Little more than a decade ago, DEI was just another arcane acronym, a clustering of three ideas, each to be weighed and evaluated against other societal values. The terms diversity, equity, and inclusion weren’t yet being used in the singular, as one all-inclusive, non-negotiable moral imperative. Nor had they coalesced into a bureaucratic juggernaut running roughshod over every aspect of national life.
They are now.
Seemingly in unison, and with almost no debate, nearly every major American institution – including federal, state, and local governments, universities and public schools, hospitals, insurance, media and technology companies and major retail brands – has agreed that the DEI infrastructure is essential to the nation’s proper functioning. From Amazon to Walmart, most major corporations have created and staffed DEI offices within their human resources bureaucracy. So have sanitation departments, police departments, physics departments, and the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, education and energy. Organizations that once argued against DEI now feel compelled to institute DEI training and hire DEI officers. So have organizations that are already richly diverse, such as the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
Many of these offices in turn work with a sprawling network of DEI consulting firms, training outfits, trade organizations and accrediting associations that support their efforts.
“Five years ago, if you said ‘DEI,’ people would’ve thought you were talking about the Digital Education Initiative,” Robert Sellers, University of Michigan’s first chief diversity officer, said in 2020. “Five years ago, if you said DEI was a core value of this institution, you would have an argument.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion is an intentionally vague term used to describe sanctioned favoritism in the name of social justice. Its Wikipedia entry indicates a lack of agreement on the definition, while Merriam-Webster.com and the Associated Press online style guide have no entry (the AP offers guidance on related terms).
Yet however defined, it’s clear DEI is now much more than an academic craze or corporate affectation.
“It’s an industry in every sense of the word,” says Peter Schuck, professor emeritus of law at Yale. “My suspicion is that many of the offices don’t do what they say. But they’re hiring people, giving them titles and pretty good money. I don’t think they do nothing.”
It’s difficult to know how large the DEI Industrial Complex has become. The Bureau of Labor Statistics hasn’t assessed its size. Two decades ago, MIT professor Thomas Kochan estimated that diversity was already an $8 billion-a-year industry. Yet along with the addition of equity, inclusion, and like terms, the industry has surely grown an order of magnitude larger. Six years ago, McKinsey and Company estimated that American companies were spending $8 billion a year on diversity training alone. DEI hiring and training have only accelerated in the years since.