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Texas’ College DEI Ban Is the Latest to ‘Turn Back the Clock on Racial Equality’

The movement is part of a broader attempt to thwart diversity efforts in higher education.

The new Texas law requires public universities and colleges to get rid of their diversity, equity, and inclusion offices or lose state funding. (Xin Jin/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Texas’ ultimatum that its public colleges and universities either ban diversity, equity, and inclusion — or DEI — efforts or lose state funding has Black educators such as Dwonna Goldstone, the director of the African American studies program at Texas State University, on edge.

Though the law goes into effect six months from now, she and education and civil rights advocates worry that the restrictions might contribute to enrollment decline and job loss, preview future attacks on academic departments, and even roll back hard-fought civil rights gains.

“I think that there’s going to be a brain drain. … Lots of Black and brown people will leave. I don’t want to leave — but if the right job comes along, I’ll leave, because the fear is that they’ll come after what I’m doing next,” Goldstone said. 

“Right now, [the law] is on the student affairs side … but those of us who are paying attention are concerned that next it’ll be African American studies, Latino studies, queer studies, [and] women’s studies,” she added.

What’s happening in Texas — which is the second state to enact such legislation — is part of a broader attempt to thwart DEI work in higher education. Republican lawmakers in at least a dozen states have introduced or passed similar bills to limit the consideration of DEI in job-related decisions, training, and programs at state-funded public institutions.

These efforts to eliminate DEI initiatives are about “controlling the narrative so that people won’t challenge the status quo,” and they won’t prepare students to compete in a country where the population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, Goldstone told Capital B. 

“I worry that there’s going to be an even deeper divide between what students in these states are learning and what students in other states are learning,” she explained. “Look at what’s happening in Illinois … legislation that bans people from banning books. That’s saying that we want students to learn and be engaged. Then you have states such as Florida and Texas that are saying, ‘We don’t want people learning this because it could hurt some people’s feelings.’”

The bind confronting public schools

The legislation, signed into law by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on June 14, requires public universities and colleges to get rid of their DEI offices or lose state funding. It says that institutions can’t hire or assign an employee for DEI work, use DEI training as a requirement to work or enroll at the school, or give preference to an employee or applicant based on race, sex, or ethnicity. And under the law, students and employees can sue institutions for injunctive or declaratory relief if they’re required to participate in DEI training.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board must conduct a study on the law’s effects on enrollment, retention, grade point average, and graduation broken down by race, sex, and ethnicity. The new requirements won’t affect course instruction, scholarly research, guest speakers, or programs to enhance student academic achievement. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1.

While the law claims that instruction won’t change, educators question the assertion. The Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education said in a statement to Capital B that faculty members are wondering how leaders might analyze classroom resources as DEI-influenced or their involvement in national groups that support DEI.

“Many organizations have financial support for projects that faculty apply for to support their professional development portfolios, but now may be restricted because of the new legislation,” the statement said.

The tamping down of DEI policies hurts democracy and hinders social progress, explained Augustus Mays, the vice president of partnerships and engagement at The Education Trust.

“Whenever we’ve had advancements in terms of policy, in terms of politics, in terms of advancement of our economy, it’s been Black communities that have been uplifted,” he said. “We’re at an inflection point in our country right now, in terms of trying to make sure that we’re addressing those disparities, and these policies definitely will hinder the advancement of our democracy and progress of it being a more inclusive society.”

Read more: What an Affirmative Action Ban Could Mean for College Diversity

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education said in a statement that the law abandons the responsibility public universities have to expand educational opportunities to promote critical thinking and advance intellectual excellence. Despite the banning of DEI offices, the association insists that the work will continue.

“The need to support the success of all students impacted by their experiences in and outside the classroom will not disappear,” the statement said. “While Texas’ lawmakers prefer to turn their backs on these necessary initiatives, the [National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education] will not.”

At Texas State, the Division of Inclusive Excellence — the office targeted by the legislation — is preparing to rebrand in order to conform with the law, Goldstone said. She added that colleges and universities can’t afford to lose funding; they must figure out how to comply.

Other ways that colleges could bolster diversity without relying on race-conscious policies include using geography or family wealth as proxies for race, creating outreach programs, and providing resources to historically Black colleges and universities, Mays added.

Yet experts warn about the limitations of race-neutral approaches, underscoring that these alternatives simply haven’t worked.

“Frankly, they’ve failed miserably,” Donald Harris, the associate dean for academic affairs and the equity, diversity, and inclusion liaison at Temple University Beasley School of Law, told Capital B in May. “There really is no race-neutral way to achieve what you can if you take race into account. There just isn’t.”

‘An old states’ rights playbook’

Maybe most troubling about the recent wave of attacks on diversity in education — including the U.S. Supreme Court’s likely gutting any day now of race-conscious college admissions policies — is that it’s hardly new. Instead, the country has seen this before.

“[Florida Republican Gov. Ron] DeSantis and Abbott are joining George Wallace to become the poster children for racist elected officials who are trying to turn back the clock on racial equality,” said Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, referring to the former governor of Alabama, who in 1963 infamously huffed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” “Both of them lead states that are very diverse, and they’re sending the message to the people of those states that ‘We don’t represent everyone. We represent only some.’”

He added that these bans are attempts to return the U.S. to “pre-1964,” and even to “pre-1954,” when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law and when the high court decided Brown v. Board of Education, respectively. Diversity offices, he made clear, are about equal treatment and equal dignity, and to deny funding to public colleges and universities that have these offices is “about as racist as you can get.”

After the landmark 1954 ruling, states throughout the South entered into an era of what’s called “massive resistance.” Rather than accept desegregation orders, many pro-segregation lawmakers chose to shut down public schools, and they signed Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd’s Declaration of Constitutional Principles, known informally as the Southern Manifesto on Integration, which lambasted Brown as “an abuse of judicial power” designed by supposed outside “agitators,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

“This is an old states’ rights playbook that they [DeSantis, Abbott, and others] have dusted off and put a new cover on,” Morial said. “And this isn’t a moment where we can be polite about the situation, or suggest that there’s any merit to it.”