Republicans have already made critical race theory, a college-level academic theory that examines the role of institutional racism in American society, the boogeyman du jour for conservative parents across the country. Now, they are aiming higher.
In more than a dozen states, Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at gutting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the country’s universities and colleges. One of the early significant efforts came from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is in the midst of an effort to turn Florida’s colleges into a haven for conservative ideology.
But other GOP-controlled states like Iowa and Texas are introducing bills that will ban DEI efforts, programs and initiatives in their respective states, smearing them as part of the left’s so-called woke agenda.
The bills’ proposals range from discontinuing the consideration of DEI statements that express a commitment to diversity to eliminating any diversity training at all. Much of the legislation is written in such a broad way that it’s difficult to understand which programs and campus activities would be affected.
And while Republicans bemoan DEI efforts as examples of liberal ideology being forced upon them, advocates say their crusade against DEI constitutes a full-throated attack on the actual colleges.
“This is about discrimination against people who have just begun to get access to these spaces,” Antonio Ingram, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told HuffPost. “They’re being told the doormat is being rolled up, we’ve had enough.”
Ingram said DEI initiatives aren’t just focused on Black students: Hispanic students, students with disabilities, women and students with veteran status, to name a few groups, all benefit.
But just as panic about critical race theory spread from state to state, anti-DEI efforts and bills are now gaining traction wherever Republicans are in charge.
In Iowa, where an anti-DEI bill has advanced through a state House committee, Republicans are regurgitating the same talking points that have become popular in conservative circles.
“The DEI bureaucracies at our institutions of higher education have been used to push a woke agenda on the faculty, staff and students,” Iowa Republican state Rep. Taylor Collins told Fox News in March.
Iowa’s public universities oppose the bill, saying that prohibiting the schools from spending money on DEI efforts could impact their federal grants and accreditation, and even scholarships meant for a specific demographic.
In Missouri, Republicans authored bills that would ban DEI training at the state’s colleges and medical schools and prohibit schools from requiring DEI statements during the hiring process.
But Texas appears to be the state attacking DEI initiatives with the most fervor. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott instructed state agencies and public universities to stop using diversity criteria in hiring, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said banning DEI is one of his top priorities for the legislative year.
“We all feel like we need to self-censor. But how do you teach political science or civil rights without talking about race?”
The Texas state legislature is currently considering three separate bills that could impact not just DEI programs but also what professors can say in their classes and their careers.
“These bills would fundamentally change the way higher education works in Texas,” Ingram said.
Texas’ S.B. 16 prohibits professors from teaching students in a way that “compels them to believe that one race or sex is superior.” S.B. 17 prohibits diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and penalizes those that violate the law by banning them from working at a public university for one year for the first violation and five years for the second violation.
S.B. 18 ends tenure going forward for higher education professors. “This isn’t happening in a vacuum,” Ingram said. “It’s not a coincidence they want to end tenure just as we have brilliant Black, brown, and queer academics entering the space.”
Professors in Texas are already feeling the effects of the proposals.
“If you discuss something that has to do with race, you can get in trouble and you can get blacklisted,” Pat Heintzelman, the president of the Texas Faculty Associates, told HuffPost.
“We all feel like we need to self-censor,” Heintzelman said. “But how do you teach political science or civil rights without talking about race?” She’s worried that this is just the beginning of what the Texas legislature has in store for colleges. “Maybe next it’ll be teaching evolution,” she said. “This is just the foot in the door.”
Proponents of the anti-DEI measures can also attack these programs through the budget. Last week, an amendment in the Texas budget that prohibits universities from using state funds for DEI purposes passed the House.
In recent years, attacking public institutions through bills that restrict, ban and defund them has become a cornerstone of GOP ideological beliefs. And though Republicans have zeroed in on K-12 education as well as public libraries, perhaps no place offers more of an introduction to progressive and diverse ideas than college.
“The attacks on higher education,” Ingram said, “are really an attack on multiracial democracy.”