In the 19th and 20th centuries, lynching was a White public spectacle meant to warn and intimidate Black people who “disrupted” the status quo, or violated the “law.” These supposed infractions by Black “trouble makers” were arbitrary. A Black person could be killed for not moving off the sidewalk when passing by a White person.
In 1870, for example, when politician Wyatt Outlaw was appointed town commissioner and constable of Graham, North Carolina, he was lynched by the White Brotherhood, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. His infraction: serving as the first African-American Town Commissioner and Constable of Graham.
In these times, a traditional lynching is almost universally unacceptable. Most people can’t even fathom the barbaric act happening now; and they can’t believe that their ancestors may have participated in the carnage back then. However, modern day attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies in higher education institutions are the equivalent of the tightened rope, and just as suffocating.
There is a perception among DEI opponents that the initiatives are about exclusion and indoctrination, but as someone who oversaw a DEI office for several years, I know it is neither. The primary functions of DEI are to make people think more deeply about how discrimination is baked into the structures of organizations, and to collectively find solutions to disrupt these inequalities and inequities. These initiatives are meant to provide tools for dismantling historically oppressive and violent systems — systems that impact everyone.
Some professors whose teachings are centered on race are altering their instructions for fear of reprimands from state and local government officials and college administrators, while administrators fear that their support for DEI could cost them their livelihoods.
In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a new Board of Trustees at New College of Florida. Almost immediately, these new trustees abolished the office that handled Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. These appointments came on the heels of DeSantis’ 2022 “Stop Woke Act,” which restricted the teaching of certain race-based issues in K-12 classrooms.
That same month, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters informed the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that he wanted a review of the last decade’s spending on DEI programs in the state.
This is a distraction that stops the fight against a larger power structure that keeps many Americans from understanding the truth of history.
Students from Stanford University recently protested the speaking appearance of Fifth Circuit Appellate Court Judge Kyle Duncan. Appointed to the court in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump, Duncan is a member of the Federalist Society and has spent his career defending discriminatory voting laws and supporting anti-LGBTQ legislation. Stanford’s Associate Dean of DEI, Tirien Steinbach, protested along with the students, telling Duncan in front of the packed auditorium that his rhetoric had caused “harm.” Critics called the students rude and entitled. Meanwhile, Steinbach was placed on administrative leave.
The summer of 2020 was a very peculiar time for America. After the execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the country, and the world, went through what many have dubbed a “racial reckoning.” Protestors filled the streets around the globe. Politicians from as far as New Zealand tweeted condolences and stood in solidarity with the Floyd family. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that Floyd’s death was “the most horrific tragedy I’ve ever personally observed,” and made a commitment to combat police brutality.
During that same time, at the University of Texas at Austin, there was a big move to push DEI to the forefront. As Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and inclusion in the UT-Austin Moody College of Communication at that time, I witnessed and felt strong support for all the institutional changes that I wanted to implement.
The university was able to move the needle on so many initiatives that supported and championed underrepresented students and faculty. None of these excluded people that didn’t identify as marginalized, and more importantly the programs needed those individuals’ support, allyship, and buy-in for these measures to work.
Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives had gone into full speed. According to a 2021 report conducted by Lever, 57% of employers were looking at their hiring efforts to meet their DEI goals. Many corporations and entities adopted one or more calls to action: Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter. It Takes All of Us.
Fast forward three years, and across the U.S., DEI policies and practices are being stripped away. Abbott’s office recently sent out a memo warning state agencies that using DEI policies in their hiring practices violates federal and state employment laws (a claim that continues to be heavily disputed). As a result many academic institutions have halted DEI initiatives.
The board of Regents at the University of Texas at Austin recently announced a pause of all new DEI policies and a review of all current DEI policies. Texas Tech University sent out a memo stating that they are reviewing their hiring practices because they could “be viewed as possibly exclusionary.”
The University of Houston and the Texas A&M system both banned DEI statements as part of their hiring practices.
And DeSantis’ 2022 “Stop Woke Act” restricted the teaching of certain race-based issues in K-12 classrooms, and his refusal to allow a new African-American AP course to be taught in the state, allegedly sent the college board scrambling to revise and basically water the course down.
Those against DEI want people to become distracted by false notions of difference. This is a distraction that stops the fight against a larger power structure that keeps many Americans from understanding the truth of history. If we see each other as enemies, the real enemy can go unchecked. Implicit bias and hatred surrounds, consumes, and confines us. It is present in textbooks, churches, institutions of higher education, news media, art galleries, and films.
DEI initiatives open the door to face these realities. They break down barriers and offer tools to destroy the walls of racism and hatred that have shaped this country. James Baldwin famously said: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Not only do I love America, I am America.
The first recorded lynching in the U.S. happened in 1835 and it wasn’t until 2022— nearly 200 years later—that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law in the United States. May it not take another 200 years to put policies and solutions into law that all Americans need to truly be free.
Ya’Ke Smith is an associate professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin, an award-winning TV and film director, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.