DEI: What does it mean and what is its purpose?

Conservatives are attacking diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

February 10, 2023, 8:09 AM

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or DEI, have recently come under fire and are at the center of political battles being waged by Republican governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.

These initiatives, seen in businesses, schools or government agencies, are intended to address inequities against historically marginalized groups that may be found within an organization.

ABC News spoke to DEI experts and consultants about what DEI is and what these initiatives entail.

What is DEI?

“Diversity” refers to the representation of people from a variety of backgrounds – particularly referring to people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, religions and more – at all levels in an organization, including the leadership level.

“Equity” focuses on fairness and justice, particularly referring to compensation and whether people are being paid or treated fairly, DEI experts told ABC News.

“Inclusion” is about whether people feel like they belong, and whether they feel heard or valued in an organization, experts say.

DEI initiatives focus on three main areas: training, organizational policies and practices, as well as organizational culture, according to Erica Foldy, a professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Initiatives focusing on policies, practices and culture are intended to correct inequities within an organization, said Tina Opie, a DEI consultant and professor at Babson College.

This could look like implementing accessibility measures for people with disabilities, addressing discriminatory hiring practices and pay inequity, holding anti-bias trainings and more.

What’s DEI’s purpose?

DEI has its roots in the 1960's anti-discrimination legislative movement when laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 addressed labor issues based on protected classes.

Companies had to comply with these anti-discrimination laws, and the DEI movement stems from these efforts to continue to create equitable workplaces and schools.

“Somewhere around the late '80s, early '90s, people are realizing that simply trying to stop discriminating against different groups of people is not enough,” Foldy said. “The kind of ethos of those initiatives was to go beyond just avoiding discrimination and to actively changing organizations so that they were more welcoming and more inclusive.”

And although the DEI acronym is in the spotlight, Foldy says, these initiatives are implemented under a plethora of different acronyms or names.

Every DEI initiative may be run differently, experts say, but the overall goal is to make companies and leaders examine the way their company treats or serves marginalized groups.

“Historically, there have been some groups of people who have had more access and control over resources, money, time, other people and the ability to affect policies, procedures, law,” said Opie.

Opie and Foldy say DEI can make people uncomfortable because they feel that correcting power inequities can be seen as “unfair” to the people with power or privilege.

“Dominance and privilege – understandably, those things are hard to give up,” Foldy said. “For the greater good, of not just a workplace, but for our country, our democracy, we have to become a country that equally and passionately welcomes all the people who live in the country.”

Opie and Foldy believe critics of DEI often frame these initiatives as unfairly giving something to marginalized people who some say “have not earned” it and are taking things away from others.

DEI is not about hitting diversity hiring quotas, since such quotas are illegal according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, DEI professionals say it's about breaking barriers so all people have the opportunity to thrive in schools and the workplace.

Opie argues some critics see diversity as a “them” issue and not an “us” issue that affects the collective society.

Why are such a number of conservatives attacking it?

DEI initiatives have come under attack by conservative legislators, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Florida Board of Governors voted in January to prohibit state funding to be used toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including "political or social activism" activities on campus.

Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, speaks during a news conference in Dallas, Texas, Aug. 23, 2022.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The regulation prohibits state universities from using state or federal funds to promote, support or maintain any programs or campus activities that "advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion .... or promote or engage in political or social activism."

The rules have been criticized as censorship and restrictions of free speech. DeSantis has argued that DEI is an “indoctrinating” program.

DeSantis and his administration has spearheaded numerous efforts targeting DEI and education around race in Florida. In 2021, DeSantis announced the "Stop WOKE" Act, a bill that would have restricted race-related curriculum in schools, workplaces and higher education institutions. The bill has been blocked from impacting higher education by a federal judge.

“It's a lot of money, and it's not the best use of your money,” he said at a Jan. 31 press conference on his anti-DEI efforts. “We are also going to eliminate all DEI and [critical race theory] bureaucracies in the state of Florida. No funding and that will wither on the vine.”

In February 2023, Texas Gov. Abbott told state agencies that DEI initiatives are “illegal."

The memo, sent by Abbott's chief of staff, Gardner Pate, said these initiatives violate the law because they "expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a rally in Hialeah, Fl., Nov. 7, 2022.
Marco Bello/Reuters, FILE

It did not specify which groups were being harmed under such programs.

Pate claimed these programs “proactively encourage discrimination in the workplace," and do the opposite of what they claim to do.

Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Gov. Abbott's office, said in a statement: "The letter from the Governor's chief of staff is a reminder that state agencies and public universities must follow federal and state law in their hiring practices.”

"The issue is not diversity—the issue is that equity is not equality. Here in Texas, we give people a chance to advance based on talent and merit," Eze added.

ABC News' Armando Garcia and Max Zahn contributed to this report.