Rob Schofield: Was UNC’s retreat on DEI a mistake?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2024

By Rob Schofield

There was a time in American history, after the Revolution and prior to the Civil War, in which many white Americans — North and South — said it was unnecessary to affirmatively combat slavery or seek to restrict it because it was an obsolete institution that would eventually wither and die on its own.

Thankfully, this was not a view shared by abolitionists or, ultimately, President Abraham Lincoln and other union supporters, who eventually came to realize that abolition was the great and ultimate purpose of the Civil War.

Interestingly and sadly, despite this most hard fought of lessons, the debate between those who would seek intentional action to confront societal injustice and effect progress and those who would call for progress to happen “naturally” has arisen repeatedly over the last 160 years.

Movements supporting women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights, LGBTQ equality, people with disabilities, immigrant rights, religious tolerance and dozens of others seeking progress and change have all encountered the argument that the solution lies in “patience” and having government “get out of the way” so that formerly second-class citizens can obtain the opportunities they seek “naturally.”

“Hey, discrimination is now illegal,” goes this argument. “The law today is neutral. If public institutions continue to take action to aid those once victimized by discrimination, it constitutes reverse discrimination.”

This argument is very similar to the one that free-market fundamentalists in the economic realm adhere to so stubbornly as they repeatedly assure us that everything will be fine for all strata of society if we but trust the “invisible hand.”

And it is the very argument that the members of the UNC Board of Governors relied upon last week as they voted to end the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Like those who promised a “natural” end to slavery (and Jim Crow laws, and discrimination against women and religious intolerance) the board took the position that the goal of equal opportunity in higher education will be met naturally if the university simply remains “neutral.”

In other words, as has so often happened in the past, a powerful public body consisting overwhelmingly of older white men — a group that makes up perhaps 10% of the North Carolina population and that has benefited enormously in countless ways from the racism and sexism that permeated our society for centuries — confidently assured those still waiting to enjoy proportionate access to success and to the corridors of power that they simply need to be patient and allow “neutral” and “colorblind” rules to pave the way.

Sadly, however, if there is any blindness at work here it belongs to the board majority that could not see — either willfully or through sheer obliviousness — the reality they inhabit and the obvious parallel their stance bears to so many similar ones taken by powers-that-be throughout American history.

What such assurances of commitment to neutrality ignore is that discrimination against long disfavored groups is not merely the product of discriminatory laws and rules. Rather, discrimination is baked into the very fibers of our society. And as we’ve come to learn through decades of trial and error, it persists absent intentional and spirited action to identify, spotlight and address it.

Consider the example of how American society has historically treated people with disabilities. Throughout much of the 20th century, Americans — usually thinking themselves quite progressive while doing so — developed programs to “shelter” (i.e. segregate) “handicapped” people.

It took decades of education and determined advocacy to make the majority understand that this was not adequate and not what people with disabilities wanted or deserved. And even today, we’re hardly at the place we need to get to. It continues to take sustained action by disability rights advocates to identify hidden roadblocks and ignorant biases that block their access to full and equitable participation in society.

And so it is today in higher education for many groups who have long endured second- and third-class citizenship.

Yes, most of the rules have become “neutral” on their face, but that hardly fixes everything. There are scores of situations in which less obvious hurdles and dead ends arise that don’t even occur to people of privilege. And they need to be identified, held up to the light of day and intentionally addressed.

And that’s what DEI programs like the ones the board of governors voted to eliminate last week do.

Are these programs perfect? Of course not. Like all human endeavors — especially those in fields of such complexity and nuance — they sometimes err.

But DEI programs are also quite rightfully premised on the irrefutable lesson from American history that progress for disfavored groups requires intentional and sustained efforts to inform, to educate, and to advocate — and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

By abandoning this truth on the political right’s false altar of “neutrality,” UNC leaders have further delayed the arrival of true equal opportunity.

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the ‘News & Views’ weekly radio show/podcast.