woven into the fabric of this country.

The March on Washington came on the heels of the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that declared the freedom of all enslaved people. In the years following the march, our nation would see some semblance of progress, with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into legislation in 1990, enshrining the right to equal opportunity under the law for people with disabilities.

These laws—these milestones of progress—are the scaffolding for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion industry that we know today. The work began in order to achieve Dr. King’s dream, the roots of which have always been about unraveling the anti-Black racism woven into the fabric of this country. This unraveling begins and ends with what White people have sought to architect for centuries: Black disadvantage. But convincing people to acknowledge four hundred years of embedded White supremacy, violence, and dehumanization—and then address those issues—is no simple task. The history of the work matters—not for nostalgia’s sake, but because the pursuit of justice, informed by our past, shapes our present reality and illuminates the path ahead.

Framing the DEI Conversation: The Business Case

Having acknowledged the historical reality and trauma of racism, how we fashion our arguments for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has repercussions. The imperative for DEI often begins with the business case—the bottom line—because key stakeholders require this to justify the time, money, and energy invested. While nonprofit organizations acquire money differently than corporations, they are still beholden to the capitalist engine that drives everything. Institutions that frame DEI efforts around the singular focus of the bottom line miss the mark and perpetuate systems fundamentally built on inequity.

The business case for DEI reinforces the anti-Black sentiment, systemic exclusion, and underrepresentation embedded in capitalism.

By design, capitalist structures group people into one of two experiences of the world: either a world of assets or a world of deficits. Within that construct is the commodification of racialized identities that allows predominantly White institutions and individuals to extract social and economic value from the exploitation of others’ racial identities. In other words, capitalism rests on the idea that racialized people, that is, people not viewed as White, are valued for labor and productivity, but their lives and humanity are expendable. The accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of racialized people are mutually constitutive—they shape one another and occur simultaneously. Racism, then, is a natural output of capitalism where one group of people holds the power. For hundreds of years, this was the justification behind the enslavement of Black people, and this continues to legitimize the exploitation of the working class today. The business case for DEI reinforces the anti-Black sentiment, systemic exclusion, and underrepresentation embedded in capitalism.

Such a case dictates an organization’s motivation for change, limiting the institutional shifts it is willing to make beyond the individual and the performative. Of course, the typical individual and interpersonal models in DEI, including things like unconscious-bias training, are of immense value, but they only scratch the surface. A focus on profit is, in itself, a values statement that defines people as a means to an end and is a haunting reminder of the lingering presence of our past manifesting itself in the present.

As Geoff K. Ward, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the WashU & Slavery Project, explains, “People say we can’t change the past. But we can and must change the representation and the meaning of the past in the present and future.” Though we did not create the problems we tackle today, those problems are still, most certainly, collectively ours to solve.

The capitalism-infused DEI system is working exactly as intended—and will continue to do so until every individual within the sector recognizes their own culpability and embraces two fundamental truths: First, an understanding by institutional decision-makers that the status quo is more uncomfortable than the changes we seek. And second, in the fight to dismantle White supremacy, solidarity is sought over saviorism.

Championing only the business case for DEI is a timid and disingenuous demand, and little actual progress will be won. In fact, research outlines the negative impacts on people and organizations when diversity is promoted for the purpose of achieving revenue outcomes. According to a Forbes article, “New research reveals that linking diversity to corporate profits may be a turnoff for the underrepresented individuals organizations are seeking to attract. In fact, the use of the business case to justify diversity can result in underrepresented groups anticipating less belonging to organizations, which, in turn, makes them ultimately less likely to want to join the organization.”

For nonprofits, this represents a massive failure, as the ability to impact the communities served is, in large part, dependent on trust and belief from the members of that community.

Bridging the Individual and the Societal

We must move from the all-too-common business case for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to more intersectional motivations for doing the work. In DEI work, there is a consistent focus on shifting individual (our biases) and interpersonal (how we interact) considerations, and too little emphasis is placed on institutional (policies and procedures) and societal (power dynamics and cultural narratives) shifts that must take place to achieve equity. To achieve sustained Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, all must be addressed together.

In fact, there are four common arguments regarding the case for DEI:

  • The Market Case positions DEI as a way for institutions to better serve their audiences by seeking to reflect the diversity of the markets they operate in.
  • The Moral/Social Justice Case encourages us to consider the historical factors and barriers that exist in whatever context we operate. Addressing DEI in this way allows us to recognize the impacts of inequity on historically marginalized people, and to value the talents, lived experiences, and perspectives each brings.
  • The Economic Case views a more diverse pool of talent within institutions as a strength and precursor to efficiency.
  • The Results Case purports that teams that actively work to be non-homogenous achieve better outputs, as the diversity of lived experience and perspective influence the work leading to better solutions.

There are many variations of these categories, but the tenets of each are fairly consistent. We must fashion cases that take all of these arguments into account and use them in a way that considers a more enduring “why”—that is, one’s purpose and inspiration to continuously act.

I am challenged by the idea of a “neutral case” that some espouse, a case that does not seek to justify the advancement of DEI efforts with associated benefits, fairness, morality, or values. Every case is a statement of belief shaped by values. Even when we assume a case is neutral, because of the systems we operate in, affirmation of DEI commitments without justification will continue to benefit the most powerful in a given scenario. In America’s case, that is White people.

Systemic shifts are needed. Each person has a role in dismantling what is today for what can be tomorrow. The case for DEI cannot only be reduced to a moral or business imperative. And it is certainly not neutral, nor is it one in which we can address things linearly—steps one through 10 and so forth. They must be addressed at the intersection.

The work of DEI is about the balance of justice—not bottom lines and not benevolence.

For the Good of Others and Ourselves

The common Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion arguments all point to a support system of exchange: if I have something to give, and you have something to give, then we all have skin in the game. I grew up on the tiny island of Guam, where my parents were ministers, and I learned very early on about the value of mutuality within a community. Two concepts taught to me throughout my childhood have helped me to define my “why” and still influence the way I approach DEI: chenchule’ and inafa’maolek.

Chenchule’ is an ancient and intricate CHamoru system of social reciprocity. The community I grew up in would describe chenchule’ as a support system of exchange in which families express their care and concern for each other, and deep devotion to one another, by serving each family and helping them to meet their expressed needs. Inafa’maolek is a core value intertwined with chenchule’, which promotes interdependence within the community—providing for the wellbeing of all rather than only that of the individual.

Both concepts are rooted in the idea that our collective power helps us all to achieve justice by working together to overcome those inequities that should never befall any one of us. As I consider how this relates to DEI, I think about what it would look like to apply these concepts within the intersectionality of the four case arguments.

To start, I believe it looks like an organization actively committed to a set of values. To achieve real change, those values must be rooted in a formal acknowledgment of the organization’s history, and complicity in oppression and inequity of any form. That commitment then serves as a base from which we can apply each argument and build an accompanying action plan, and truly begin the work toward tangible, sustainable change.

No one goes unscathed where inequities and White supremacy exist. The work of DEI is about the balance of justice—not bottom lines and not benevolence. If your intent is to feel good by doing good for others or to make more money, you are already behind the curve.

The most impactful work happens when and where we understand ourselves as a part of the tapestry. I am reminded of author Ijeoma Oluo’s quote, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

This much is clear: greater rigor in recognizing the intersectionality and nuance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts is needed in order to be at all effective. Black people are weathering, languishing, and dying in a world shaped by unchecked and unexamined beliefs about our humanity. As Dr. King noted in his speech, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” I wholeheartedly agree.