TEXAS VIEW: Gov. Abbott’s big DEI mistake

THE POINT: All Texans benefit from expanded opportunity.

Gov. Greg Abbott is concerned that state agencies and universities have gone too far with their diversity, equity and inclusion policies. His solution last week was to have his chief of staff warn state officials that DEI policies in hiring are illegal.

Who is the one going overboard?

The letter comes days after a conservative group released public records from Texas Tech University showing that job candidates were scored favorably or unfavorably based on statements about DEI, among other factors. The scoring rubric does raise concerns and doesn’t represent the proper use of DEI, but Abbott’s sweeping statement dismissing all DEI hiring initiatives as illegal is wrong and harmful.

What the governor is doing is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We don’t know for sure what sparked the puzzling directive from his office. The letter from his chief of staff, Gardner Pate, fails to detail what DEI policies or practices offended the governor or why he has decided they are illegal, other than to vaguely note that these policies promote discrimination against an unspecified group.

To be clear, there is nothing illegal about ensuring that candidate pools include people from many backgrounds and from under-represented communities. We need diversity programs like this to help move society toward a place where equal opportunity is more fully available for people of color and other groups that historically have faced discrimination in the workplace.

There are reasonable concerns that well-intended initiatives to level the playing field might detour into thought-police territory. The Texas Tech documents show, for instance, that one candidate was praised for “land acknowledgement,” suggesting the candidate recognized that a piece of land was formerly inhabited by indigenous people. Other candidates were dinged for not knowing “the nuances between D,E, and I.”

Evaluators also used debated terms such as “BIPOC” and “Latinx” in their interview notes, raising questions about how their personal language preferences may have tainted their assessments of candidates.

Our state agencies and universities must not conduct ideological litmus tests to hurt or cast off applicants. Quizzing applicants about their own understanding of DEI terms can create confusion in an area that is often misunderstood, and judging candidates negatively based on those responses is a serious error.

But what the governor is doing is also harmful, as it may have a chilling effect on state agencies trying to do the right thing. And it’s something corporations from the NFL to AT&T and everyone in between have recognized is valuable to society and the bottom line. Diversity is a strength, but it comes through the intentional extension of opportunity.

Abbott lacks the authority to unilaterally proclaim illegal DEI initiatives in state hiring. If he has concerns about a specific policy, then he should say so, and he should explain why he thinks it runs afoul of the law.

We have to recognize that as human beings, we tend to reinforce our own biases and choose from our own networks, in hiring and other parts of life. But not everyone has the resources, advantages or connections to compete for opportunities even when they have the talent and work ethic to succeed.

Greater diversity in the workplace is valuable not only for groups that have historically been denied opportunity. It broadly benefits society. As Abbott’s chief of staff himself wrote to state officials: “As Texans, we celebrate the diversity of our State and the presence of a workforce that represents our rich culture.”

Celebration is nothing if opportunity isn’t available. And that’s why DEI is important to all of us.

The Dallas Morning News