Racist dog whistle: the right wing has weaponized ‘DEI’

<span>Governor Wes Moore speaks as Joe Biden visits Baltimore following the bridge collapse.</span><span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Governor Wes Moore speaks as Joe Biden visits Baltimore following the bridge collapse.Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

After the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge last month, it fell to Baltimore’s mayor, Brandon Scott, to explain the disaster and outline the next steps. But as online clips of the 39-year-old Democrat in his city of Baltimore varsity jacket began circulating, the conversation around the bridge collapse shifted from Scott’s emergency management strategy to his skin color. “This is Baltimore’s DEI mayor,” read one viral X post panning Scott, who is Black. “It’s going to get so, so much worse. Prepare accordingly.”

Before long the Maryland governor, Wes Moore, and port commissioner, Karenthia Barber, were also attacked as DEI agents and blamed for what maritime authorities have repeatedly described as a shipping accident. “This is what happens when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens,” wrote Phil Lyman, a Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate. Ever since, DEI has not only become a trending word but a near-taboo three-letter profanity. “The far right has really taken these ideas to an extreme and are not really worried about seeming racist,” says Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University and researcher of racial and ethnic inequality in education. “They are loud and proud of their views.”

There’s this idea that you’re going to lose quality by expanding opportunity. It’s so disingenuous

Anthropologist Jamie Thomas

DEI – short for diversity, equity and inclusion – has become the latest dog-whistle term in the conservative war of words to frame basic egalitarianism as a net negative. The abbreviation dates to the mid-1960s, as the social justice movements and legal shifts of the day began reshaping the halls of academia and corporate America. It comes against the backdrop of huge row-back and assaults on bedrock civil rights measures after more than a half century of legislative and social gains, with Florida leading the charge of red states pushing bans on DEI efforts in higher education and public office. Google and Meta are among the tech giants that cut DEI programs last year, and the president of the nation’s largest human resources organization warned of more to come in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The word DEI follows in the ignominious tradition of progressive vocabulary that has been weaponized against the left, with its original ideas and context replaced with a familiar theme – white replacement theory. The plot to appropriate “DEI”, conceived in the conservative Claremont Institute and raised into a full-blown movement led helmed by the venture capitalist Bill Ackman, the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo and other activists – has expanded to include fomenting dissent at open-minded institutions such as NPR, which recently saw a veteran editor step down in protest against what he claimed was the company’s myopically liberal approach toward news gathering.

“There’s always been this idea in societies that inherit from colonialism and slavery that opening up opportunities to those who are gravely marginalized incurs this kind of tax,” says Jamie Thomas, a linguistic anthropologist with a focus on race and pop culture. “That you’re going to lose quality by expanding opportunity. It’s so disingenuous.”

More than just a word, DEI has become a political football that is being hurled around expressly to hurt people, Black people in positions of power and authority: pilots, judges – you name it. “Ben Carson was one of the all-time great surgeons,” crowed Floyd Brown, Senate campaign chair for the Republican firebrand Kari Lake. “Yet now, because of DEI, when you see a Black surgeon, you get a question in your mind. What you want, is you want the Blacks that are on top, that do succeed, to be there on their merit.” And yet: the DEI broadsides against the Black leaders on watch in Baltimore seemed to break a fundamental rule of democratic dialogue: in the wake of disaster, everyone should be on the same team. “Whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on,” Thomas adds, “you really do expect your executive leaders to be good project managers.”

Online, the entrepreneur Mark Cuban went back and forth with Rufo about the meaning of DEI after Rufo and the Canadian psychology professor-cum-culture warrior Jordan Peterson accused Cuban of being a rich liberal elite who panders to people from marginalized communities. “I know DEI is a positive because I see its impact on the bottom lines,” Cuban wrote. “My definitions of D, E and I are not theoretical. They are actually used. Are yours?”

For decades, says Ellen Berrey, a University of Toronto sociologist whose research explores the cultural dynamics of race and racism, law, organizations, and social movements, DEI was a safe word – “code for everybody. It emphasized cultural difference and inclusion and having different perspectives. There’s a long history of that dating to the original supreme court decision on affirmative action in the late 70s.”

Related: Only in Atlanta: the small-town scandal of the Trump-Fani Willis case

That decision, which provided non-whites and women unprecedented access to education and government jobs, has had conservatives scheming to undo the progressive win ever since. They only had to evolve the dog whistle language that had become a feature of the Republicans’ race-based Southern Strategy – a 60s-era propaganda blitz that saw Republicans promote racial segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement to secure white votes. It’s how “ghetto”, “welfare queen” and “affirmative action” itself came to be understood as fraught substitute words to malign Black Americans as inherently undeserving, and how a not-insignificant number of Americans came to recognize “Obamacare” as a totally different policy from the Affordable Care Act.

Even “Baltimore” – which, as Thomas notes, “has such a history of anti-Blackness and racism and violence” – became a conservative metonym for a largely Black city with more problems than points of interest, resonating even more after Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody. “These are kind of authoritarian moves that help to justify going after cities, bringing in the military and really draconian policing, normalizing these attacks on people of color, on liberalism and on democracy,” says Berrey. “And we know cities are also more liberal and have a lot more people of color in them.”

Once DEI became a buzzword for corporate virtue-signaling, recurring in black-square social media posts and treacly ad campaigns, the right pounced. “George Floyd was the moment that fused that idea of political correctness and diversity and racialized and coded it to a specific race,” Berrey says. “That’s the thing that the conservatives have been reacting to. We’re just going to continue to see this appropriation of words thrown at people.”

The truest marker of the power in the word DEI might well be the lengths to which Black people who are described in this way are going to short-circuit its impact. Asked how he felt about being referred to as Maryland’s DEI governor, Moore told CNN: “I have no time for foolishness.” On social media, Black users made light of Republicans effectively turning DEI into a racial slur. “DEIs in Paris!!!” one user wrote, interpolating the title of a hit Jay-Z and Kanye West song. Wrote another: “Someone just said don’t say DEI ‘with the hard “I”’. I’m done now. Our ability to flip anything is EVERYTHING.”

But Baltimore mayor Scott provided the ultimate mic-drop response to the right wing’s coded attacks, one that revealed the gap between his would-be detractors and the three-letter insult that keeps crossing their lips. “We all know very well that Black men, and Black young men in particular, have been the boogeyman for those who are racist and think that only straight, wealthy white men should have a say in anything,” he told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “What they mean by DEI in my opinion is ‘duly elected incumbent’. We know what they want to say, but they don’t have the courage to say the N-word.”