Posted on April 7, 2024

“The Backlash Is Real”: Behind DEI’s Rise and Fall

Emily Peck, Axios, April 2, 2024

Diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, was the hot thing in corporate America a few years ago. Now: not so much.

Why it matters: The business community, long averse to political risks or controversies, backed away from DEI programs over the past two years in the wake of widespread attacks from lawmakershigh-profile rich guys and conservative activists like former Trump aide Stephen Miller.


Between the lines: Some business leaders are increasingly reluctant to speak publicly about the subject, but behind the scenes they’re fed up with DEI, Johnny Taylor, president of the Society for Human Resource Management said in a January interview with Axios.

  • “The backlash is real. And I mean, in ways that I’ve actually never seen it before,” he says. “CEOs are literally putting the brakes on this DE&I work that was running strong” since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 pushed businesses into action.

Flashback: After George Floyd, the chief diversity officer role “was the hottest position in America,” says Kevin Clayton, senior vice president, head of social impact and equity for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

  • Companies were hiring for these positions “out of guilt,” he says, noting that in 2020 he was pursued by more than a dozen employers.
  • But some CEOs are feeling like they didn’t hire well for these roles, bringing on people with civil rights backgrounds instead of more corporate expertise, says Taylor, of SHRM.

State of play: Some businesses are cutting back funding, trimming DEI staff — and even considering pulling back on things like employee resource groups comprised of workers of various races, ethnicities or interests.

  • And some are changing programs designed to support women and people of color because of lawsuits — many have been filed over these programs, more than 20 by Miller’s America First Legal. And other companies worry about litigation.


Goldman Sachs opened up its “Possibilities Summit” for Black college students to include white students; Bank of America broadened internal programs to “include everyone,” as Bloomberg reported last month.

  • “The seemingly small changes — lawyerly tweaks, executives call them — are starting to add up to something big: the end of a watershed era for diversity in the U.S. workplace, and the start of a new, uncertain one,” per Bloomberg.