DeSantis’ DEI doublespeak is an affront to democracy
Florida’s gubernatorial leader, Ron DeSantis announced his run for the Republican nomination in the forthcoming United States presidential election mere days after signing a new state bill (SB 266) into law effectively prohibiting the state’s public colleges from allocating fiscal resources to DEI programming.
At the signing of the bill, DeSantis decried DEI programming as contrary to higher education as a public good by suggesting that “DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination”.
It is hard to miss how clearly DeSantis’ assessment of DEI programming echoes Orwellian doublespeak. Indeed, the obverse is true: any state-sponsored effort undermining access to an educated and diverse society is an affront to democratic values.
DeSantis is not alone in his interest to ban and reduce public funds for DEI programmes. Adrienne Lu and colleagues have mapped the broader legislative landscape in the United States through their DEI Legislation Tracker. The Tracker highlights the 35 bills introduced over 20 states this year and shows how many of these bills lift their verbiage directly from templates created by conservative policy think tanks.
What we are witnessing in the US is the latest iteration of ongoing efforts to undermine the flourishing of historically-informed critical thinking as a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy.
Students need ready access to educational spaces that engage them by dialoguing through difference. These opportunities are unavailable without students’ ability to learn from a robust trove of interdisciplinary scholarship that rigorously documents the inequitable contours of our global order.
To create these opportunities, we need to draw from a broad array of initiatives: from co-curricular programming that supports students’ deepening of their historical understanding of enduring social inequities to instructors’ engagement with pedagogical practices that are responsive to students’ identities.
Students, administrators and academics invested in advancing these efforts rely on DEI programming to cultivate these opportunities; indeed, DEI programmes are necessary, albeit insufficient, components of inclusive education.
DeSantis and others, like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas who is likely to sign a state bill prohibiting offices of diversity at public colleges starting in 2024, are emblematic of coordinated efforts seeking to sever the tie between ideological pluralism and democratic futures.
Officials like DeSantis and Abbot engage in doublespeak when they say that they want to protect students from ideological conformity on college campuses because banning efforts to foster inclusive educational spaces is irreconcilable with such beliefs. Their vocal insistence that DEI programmes are the culprits of ideological conformity is, ironically, their unintended admission of the strategy they are seeking to implement themselves.
Such assiduous efforts to ban DEI programming mark the early symptoms of leaders who have succumbed to a malady that shows disdain for democratic engagement.
Take, for instance, Nayib Bukele’s 2019 election to the presidency in El Salvador, my own country of origin. In his first year of leadership, Bukele dissolved multiple divisions within his executive branch, including the Secretaría de Inclusión Social (Secretary of Social Inclusion).
In subsequent years, Bukele has decreed increasingly restrictive policies, including a 2022 “law of exception”, resulting in the arrest of over 65,000 individuals without probable cause under the guise of reducing gang violence.
In March 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights strongly denounced how Bukele’s efforts “raise serious human rights concerns”. The dissolution of programmes for social inclusion, then, were the harbingers of Bukele’s desire for an increasingly autocratic approach to governance.
In the United States, we would be wise to recognise how the onslaught of sustained efforts against DEI programming presages far more troubling futures. Multiple US academics, students and civic leaders have already decried these efforts and they are the ones whose calls we need to heed, lest we wish to relinquish our vision for democratic futures.
By setting their sights on restricting – if not outright banning – public resources for a broadly diverse and educated citizenry, public officials like DeSantis, Abbott and Bukele, reveal how their uninspired efforts draw from the overused playbook of autocrats.
A relentless attempt to curtail access to DEI programming is not a marker of bold leadership nourishing a robust democracy. On the contrary, it is indicative of these individuals’ deepest fears.
DeSantis and his ilk hope to minimise public support for DEI programming because they know that the transformative potential of inclusive education is the seedling for imagination. Therein lies the disarming power of equitable approaches to education: it inspires us to believe that another world is not only possible, but also necessary.
Andrés Castro Samayoa is assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development, United States.