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Opinion | We Need DEI Programming More Than Ever During COVID-19

It’s been very telling to observe how diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) initiatives are faring in the current climate. So far, I’ve received a lot of responses from companies explaining their diversity programming is on pause because they have shifted to mitigating business risk and "ensuring the safety & well-being” of all their workforce. In a very shallow interpretation of “diversity” this appears to make sense, because many of the DEI programs put in place are about tolerance and equal opportunity JUST within the four walls of that one organization, NOT about changing the systemic injustices that affect their diverse workforce.

In reality, this is a major cop-out. The experience of an employee within an organization doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is intertwined with the identity that person has built on the axes of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, etc. Reducing “diversity initiatives” to an inward-facing role & ignoring the influence of an unequal outside world allow companies to deflect the responsibility of addressing larger issues pertinent to the mental & emotional health of its employees. Just look at how passive our so-called “champions of diversity” F500 companies were when the stimulus bill was narrowed to only include those with SSN’s, as if this was not a diversity issue that reached into their own organizations. Operating under the pretense that all employees will be affected similarly by COVID does not ensure the “safety & well-being” of anyone except for a privileged few, because it’s painfully obvious how unequal this pandemic’s ultimate impact will be.

Diversity is a going concern for operating a business because providing equal access & means to success is a going concern for doing business well. That requires coming to terms with how our society’s relationship with marginalized groups — be it African Americans that were enslaved & used for agricultural labor, or young women who died from radium exposure in watch factories — have shaped how businesses are built and continue to function today. The point of diversity is to fundamentally change a company’s relationship to the practiced abuse and extraction of PoC labor, and without a continued focus on it the disparate effects of COVID will last much longer than the here & now.

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