Recently, the University of Wyoming hired its first vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Arguably well-intentioned, this sort of top-down and often cosmetic posturing is a far cry from what’s required to overcome our nation’s long-standing and deeply troubling racial and ethnic bias.
And yet, DEI has become a multi-billion-dollar industry complete with diversity trainers, equity consultants and the ever-present DEI officers. In Wyoming diversity training is increasingly common not only in colleges but also in K-12 schools, businesses, voluntary organizations and governmental agencies; to what effect is unclear.
Decades ago, as a white, liberal college kid, I picketed Woolworth stores over the company’s corporate refusal to serve non-whites at lunch counters in the South. I also participated in interracial sit-ins to compel a small-town barbershop owner to serve all. To be sure, Dr. King’s dream that we judge all people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, remains a clarion call for continuing action.
If Dr. King were alive today, the numbers would discourage him. Racial prejudice still underlies lesser outcomes for non-whites; whether within financial systems, neighborhood and school investments, high school and higher education completion rates, family economic mobility, wealth generation and even health care. While out of my sight and out of my mind, and with a few notable exceptions, non-whites have entirely worse odds at prosperity than I experienced. Is DEI training the best chance for any of this changing?
Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a diversity training session for a Wyoming corporation. The trainer’s personal story, experiencing racial prejudice growing up in rural Wyoming and attending college in Wyoming, was a startling revelation, which I found entirely credible. Unfortunately, however, much of the discussion was aimed toward categorizing ethnic, racial and social class identities — that we are judged according to which group we belong. This diminishes each person’s story, raises the hackles of a lot of decent folks, activates stereotypes and dangerously empowers the far right.
But even in Wyoming, young people filled with hope and uncorrupted by cynicism are telling us that out of sight, out of mind is no longer acceptable. Learning the whole truth about our history, and talking about it honestly, openly and respectfully, does help to set us free. In doing so, we stick to the evidence, using common words, not the trendy academic (mostly white liberal) acronyms. See Robert Livingston’s 2023 book, “The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.”
Whether or not we admit it, we all struggle with the matter of race. Invented millennia ago to justify the subjugation of one group of people by another, race is a social construct. Obfuscating the issue, the founders of our nation — all educated white men — advocated liberty from England while many held slaves as their private property. Among them, Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most outspoken slave owner on the matter, knew that slavery was wrong, and toward the end of his life advocated for gradual emancipation. But to get the southern colonies to join the union, he resorted to unfounded lies about intellectual and physical racial inferiorities. There is not a word about chattel slavery in our founding documents. Robert J. Larson’s 2022 book, “American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation,” is a worthy read on the topic.
Living in Wyoming, we are extraordinarily aware of natural diversity; even the vast variety of flora and fauna on the seemingly desolate Red Desert. But what is diversity when applied to people and institutions? That is a question that begets more questions. To eliminate racial prejudice, what kind of diversity is actually meaningful? How do we achieve a diverse community, business or college? What are the qualitative as well as the quantitative measures for success? How will we know when success is achieved?
As much as we like to differentiate ourselves from Coloradoans, I truly believe that the City of Denver has come up with a single, straightforward statement on what success looks like: “Race and other social identities can no longer be used to predict life outcomes.”
Rather than focusing on changing hearts and minds, which may not be possible, a more promising approach may be to focus on a few inarguable (and very measurable) prerequisites for individual and family success: food, housing, health care, early childhood education, job training and, most important but least discussed, ownership of assets. From my perspective, our in-state, non-governmental, philanthropic institutions are best positioned to propose and advocate for public policies that dedicate sustained public funding to accomplish our goal.
Meanwhile, trust in and respect for one another doesn’t require agreement; but will go a long way to making Wyoming a more prosperous place for all.
DEI is an program that should not be placed in our public institutions. I have become ashamed of the University of Wyoming for hiring a Vice President that will be obligated to implement this dangerous idea into our education system. The program should be defunded.
It looks like some of these comments have turned hateful or using unsubstantiated information in spite of guidelines. Thanks for your thoughtful article. I’m sorry I looked at many of the comments.
