YW Boston Blog

“Didn’t Earn It” and Other Lies: DEI Myths Debunked

Hana Lasell
DEI Myths Blog Thumbnail 420 x 330 2024 (1)

As we inch closer to the 2024 presidential election, conservative attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have intensified, particularly in political and legislative arenas. Over the weekend, conservative media outlet the New York Post published a racist article about Vice President Kamala Harris with a headline that read, “America may soon be subjected to the country’s first DEI president,” alluding to the idea that the Vice President was only chosen because she is a woman of color, and not because she is qualified to lead the country. Critics have turned “DEI” into a racist dog whistle intended to sow division and weaken support for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs across the country. 

“Headlines and articles like this one intentionally misrepresent what DEI is about. They play on tired, dangerous tropes about the scary, incompetent Black person who is trying to take things away from ‘regular’ people,” said Chair of YW Boston’s Board of Directors, Marguerite Fletcher. “It’s reminiscent of the backlash we experienced after Reconstruction.” 

“There are many misconceptions about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including that it is only about race,” added YW Boston’s Interim President and CEO, Kathryn Henderson. “These misconceptions make it all the easier for people acting in bad faith to co-opt DEI as a slur to describe someone, typically a Black leader, as unqualified and undeserving of their role. It is a cruel shorthand that harms the individual who has earned their role.”  

Critics argue that DEI efforts amount to reverse discrimination and unnecessary social engineering. Their attacks have taken various forms, including legislative actions, policy changes, and public campaigns aimed at discrediting DEI practices. “These attacks undermine the gains of DEI to reduce racial bias in hiring, to destigmatize mental illness in the workplace, to provide equal benefits to same sex couples, and many more” adds Henderson.  

Conservative attacks on DEI often ignore the empirical evidence supporting the benefits of DEI initiatives, such as improved employee engagement, innovation, and overall organizational performance. To clarify the reality behind DEI efforts, it’s important to address and debunk the most common myths surrounding them: 

Myth: DEI is just a way to “check a box” and move on 

Reality: DEI is a marathon, not a sprint 

Many folks who generally support the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion still characterize DEI initiatives as a way to “check a box” or complete a discreet series of tasks that mean nothing in the long run, or even to meet a race quota (which is illegal). But it’s not just about hiring a certain number of “minorities” or putting the company through a one-time DEI training course. It’s a change management process that requires time, effort, resources, support, and a commitment to fostering a culture where everyone can succeed.  

Myth: DEI is reverse discrimination 

Reality: DEI levels the playing field 

DEI is characterized as “reverse discrimination” in situations where white people believe they are negatively stereotyped or discriminated against because of their whiteness – or treated less favorably than people of color. This claim ignores a core ingredient of racism and discrimination: power. DEI seeks to rebalance that power and ensure that those who have been historically disempowered or deprived of equal opportunities simply because of their identities should be given a fair and equitable chance to succeed. This does not equate to discriminating against historically dominant groups. 

Myth: DEI is illegal 

Reality: It’s not 

DEI programs are designed to promote fairness and inclusivity, and they operate within the bounds of existing laws aimed at preventing discrimination. For instance, DEI practices are grounded in federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, and other protected characteristics. The recent Supreme Court decision to end Affirmative Action in college admissions does not render all DEI efforts illegal; it simply alters how race can be considered in certain contexts. DEI initiatives, which focus on creating equitable opportunities and fostering diverse work environments, do not violate the law but rather seek to align with it by addressing disparities and promoting a more inclusive society. 

Myth: There is no room for straight, white males in DEI 

Reality: DEI benefits everyone 

One of the most popular claims made by anti-DEI advocates is that DEI only benefits certain groups–usually people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. DEI initiatives seek to ensure that everyone has what they need to succeed, regardless of their identity. Stronger parental leave policies ensure that parents of all genders can take the time they need to bond with their new babies. Accessible entrances benefit people pushing children in strollers, elderly folks with mobility issues, or people with injuries. Stronger employee support programs help military veterans transition back into civilian life and receive adequate mental health support. DEI recognizes that many different communities experience barriers to success and seeks to remove them so that everyone can thrive, resulting in happier employees, higher quality work, and less turnover. 

Myth: DEI encourages hiring of unqualified people (Didn’t Earn It) 

Reality: DEI deepens the hiring pool 

One of the most prominent and popular DEI myths is that it results in the hiring of unqualified, non-white candidates, causing critics to rename the acronym to “Didn’t Earn It.” It is a racist idea that should always be challenged. DEI is really about welcoming people in and removing the unconscious and sometimes conscious biases that impact historically marginalized candidates. For many from underrepresented racial groups, proving they are “worthy” of a job comes with additional requirements than their counterparts, often preventing them from applying to jobs they are more than qualified for. When you leave the door open for everyone to have an opportunity, you get a deeper, more qualified pool of candidates to choose from. 

Myth: DEI is unnecessary because we live in a post-racial society 

Reality: Racial disparities persist unchecked despite legal rulings 

Many DEI critics argue that these initiatives are unnecessary, claiming we have achieved equality and that racism is no longer a major issue. They often cite the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision to eliminate Affirmative Action as evidence that DEI is redundant or illegal. But, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson aptly noted in her dissent, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” Today, significant disparities remain: in 2023, white workers in Greater Boston significantly out earned their non-white peers, earning 27¢ more per dollar, and only 6.2% of people of color held top-paying roles. It doesn’t take much to see that we still have a long way to go when it comes to reaching racial equality. DEI initiatives are crucial for addressing these gaps and advancing equal opportunity and pay. 

Addressing and debunking the myths surrounding DEI is crucial to ensure its continued success and to counter the divisive rhetoric that seeks to undermine it. As Marguerite Fletcher wisely states, “Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts benefit everyone in an organization and in our society; studies have shown this to be true. Good, fair-minded people need to push back against these scare tactics and false narratives to ensure that we don’t lose the progress that we have made over the last few decades.” By doing so, we can build stronger, more resilient communities and organizations that truly value and support every individual. 

To learn more about how to be courageous while navigating today’s DEI landscape, check out these resources: 

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