Note to the political right: please spare us the sanctimony on DEI

Published April 4, 2024

By Rob Schofield

In one of the most memorable moments in American cinema, actor Claude Rains, playing a corrupt French police captain in the film Casablanca, heeds the sudden command of his Nazi overlords to find a reason to immediately shutter Humphrey Bogart’s cafe by manufacturing an excuse. As you probably remember, Rains immediately blows a whistle and announces that he’s “shocked, shocked!” to discover that gambling is taking place in the saloon’s backroom.

At which point, one of the casino staffers emerges from the background to hand Rains his winnings from that night’s wagers.

If this iconic sequence were to be reprised in a film about modern American and North Carolina politics, it might well go something like this:

Conservative politician: “It’s essential that all diversity, equity, and inclusion policies – DEI for short – be halted immediately and banned from our universities and all other public bodies.”

University chancellor/agency head: “Wait! What? Why are you shutting our program down?”

Politician: “I’m shocked – shocked! – to learn that considerations of a person’s race are being used to make decisions related to public policy. This amounts to impermissible bigotry!”

At which point, of course, a smiling political advisor would emerge from the shadows to whisper into the politician’s ear the news that his DEI stance is winning overwhelming support from aggrieved white voters angry about immigration and still seething over the idea that Barack Obama and family once occupied the White House.

If this strikes you as unfair, you need to spend a little time online checking out some of the remarkably hateful posts that a dispiritingly large number of white Americans feel unabashed about sharing these days in emails and on social media platforms like X and Facebook.

Posts like one I had a chance to see recently shared by a white North Carolinian which featured a drawing of Joe Biden removing a mask to reveal an ugly caricature of Barack Obama underneath – an Obama drawn to resemble an ape.

The Donald Trumps and Ron DeSantises of the world and their apologists in the conservative think tanks may profess to be “colorblind” and motivated purely by a desire to banish all vestiges of racism from American life (and some may even may have even convinced themselves that they mean it). But it’s simply impossible that they are unaware of the way their stances and arguments are heard and processed by a big share of unrepentantly bigoted Americans.

When Trump, as he did in 2017 after a violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, stated that a group of white nationalist protesters included “very fine people,” there could be no mistaking the message it sent or the impact it had on hateful people who had previously been shamed into the shadows.

And this brings us back to what can only be described as the “who’s kidding who?” aspect of the debate over DEI.

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, the political right has been doing its utmost of late to make DEI one of the key issues of the 2024 election. Following Florida’s lead, Alabama and South Carolina are moving to ban it in universities and reports indicate that North Carolina Republicans will soon try to follow suit.

And the cynicism of it all is breathtaking.

Seriously, at a time in which North Carolina, the U.S., and the world face countless massive problems – the climate emergency, murderous overseas wars and famines, chronic economic inequality and poverty, crumbling schools, massive vacancies in public employment – it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the notion that modest efforts to make our public institutions look a bit more like the population they’re designed to serve amount to some kind of nefarious and hugely destructive plot.

But sadly, this is the preposterous claim many on the right are flogging.

Anti-DEI crusaders may say the motives for their actions are pure and claim the mantle of Martin Luther King and other champions of the Civil Rights movement – leaders that their parents and grandparents (and even the current North Carolina GOP nominee for governor) repeatedly derided in hateful terms – but one need not have a PhD. in history and political science to see what’s really going on here, or to trace the true origins of the current discussion.

President Lyndon Johnson famously and more or less accurately observed upon signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that in doing so he had lost the South for Democrats for a generation (it’s actually been the better part of three) and ever since, there’s been little doubt about the motives and objectives of the nation’s major parties and ideologies when it comes to matters of race.

Heaven knows that white Democrats and progressives are guilty of countless errors, sell-outs, compromises, and hypocrisies in this realm, but one doesn’t have to look or think very hard to understand the roots of the present debate over DEI or the true motives of the forces seeking to make it a top election issue.

And the least the DEI opponents could do is spare us from the self-righteous efforts to camouflage their true political objectives.