Thanks to John Freeman for a thought-provoking piece. Like John, I think that diversity-training courses have limited value. My only experience is the course I took a number of years ago as a UW employee. It was a canned, on-line course that seemed like the type a university would offer because administrators face federal requirements and public expectations, but have limited funds. It did make me think, though, and that’s good because hearts and minds won’t change until we’re prompted to think about prejudice and racism. Changing hearts and minds, in turn, is necessary for us to want to correct disparities in the inarguable, measurable prerequisites that John identifies for individual and family success. But having the right feelings in our hearts and thoughts in our minds is not sufficient (right again, John). To correct disparities, we have to look at facts about our institutions and decide what our society can do about them. And, as John says, we have to look honestly at our history. We have facts to show us stark differences in health measures between Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people on the one hand and whites on the other. Why the differences? How can we modify our institutions to fix them? Is the inarguable disparity between Blacks and whites in net financial worth part of the legacy of slavery? If we want to erase the disparity, how can we modify our institutions to do that? Unfortunately, though, state legislatures are passing laws that prohibit the teaching of unpleasant but inarguable facts about our institutions, and that prevent students from learning how history might explain them. This is disheartening, to say the least.
We need to concentrate on educating executives and managers and hold them accountable.
What we need more of (as opposed to DEI training) is plain old common sense, decency and the courage to act according to what is right. This is otherwise known as being a humanitarian and any concentrated effort towards public policy should not be a divisive. Thank your Dr. Freeman for your excellent commentary.
If health is a measure of oppression then look how the state is making it illegal to be trans .. this is why diversity and inclusion are important.. there is no common sense.. if it could happen to Jewish folks in Germany during ww2 it can happen to any one anywhere…. Wyoming is legalizing institutional discrimination of trans folks….
when Collin kaepernick kneeled peopoe hated him.. it was cause he was black and standing against the status quo…. This is 2023 and people still got mindsets that belong in 1923 .. from sexist racial prejudices to religious prejudices .. you’re asking if dei does anything as something who’s not even part of a minority community . The answer is yes ….
As always John Freeman speaks thoughtfully, without divisive rhetoric!
Thank you. I really struggle with this as a co-founder and co-chair of the Riverton Peace Mission that is addressing bordertown racism towards tribal people of the Wind River Indian Reservation. To Native Americans and to some non-Native observers, the racism is obvious, and the data clearly documents the racism. But many descendants of white settlers are in denial and are uncomfortable about the use of words like systemic and institutional racism to define what is happening. Does DEI training help? About 5 years ago, a national nonprofit organization led workshops in Cheyenne, Gillette and Riverton on “Undoing Racism.” There were about 40 participants in each community with a balance in numbers of white and non-white people, except in Riverton where only 4 white people showed up while Native Americans had to be turned away when the capacity was filled. I too was around in the 60’s and know what the civil rights movement was about. I think the approach has to be 2-fold. One is calling out the racism when we see it, to make those uncomfortable enough to face the truth who will listen. The other is offering solutions for equitable non-racist programs, not that easy when racism is such a part of the fabric of public policies, like health care and policing.
I don’t believe there is prejudice against good honest citizens. George Floyd was drug up counterfeit money passer. He got caught. Yes what happened was tragedy but would never happened if he hadn’t been trying to steal goods with counterfeit money. And not been high on illegal drugs. We have to stop this VICTIM HOOD GARBAGE
You defend the traitors that stormed the capitol.
You defended ashli babbitt as a “patriot” who didn’t deserve to be shot. While she was trying to climb through a broken window and ignoring police commands.
You’ve defended cos playing Kyle Rittenhouse after he thought he wanted to play security guard.
You spoke about how your chrump savior is being unfairly targeted for the multiple legal cases against him. You’ve gone so far as to parrot the orange blobs idiotic defense of “its all a witch hunt”
You rail against the media (mainly wyofile) about it being a liberal talking point that is out to get self proclaimed “patriot” points of view.
You’ve repeated the dog whistle of the “replacement theory” that fox News and tucker Carlson grew so fond of for a while.
Tell everyone again about how you’re tired of the “victim hood garbage” when it pertains to something you don’t like. To me, it seems like you embrace the “victim hood garbage” when it reflects your bigoted beliefs.
Making excuses to validate your racism is not gonna fly any longer. Humane treatment of everyone and not calling names, categorizing people and reflecting why you are saying what you are saying would be a great place to start. Your comments are full of hate and racism.
So the punishment for passing an alleged counterfeit 20 (which was not even collected as evidence, btw,) is death by cop in the street. Cops who lied about his drug use at the scene. Got it. The party of law and order, ladies and gentlemen…