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Leaders Call for Active Resistance Against Anti-DEI Measures


NEW YORK – At the National Action Network (NAN) Convention in New York City, social justice leaders gathered to discuss the impact of anti-Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) legislation introduced or signed into law in states like Texas, Florida, and Alabama. Public institutions in these states are firing DEI-focused employees or redirecting their roles in an effort to comply.

“It’s clearly an all-out attack, and it’s an effective attack. We have to be more effective,” said Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black think tank focused on the future of work and the quality of life in minoritized communities.

The panel, moderated by higher education journalist and professor Dr. Jamal Watson, consisted of prominent thought-leaders like Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose work pioneered the field of intersectionality and Critical Race Theory (CRT), and journalist Stephanie Ruhle, host of The 11th Hour on MSNBC. Crenshaw said she was eager to speak at NAN because of the network’s reputation for active organizing on the issue.

The Rev. Al Sharpton started NAN in 1991 to continue to promote civil rights in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. NAN has chapters all across America. Lately, NAN members have been protesting every Thursday at the New York office of Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has become the face of the anti-DEI movement.Dr. Jamal Watson leads panel discussion about the attacks on DEI at this year's National Action Network Convention sponsored by the Reverend Al Sharpton.Dr. Jamal Watson leads panel discussion about the attacks on DEI at this year's National Action Network Convention sponsored by the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Crenshaw urged attendees to participate in the Freedom to Learn (F2L) National Day of Action on May 3. F2L  a group of educators, artists, advocates, and policy makers opposing the book bans and attacks on educational curriculum  wants everyone to resist anti-DEI movements on that day and be loud about what they do, whether that’s reading banned-book author Toni Morrison or engage in a more active demonstration.

“Let [May 3] be the first day of Freedom Summer 2024,” said Crenshaw, acknowledging this year represents the 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a voter-registration drive that “turned around the civil rights movement.”

“We’re hoping this summer is where we draw the line in the sand, where we push back,” said Crenshaw. “We save this democracy, but after that, we want something more. We want a real democracy where our votes really count. We cannot save our democracy and leave anti-racism on the side of the road. The two have to come together.”

Dr. Alvin Tillery, a professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, said anti-DEI legislation, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling ending affirmative action, the criticizing of CRT, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’s "1619 Project" are all part of a bigger conservative campaign that will “re-awake the racial order of Jim Crow.”

“Most of this is a reaction to 2020, the George Floyd protests. A lot of powerful people in ruling classes saw their grandchildren and kids out in the street in multiracial protests to demand police accountability,” said Tillery. “Equity is not optional — it is enshrined in the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act, so [the right wing] is trying to soften up the consciousness of the citizenry to think its ok to ban equity. We’re in the fight of our lives with this election.”

Tillery said it was ironic that Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders complain about wokeness when, in fact, “we’re not woke enough! We need to wake up right now and use our political power.”

Much of the effort to confront anti-DEI sentiment, said Ruhle, must come through an intentional correction of the stream of misinformation coming from right-wing media outlets to every day Americans.

“There’s an avalanche of misinformation you have to fight every day. We have to stop these lies, because the lies get into the zeitgeist of America,” said Ruhle. “We have to start to come from a place of truth and realize that those that are attacking DEI are not playing fairly, they’re playing dirty. I’m not saying you have to fight dirty with dirty, but open your eyes and bring a weapon to the fight.”

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor of African American and Diaspora Studies, and professor of Ethics and Society in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, did not mince words.Rev. Al Sharpton introduces the panelists.Rev. Al Sharpton introduces the panelists.

“We know what the deal is: DEI is the new N-word,” said Dyson. “DEI, Black Lives Matter, MLK, the NBA, the NFL — any place that is identified with Black excellence against the historic onslaught of white mediocrity.”

Dyson emphasized that DEI is not the ceiling of racial justice and equity work, but the floor. He said that DEI and other racially progressive movements like affirmative action helped move the needle on inequity, but the greater issues still remain.

“If we close the opportunity gap [at elite institutions], it is true we would have a greater representation of what it looks like to be an American society,” said Dyson. “But the problem is the inability of the vast majority of our white brothers and sisters to identify with those who are locked out. They see themselves in opposition to the Black person ‘who took my job, who took my space in school.’ What they won’t understand is the necessity for solidarity so that everybody benefits. All of us could benefit.”

That’s why Crenshaw and others agreed it’s time for marginalized populations to rise up, and it is also time for white allies to raise their voices. At the moment, she added, it seems like those allied voices are silent. Pressure to keep DEI programming needs to come from all sides, and consequences of inaction against the right-wing agenda need to be tangible, she said.

“If we want to break down educational apartheid, if we want to make sure our kids in Florida learn the same thing as our kids right here in Harlem, then we gotta put pressure on all those appeasers who are actually facilitating this,” said Crenshaw. “That’s the only way we change this on the ground.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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