DEI, short for diversity, equity, and inclusion, is the latest three-letter term to become a target of the right.
That focus burst into view this week as conservatives went after Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant they’ve often supported in the past given its Christian roots and its prior donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. Despite Republicans’ longtime backing, the chain’s decision to employ a vice president of DEI has prompted backlash from some who now slam the company for being too “woke” for considering policies that help support people of color and other underrepresented groups in the workplace.
“This is bad. Very bad. I don’t want to have to boycott. Are we going to have to boycott?” conservative strategist Joey Mannarino wrote on Twitter. It’s not clear why this specific issue has resurfaced on social media since it appears Chick-fil-A’s DEI hire was made months ago. According to the LinkedIn page of Erick McReynolds, the business executive holding the role, he’s been the VP of DEI for more than a year and a half. Conservatives have also called out a Chick-fil-A webpage, which talks about being “better together” and establishing a “culture of belonging” among their concerns.
For now, the outrage appears to be confined mostly to social media, where prominent conservative commentators including Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk and Wade Miller, the head of the Citizens for Renewing America, which seeks to combat “woke” proposals, have weighed in. Given how recent the backlash has been, it’s not yet evident whether it has had any impact on the restaurant’s sales. A separate video from 2020 that features Chick-fil-A chair Dan Cathy talking about how white people should speak up about racial injustice toward Black people has also been critiqued. The attacks on Chick-fil-A also come as conservatives are increasingly targeting companies, like Bud Light and Target, for promoting positions they disagree with, such as backing for LGBTQ rights and trans people.
DEI, as the term suggests, is an overarching label for policies intended to make hiring, promotions, and staffing more equitable and representative. It can include proposals aimed at growing diversity in recruitment, addressing pay disparities, or setting up employee support groups. The idea caught on in recent years after businesses were scrutinized following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and as researchers have found that more representative teams can lead to stronger profits.
And while conservatives have criticized DEI for allegedly giving minority groups preferential treatment, it has also faced blowback from those who’ve worked in the space for being a hollow effort many companies use to look better on these issues without fully investing in actions needed for systemic change.
Experts say the right-wing pushback on DEI, including in the case of Chick-fil-A, has been driven by the idea that marginalized groups, including people of color, are getting a special advantage that they haven’t earned. That’s an idea that leading Republican lawmakers like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have also hammered as they’ve pushed policies attacking the concept of DEI and the use of public funds to support it. Like the conservative uproar toward the concept of critical race theory (CRT), experts see the focus on DEI as a Republican push to hang on to power without reckoning with existing inequality.
“Conservative opposition to DEI comes from the same source as their opposition to voting rights and widespread enfranchisement: They are threatened, politically and culturally, by the growing demographic diversity of the US,” says Erica Foldy, an NYU professor focused on management and public service. “They are threatened because these movements directly undermine the political dominance of conservatives.”
Why DEI has gotten such blowback from conservatives
The outrage about Chick-fil-A follows growing conservative pushback to the idea of DEI, which has been elevated by conservative think tanks like the Manhattan and Goldwater Institutes, as well as key Republican leaders like DeSantis. DeSantis signed a law this year barring the funding of DEI initiatives at public colleges and universities in Florida, and arguing that the abbreviation stands for “discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.” More than a dozen other states are also weighing legislation that would restrict DEI efforts in higher education, which could affect faculty training and even how race is taught in certain institutions.
As ABC News reported, the concepts behind DEI are rooted in the 1960s civil rights movement and legislation to combat discrimination in the workplace. The idea of establishing more inclusive workplaces gained momentum in the ’80s and ’90s, and has since been adopted more widely as companies have been criticized for problematic hiring and promotion practices, and as they’ve seen more financial gains from such initiatives. DEI is broadly intended to ensure better access to opportunities for underrepresented groups that historically haven’t had them due to discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
“These programs are threatening to conservatives because they embody a narrative that the right wing hates: that inequality based on race or gender or sexual orientation is a problem to be faced and dismantled rather than simply the natural order of things,” says Foldy.
The scrutiny of DEI also stems from long-held conservative beliefs that any policies intended to address discrimination and deep-seated disparities are ones that aim to unfairly elevate minority groups over their white counterparts. “We have seen these attacks around affirmative action, for example, for quite some time,” says Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, the backlash may be especially strong because it’s a company that conservatives have considered to be an ally in the past, experts say. Chick-fil-A’s chair has been famously vocal about opposing same-sex marriage and the company was known for its prior contributions to anti-LGBTQ groups like the Salvation Army, which it has stopped supporting.
“The products that people are going after tend to be places they didn’t necessarily expect the company to be inclusive,” says Georgia College marketing professor Joanna Schwartz. “The fact that people on the right are infuriated by this is deeply ironic. Chick-fil-A is far from woke.”
Earlier this year, conservatives mounted a boycott of Bud Light after the beer company engaged in a social media marketing campaign with a trans influencer. That boycott led to declines in the beer’s sales compared to last year. In May, right-wing people similarly went after Target for a Pride Month collection it had launched, which led to the retailer pulling certain items.
Schwartz sees the emergence of these boycotts as a direct result of state legislatures across the country pushing bills that emphasize anti-trans messaging and that attempt to curb the teachings of Black history and race. “Part of what makes this year different is the legislative environment has created so much momentum around the idea of LGBTQ identity as a danger to our popular culture,” Schwartz told Vox. “When you get a populace that fired up, at some point it’s got to come out.”
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