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The Multifaceted Challenge of Marrying DEI with Race: The Need for a Holistic Approach

As a seasoned practitioner in public service leadership, and having worked extensively in the space of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) both as a director and as a consultant, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution and challenges of DEI within the American context. One cannot talk about DEI in the U.S. without addressing the looming shadow of race—a historical and systemic structure that has been a profound source of division and inequality.

Historically, the concept of race in North America was birthed not from biological accuracy but from a social construct designed for division. Racial categories, as arbitrary as they might seem, were tailored with an explicit intention: to advantage certain groups while disadvantaging others based on skin pigmentation and physical appearance. This sociopolitical invention has had lasting impacts, and its reverberations are felt profoundly in contemporary American society, including in the workplace.

By creating a racial hierarchy—with Europeans at the apex—they could justify slavery, land confiscation, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation. Labeling certain races as 'inferior' based on pseudo-scientific theories provided the moral and intellectual justification for such actions. This rationale was essential for the European colonial powers to maintain control over vast territories and resources, ensuring their economic prosperity and global dominance. Fast forward to today, and the aftereffects of this racial categorization are palpable. The socio-economic disparities observed across the world, especially in former European colonies, can be traced back to these racial classifications. In North America, this dynamic plays out in racial disparities evidenced in income, health, and the criminal justice system.

DEI's goal is ambitious. At its heart, it aims to dismantle identity-based oppression, striving for a society where all can thrive regardless of their backgrounds. Yet, somewhere along the line, DEI's broader vision often gets reduced to just one of its facets—race. Such a narrow interpretation, while crucial, often overlooks various forms of oppression, including sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and others. While racial inequality is a glaring issue, relegating DEI to solely address it is a disservice to the multifaceted identities that each individual holds, including most marginalized based on race.

The DEI revolution, intensified by the tragic murder of George Floyd, saw a sudden surge in corporations racing to brand themselves as 'anti-racist.' Organizations began their DEI journeys with earnest intentions, many making DEI-specific hires. It is essential to note, however, that while George Floyd's murder spotlighted the racial dimension of injustice in America, there's a danger in oversimplifying this tragedy as solely a racially-motivated act. While a white officer was the main perpetrator of the murderous act, officers of color were complicit by choosing to standby and not intervene. To those who would offer that they were following protocol, there is precedent for officers stepping in to challenge their peers. Cariol Horne, a veteran of the Buffalo Police Department, was a year short of collecting her full pension when she lost her job for pulling a colleague off a suspect who was struggling for air, eerily reminiscent to George Floyd. By focusing exclusively on the racial identities of the perpetrator and victim, what is often neglected is the examination of the conditions leading up to such an encounter.

Oppression in the American context isn't just about race—it's fundamentally tied to socio-economic-political power. Those at the bottom rungs of this ladder, whether because of their race, gender, socio-economic status, or other identifiers, are victims of marginalization. George Floyd, beyond being an African American man, was poor, battling substance use disorder, and resided in a community that was largely sidelined by those wielding the power to incite meaningful change. The policing system in America, historically, was engineered to preserve the status quo—a mechanism to ensure that those with socio-political-economic power remained insulated from those without. Officers, in their role as gatekeepers, have been authorized, explicitly or implicitly, to maintain this divide, often with impunity. This is true for many of the other established systems such as banking, criminal justice, and education.

In the socio-political landscape of many American cities, certain neighborhoods—often those populated by minorities or economically marginalized groups—face consistent neglect from policymakers. This neglect, both subtle and overt, gradually erodes the very fabric of these communities, instigating a chain of adverse events. From poverty to crime, and from civic disenfranchisement to strained police relations, the role of political neglect is profound, with consequences that ripple through generations.

As we contemplate the future of DEI, we need a more refined, encompassing understanding—one that moves beyond an exclusive focus on racial categories or the marginalized parts of one’s identity. We need a deeper examination that incorporates the issue at the core of that which ails us – the resilient and insidious system to which we are all beholden, something that was created for us, without our consent. Such an approach should aim to instigate broader social changes that challenge and disrupt these entrenched systems of power and oppression.

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