Black history — and Black Americans — are under attack. After a national and international racial reckoning spurred by the killing of George Floyd in 2020, politicians have hit back hard. Since 2021, legislatures and governors in 19 states have enacted educational gag orders that restrict teaching and learning about allegedly divisive concepts such as race, racism, and American history. The fate of affirmative action in higher education awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The smart money is on the justices striking it down.
In addition, there are concerted efforts to stamp out diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in public sector hiring, water down or even cancel the Advanced Placement African-American Studies program and whitewash K-12 social studies curricula of uncomfortable truths about how this nation has historically treated Black Americans. In Florida — ground zero for many of these efforts — the legislature is now considering a bill that would prohibit public universities from offering certain majors and courses as well as spending money on diversity and equity initiatives.
As a lifelong academic, a DE&I administrator, and a Black man, I watch all of this unfold with a growing sense of foreboding. Because the attacks on programs that acknowledge race and racism are an attempt to erase a chapter of American history marred by inequality that I experienced firsthand. I was a child of the 1960s and 1970s and grew up in a low-wealth home in a segregated public housing community in Washington, D.C. Neither of my parents had a high school diploma — that was at a time when only 5% of Black Americans held a bachelor’s degree.
Mine turned out to be an improbable success story, one in which my past did not determine my future. However, understanding the past was critical to pursuing a future that could be different. After serving three years in the U.S. Army, I enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia, earned a doctorate from Harvard University, and embarked on a career in which I founded and led 20 education and human services organizations. But there is a generation of Black Americans — now in their 50s and 60s — whose potential was artificially constrained by a society still deeply affected by the far-reaching implications of a legacy of institutionalized racism.
Since then, the power and promise of higher education have become clearer—if not fully realized. Today, more than one-quarter of Black adults have earned a bachelor’s degree. Black Americans are earning more money than they did in my childhood. More own homes. Fewer live in poverty. The progress is measurable but still unequal: Black Americans continue to trail their white counterparts on multiple socio-economic measures.
So, when the teaching about race, inequality, and DE&I efforts come under attack, how should higher education leaders respond? Should we throw in the towel? The only acceptable answer is that we remain steadfast because there is too much at stake for college and university leaders to retreat.
These attacks will only make it more difficult for colleges and universities to serve and support students of color and prepare them for a world that seems hostile to their very existence. Banning discussion of one type of held identity sets the stage for marginalizing people with other identities that should be respected and celebrated.
We must continue to invest in and professionalize high-quality DE&I work—and resist efforts to delegitimize it. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education has crafted an inclusive excellence framework — from institutional structure and policies to curriculum and admissions — to support colleges and universities seeking to create a vibrant and inclusive culture and improve the experiences of underrepresented and underserved students, faculty, and staff.
Not everyone has to be a DE&I professional. But every member of the campus community can help contribute to a culture that supports and acknowledges people from different backgrounds and with different lived experiences. Anyone willing to work with those from different walks of life can be an ally—and allies are needed more than ever in these politically-charged times.
Ultimately, the attempts to marginalize not just DE&I work, but the teaching of American history, are an affront to the values of higher education itself. Education, dialogue, and free expression are necessary tools for the liberation of the mind. Higher education leaders must also frame DE&I work as part of their ongoing commitment to human rights and free expression.
Attempts to stamp out certain academic programs and DE&I efforts represent a revocation of the rights to free expression and academics that higher education—and many on the political right—hold dear. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Roadmap "offers a worthy perspective on how campus leaders can balance the healthy tension between free expression and critical questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion."
Faced with intense political pressure, higher education leaders cannot retreat. We must continue the dialogue—and occasionally difficult conversations—around race and equity, both on and off campus. At their best, colleges and universities represent hope for a more just and more equitable society. When our students, faculty, and staff are under attack, higher education must stand up—and stand strong.
Dr. Thomas Stewart is Executive Vice President for Social Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at National University