Banning DEI is the Kentucky legislature’s gentler form of bigotry. They need to stop. | Opinion

Kentucky is one of the poorest, least healthy states in the union, but its political representatives are battling their latest imaginary culture war foe: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, often known as DEI.

This is the latest conservative think tank target. A recent long piece in the New York Times made perfectly clear that it’s really about changing back a society that has stopped putting white men at the the center of power and privilege.

These culture warriors have passed along their white papers about how to eradicate DEI; those sheets then floated down to the Kentucky Capitol in a veritable gobbledygook cloud of accusation and suspicion. It makes as much sense as fighting witchcraft or trying mind control.

Somehow, three different bills now circulating in Frankfort will attempt to harness university and K-12 administrations to make sure they don’t offer DEI programs or classes or do anything that might help a minority or first-generation student feel included and successful.

DEI, they say, has corrupted our classrooms by teaching our children and college students that white people are somehow inferior and should feel bad about taking the lion’s share of resources that our society has to offer.

This is nonsense, of course. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts came out of the fact that between slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights, neither equity nor diversity had been achieved inside America’s institutions, including its colleges and universities. They include programming, such as efforts to help first-generation college students get a better start or cultural centers for Black or LGBTQ students.

To be against DEI is to to be against efforts to make America’s rich ethnic tapestry succeed somehow suspect and off limits. Opposition to it is a kinder, gentler bigotry. White hoods are replaced with vague language that forces colleges and universities to somehow pretend that racism and discrimination have had no place in our history and need no redress.

But like the Kentucky GOP’s past efforts to deny our history — their attempts to ban critical race theory — or their targeting of minorities — such as last year’s bill to deny gender-affirming care to transgender kids, the fight against DEI is at its core anti-Black and anti-minority.

These kinds of laws will cause even more of a brain drain, of bright people leaving Kentucky because of these kinds of backward views, and bright people — and the companies they work for — refusing to come. And with so many efforts unfolding to transform our commonwealth’s economy, we need more high-potential, high-achieving individuals here, not less.

After all, why would anyone who values diversity and the perspectives it brings want to come to a state that is basically saying: “Only white Christians are welcome here.”

As University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto said last week in a long-awaited statement on the legislation: “The truth is that our world and our state are changing. We are growing more diverse. Indeed, we must, if our state is to grow economically. We should embrace that change and harness the opportunities it presents, not shrink from it.”

There is also the issue of local control, something the GOP used to care about.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky released a Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey of 625 registered Kentucky voters, 71% of whom said that “businesses and institutions should be allowed to make decisions regarding their own diversity, equity and inclusion education and training programs, without government interference.”

Legislation attacking DEI is a silly time-waster in a state that has much bigger problems to deal with. Such bills should be ignored, or voted down.

Lesser of three evils

But the white, male-dominated Kentucky GOP is determined to move forward with its latest campaign of racial animus and micromanagement. There are three choices for how they do it.

Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, is a vague and confusing mess of words about “discriminatory” issues at colleges and universities.

According to reporter Alex Acquisto, the bill would ban “’non-credit classes, seminars, workshops, trainings and orientations’ that promote or espouse such discriminatory concepts as: ‘race or race scapegoating,’ a belief that some individuals are ‘inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;’ any teaching that ‘promotes division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;’ and any teaching that suggests all ‘Americans are not created equal.’

House Bill 9 goes further by actually requiring colleges and universities to defund their DEI offices. Its sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Decker, R-Shelbyville, recently told an NAACP chapter meeting that her tenant farmer father was a white slave, so it’s understandable that her grasp of racial issues might be shaky.

While higher education administration bloat is certainly a concern, and DEI offices might contribute to it, this bill is not the right way to address it. Take a look at athletics administration, for example.

The last bill that should be rejected is Senate Bill 93, from Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield.

His proposal would ban DEI efforts in K-12 schools. More dangerously, the bill would stop statutory requirements that school mental health counselors take a “trauma-informed approach” when supporting students, because such an approach is a “backdoor” to a “DEI agenda,” he told reporters. That approach was part of a GOP safe school act in 2019 in the wake of the Marshall County High School shooting.

All three bills are constitutionally suspect and would almost certainly face legal challenges. But that has never stopped our legislature before. If the General Assembly is determined to get a pat on the head from the Heritage Foundation, they should stick with SB 6, which is the least damaging of the three bills, the lesser of three evils, as it were.

But once again, all three send a message to the world that Kentucky is not open for business if your skin is brown or black, not open to new ideas about old suffering, not willing to process past injustices or have open minds. They will take us further backwards to a time where power and privilege stayed with one skin color.

The world has tried to move beyond that; Kentucky should as well.