There is a targeted uptick in public and legal attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the United States today. So, how do anthropologists continue to work in the DEI space? These attacks are pervasive, built into a broad conservative political-legal strategy; a backlash against efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. This backlash is, unfortunately, not historically unique. Rather, we have seen that amidst such challenges, diversity professionals have and will continue to reimagine how to conduct DEI endeavors. We continue to argue that anthropologists are particularly well-equipped to engage in DEI work, through their study of culture, systems, and interactions; holism, structures, and structural biases; and historical and existing inequities. Thus, anthropologists can conduct this work thoughtfully and dynamically in a way that centers the needs of those most marginalized in our society.
While the current backlash against DEI feels daunting, past efforts to diversify the U.S. workplace have almost always met with great resistance. For example, in response to legal challenges to affirmative action in the 1980s–1990s, business scholars and consultants replaced the managerial discourse on affirmative action with that of diversity. Management scholars advocating for diversity claimed that affirmative action was a matter of compliance, but diversity was a business imperative—a prevalent discourse that persists today. In effect, in the face of anti-affirmative action backlash, the work of attempting to diversify historically white cismen’s organizations and spaces did not go away. Instead, the central framing and focus of this work began to shift, and in other ways, expand.
Historically and in the present, in the face of changing needs, expectations, and legal, organizational, and social demands, DEI work has required a dynamic field of professionals who can rise to the occasion every day to meet these challenges. This entails strategizing how to achieve institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion goals at the intersection of organizational, economic, and social needs, while simultaneously working towards challenging historic systems of discrimination. This means challenging our assumptions about the ways that things have been done in order to identify solutions for doing things in new, but familiar ways.
For example, in 1996, Proposition 209 prohibited the University of California and other state institutions from using race, ethnicity, or sex in employment or higher education. Rather than eliminate the process altogether, the University of California led in the development of using the short “diversity statement” in faculty hiring decisions. This describes an applicant’s knowledge, commitment, and plans to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Such statements continue to be permissible within the law; they are required of all individuals and do not suggest that there would be a priority to hire individuals by race.
In 2024, the science behind the value of diversity—for businesses, educational institutions, and non-profits—is irrefutable. Teams that are diverse in terms of race, gender, and other demographic dimensions result in better and more objective decision-making, more creative problem-solving, and higher-impact ideas and innovation. It does not make business sense to eliminate diversity work in toto. Instead, while facing an anti-DEI backlash, many rework their strategies; for example, by focusing on creating outreach that will increase diversity in the applicant pool itself.
Also, in a move noteworthy for anthropologists, some organizations today are silently rebranding DEI departments and programming, overall, with an eye to culture; they are transforming DEI surveys into “culture” surveys that address the same questions and concerns. This rebranding tactic is being well received in many spaces, including by corporate leaders who have spoken out in support of their efforts. We have seen many of our consulting peers also rebrand their companies to de-emphasize diversity, such as the DiversityInc firm rebranding to Fair360.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is an aggregate of practices, policies, programs, initiatives that are all multifaceted, unique, and tailored to address specific goals. The truth of the matter is that, like anti-affirmative action movements of the past, current anti-DEI legislative efforts are forcing us to rethink how we undertake hiring, admissions processes, and training with diversity and inclusion in mind. Given, however, the well-understood business value of diversity, anti-DEI movements will have a difficult time stopping the work in its entirety. Diversity professionals are experts at re-tooling and re-imagining their work, because there is demand for strategic solutions that address legal constraints, organizational needs, and employee and community expectations, in spite of headlines reporting a chilling effect on DEI efforts. To do this work, we believe there continues to be a unique seat at the table for anthropologists to help us usher the new era of diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces, and to join us in asking and re-imagining, what is next for DEI?
Dr. Lucy Arciniega and Dr. Melissa Maceyko co-founded Willing Observers in 2021 to provide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies and services from an organizational culture perspective. Willing Observers uses insights about company beliefs, values, norms, and practices to drive the creation of DEI plans, metrics, training and programming to meet the specific needs and expectations of a company’s stakeholders.
Lucy C. Arciniega, PhD has over ten years of experience in the diversity, equity, and inclusion industry. She served as Director, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Salk Institute for Biological Studies where she headed the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and developed and implemented strategies for the Institute. She also served as Managing Director of the NDC Index, an annual survey that measures organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, at the National Diversity Council, a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization, and as Visiting Assistant Professor in Business Anthropology at Wayne State University. Her academic work has been published in Organization, Economic Anthropology, and Engaging Science, Technology and Society. She also wrote numerous opinion editorials through her column, “Diversity in the Workplace,” which was hosted from 2017 to 2019 by the American Anthropology Association.
Melissa Maceyko, PhD is a full-time scholar-practitioner who focuses on the role that interpersonal conversations play in impactful DEI initiatives, effective social change, and political action, domestically and globally. Since 2016, she has held the position of Lecturer in Anthropology, Linguistics, Gender Studies, and Political Science at California State University, Long Beach. From 2021-2022 she served as the Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and currently serves on the California State Board for the American Association of University Women in the role of co-chair of Public Policy. She has published her work in American Anthropologist and as a contributor and editor of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology column in Anthropology News. Previously, she also served as Executive Director of the Allyship Center for the National Diversity Council, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.