“Whitelash” and Other Current Challenges to DEI in the Workplace

August 2023

Despite heightened public awareness around systemic racial inequalities, much of which was galvanized by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there are now equally escalating challenges to efforts aimed at improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Here are some of the biggest barriers to DEI efforts in corporate America today.

Why Can It Be Challenging for Some Companies to Hire a Diverse Workforce?

Multiple factors are setting up the current obstacles to achieving diverse and inclusive workplaces. Here are some everyone should be aware of.

Pre-Existing Low Engagement With DEI

Just as cultural and political leanings skew different ways in different US regions, so do values around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. This has been true long before the recent discourse about racial justice, and unfortunately, deepening ideological divisions are intensifying these differences.

As of 2017, company DEI programs flourished the most in New England, Middle Atlantic, and West Coast states. The regions where DEI fared worst included the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas) and Mountain states (Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). In these large swathes of the country, DEI programs are especially unlikely to thrive with any additional threats or challenges to their existence — and there are several.

Confusion Around Federal vs. State EEO Laws

Federal laws around DEI are set and enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These are known as Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, which are most commonly referenced by companies in rote boilerplate statements. Although most employers are familiar with federal EEO laws, some states have their own versions of these, which can make DEI program compliance tricky at best and legally risky at worst.

Conservative Backlash Against DEI Awareness and Engagement

If you’ve read, watched, or listened to any news in the past few years, you’ve heard about the conservative backlash — also known as “whitelash” — of right-wing politicians, industry leaders, and individuals who resent policy efforts aimed at protecting liberty and justice for all Americans. 

These groups present a false argument that America is under attack from “woke culture” and the so-called “woke agenda.” In doing so, conservatives choose to ignore hundreds of years of profound and continuing racial injustices — which, even today, are far from being adequately addressed — in favor of the idea that white populations are now the victims of “reverse racism.”

However unfounded, political and public whitelash has necessarily spilled over into corporate America, whose C-suite staff are still overwhelmingly white and male. As a result, DEI officers in many companies and industries feel they have to tread carefully in how they advocate for equity in hiring and promotion practices as well as other important company policies. 

To begin with, many of these business leaders, well-intentioned and otherwise, are simply unaware of the ways and degree to which they have enjoyed automatic advantages because of their race and gender. They may not realize that even “meritocracy” — a concept speciously championed by politicians like Texas governor Greg Abbott — often fails to account for how the barrier-ridden realities of life keep non-white and other marginalized workers from achieving the same successes as their white male peers, despite their best efforts and sacrifices. 

Others have additional conscious or unconscious racial biases and are unwilling to fully examine how these function in their own career or in company operations, much less invest the time and resources needed to eliminate them in the workplace.

Mass Layoffs of DEI Professionals

Far from what Americans might expect in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and increased awareness of racial inequalities, many companies are actually cutting DEI staff rather than stepping up related efforts. 

Although corporations actively sought out these professionals between September 2019 and September 2020, DEI roles began facing mass elimination just months after the death of George Floyd. This downward trend has been driven in large part by a slow economy, cooling interest in corporate accountability with regard to racial equity, and public whitelash against the principles that drive DEI as a whole. Related job cuts exist across all industries, but most notably in top tech firms.

The SCOTUS Ruling on Affirmative Action in College Admissions

In addition to all of these factors, the Supreme Court recently ruled that affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional. In short, it is requiring higher education institutions to eliminate race-conscious aspects of admissions (which take racial barriers into account) for race-neutral ones (which don’t).

This decision may also have a legal impact on affirmative action hiring practices. Although employers cannot lawfully discriminate against employees based on a protected status like race, they may, conversely, run into other legal challenges if they use race-conscious policies like those used by many universities. Employers are also likely to be concerned with avoiding backlash and lawsuits from prospective and actual employees who believe they were discriminated against because of their white race or male gender.

How to Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Your Workplace

Your company can overcome current challenges to DEI efforts in the workforce. Educating yourself, your coworkers, and your direct reports about ethically and legally sound DEI policies is a great place to start. You can learn about this by reading books like The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace by HR strategist Shereen Daniels, which offers a four-part approach for tackling structural racism in the workplace. 

Support DEI in the American Workplace With ARCC

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