Where DEI Failed, Merit can Succeed

Black History Month (BHM) has been celebrated every February since 1976 to commemorate the accomplishments of Black Americans throughout history. BHM offers a moment to assess efforts such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in achieving equality and advancement for Blacks.  

DEI efforts have been hobbled in recent years. Corporations are cutting DEI positions and quietly pulling back on efforts. Dozens of bills scaling back DEI in academia are working through state legislatures. Critics say recent scandals have exposed how pursuing DEI agendas has elevated people such as Claudine Gay into positions of power that their skills, experience and ethical and moral compass do not support.  

Most tellingly, DEI rests on the use of racial discrimination to remedy past racial discrimination, regardless of how remote. Even well-intentioned DEI efforts have proven to drive wedges between people rather than unify them and have failed to make marked improvements for those who need opportunity most, regardless of skin color. In the charitable sector, such efforts have shifted foundations and charities away from their missions to counterproductive ends, as my colleague Elizabeth McGuigan explained

DEI’s Track Record on Upliftment 

If efforts such as racial quotas in hiring, bias trainings and diversity pledges are effective at changing cultures and expanding opportunities, we should see more than just headcount increases. Blacks and minorities should feel there are more opportunities afforded them.  

Yet, discouraging ABC News polling results last month point to worsening perceptions among Blacks about opportunities today. When asked about the American dream—characterized by the pollsters as “if you work hard you’ll get ahead”—Blacks expressed even deeper pessimism than they did previously and more pessimism than other racial groups. 

“The share of Black people who say it still holds true has fallen by 34 points, to 21%, compared with a 22-point drop among those of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, 32% of Black people say the American dream never held true, which is up 23 points from 2010, compared with 16% of others, which is up 13 points,” according to ABC News. 

The good news is Blacks are making economic progress. The median Black household income rose from $44,100 in 2015 to $50,000 in 2022. The poverty rate has fallen from 40% in 1965 to 17% in 2022. 

Yet, racial gaps between Blacks and other racial minorities or white Americans in measures such as income and poverty persist, with little sign of them closing. If DEI isn’t the solution to these disparities, what is? 

A Better Way Forward 

As John McWhorter wrote, “DEI programs today often insist that we alter traditional conceptions of merit, decenter whiteness to the point of elevating nonwhiteness as a qualification in itself, conceive of people as groups in balkanized opposition, demand that all faculty members declare fealty to this modus operandi regardless of their field or personal opinions and harbor a rigidly intolerant attitude toward dissent.” 

Improving outcomes for Blacks or any struggling American begins with refocusing on meritocracy, achievement, building human capital and embracing the principles of a free-market system. Lowering academic and professional standards for minority job applicants, setting low expectations for minority students, assigning levels of oppression to classes of people based on their skin color or gender rather than their unique situations and undermining values such as hard work and punctuality as signs of “whiteness” do Blacks and minorities no good.  

As Robert Woodson wrote about the Civil Rights era, “History is full of inspiring examples of Black people succeeding against the odds, including building their own schools, hotels, railroads and banking systems when doors were closed to them. … These accomplishments were made possible by a set of values cherished among the Blacks of the time: self-determination, resiliency, personal virtue, honesty, honor and accountability.”  

There are countless examples of successful, prosperous Blacks in America today whose talent, grit, intelligence and efforts led them to success. Their attitudes, choices and faith shaped their outcomes, not quotas. Passing on their secrets to success and inspiring stories will help young people and those in need of opportunities. 

Philanthropy and True Diversity 

Equity efforts in philanthropy have called for donors to shift their charitable focus to specific racial groups such as Blacks and to support charities led by specific racial demographics. They were asked to abandon good philanthropic practices that ensure accountability for how funds are spent or measurements of grant outcomes. This is the wrong approach.  

Grantmakers should not abandon nor deviate from their missions to ensure all kids get the best educations and are challenged for success, to help young and older workers gain the hard and soft skills to find employment and build careers or to meet the basic needs of every individual. Instead, they should dig deeper into their work and maintain a focus on outcomes for individuals rather than box-checking and blind philanthropic support with no accountability. 

DEI focuses on the treatment and outcomes of demographic groups. A better way is to refocus on the individual and the totality of circumstances and experiences that shape them. At the Roundtable, we promote True Diversity, or a holistic equality-based framework for organizations to embrace diversity that values each unique individual and all of the complex differences between people. We believe that by embracing True Diversity, organizations can be mission-focused and still move the needle toward greater opportunity and better outcomes for all Americans. 

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