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Diversity, equity and inclusion is the new CRT

Students during a Defend New College protest in Sarasota, Fla., on Jan. 31. (Octavio Jones/Bloomberg News)
9 min

Like many employers, Fox has a website aimed at showing potential employees that they are welcome — regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

“We live in a diverse world, with different ideas and different perspectives that come together to spark new ideas and make great things happen,” Fox’s “Diversity and Inclusion” page reads. “That means reflecting the diversity of the world around us is critical to our company’s success, and we’re deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, including attracting, retaining and promoting diverse talent across our company.”

That page links to another, titled “Inclusion.” It shows happy Fox employees who participate in various non-White, non-straight or non-male-oriented groups such as “Women@Fox” or “Pride” for LGBTQ Fox employees — accompanied by a photo of Pride Month-themed Fox gear.

Farther down the page, nestled between “Pride” and “Women in Tech,” the site mentions “Vets.” This is the employee group “committed to the community of Veterans, current service members, military supporters, and military spouses employed at FOX.” It, too, has a photographic accompaniment: “Fox & Friends” co-host Pete Hegseth, himself a veteran.

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One might wonder whether Hegseth knows that he’s pictured on his employer’s “Inclusion” site — or whether he knows that Fox has an “Inclusion” page at all. After all, reflecting the rhetorical themes omnipresent on his employer’s cable-news programming, Hegseth scoffs at efforts to increase or recognize diversity.

When President Biden spoke at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church last month, Hegseth criticized the president’s message.

“It feels like what they are doing … is pushing things like diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said, “that divide us even more. That emphasize that ethnicity instead of our common bonds.”

This is near-mantra on the right. Fox News’s incessant focus on “critical race theory” (CRT) over the past few years — a term derived from an academic discipline that has been inflated to cover a wide range of race-focused issues — has evolved along with the discourse to focus on “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI). The thrust of each, in the presentation of Fox News and its allies, is that the toxic left is seeking to divide the United States by race.

Hegseth’s dual roles here are instructive. Fox is a corporation seeking to hire and retain employees from a working-age population that is largely diverse, demographically and in terms of sexuality. About 4 in 10 Americans aged 25 to 64 were Asian, Black, Hispanic or some other non-White race in 2021, with younger Americans — those more likely to be embarking on their careers — skewing more diverse still. That’s whom Fox is trying to target with a message those workers often see as important.

It is not whom Fox News is trying to target. In 2022, the median age of a Fox News viewer was 69 years. Three-quarters of Americans in that age range are White, and very few identify publicly as gay.

But Fox News viewers are not simply older Americans, of course. They are generally older Republicans, a group for which these discussions of race are particularly potent. Republicans are as likely or more likely to say that Whites face discrimination in the United States than they are to say that gay or Black people do. The idea that Whites are a target of discrimination was a potent contributor to Donald Trump’s support in 2016. That sentiment, stoked by Trump, Fox News and others, was an outgrowth of the surge in attention paid to immigration and race in 2014 and to increased awareness of the country’s changing demography, as illustrated above. The election of Barack Obama was an immediate presentation of that change: a young non-White guy taking power.

By the time Trump was seeking reelection, the backlash against efforts to address or even consider embedded racism in the United States was a streamlined political attack. The surge of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 contributed to it, but events such as the backlash against the New York Times’s “1619 Project” already had demonstrated the potency of anti-anti-racist rhetoric. What was offered as a way to recognize the complexity of the country’s history on race for a new generation of Americans was framed as an attack on America and, by extension, on older Americans.

Trump grudgingly left office, and a new administration — one sympathetic to racial justice arguments — took power. The right had a wonderful new foil. Discussions of “critical race theory” blossomed on the right generally and on Fox News specifically.

Again, the criticisms of CRT were not about CRT as such but of an intentionally constructed caricature of CRT aimed at tying together a wide (and often cherry-picked) array of race-tangential issues as useful targets. Like “woke,” “CRT” came to mean a vague sense of race- or diversity-related things and, therefore, bad things.

Opportunistic actors including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) leapt to uproot the perceived threat of CRT. He championed and signed into law the “Stop WOKE Act,” which focused on CRT in the loosely constructed sense elevated by activists such as the Manhattan Institute’s Chris Rufo. The governor celebrated various dubious victories over CRT, as when his team trumpeted the state’s blocking various math textbooks that they asserted included CRT-related content. He spoke out against the College Board’s advanced placement curriculum on African American studies in the window between when changes had been incorporated into the curriculum and when those changes were publicized.

That DeSantis’s efforts often focused on schools is a function of education sitting at the nexus of right-wing rhetoric — young people are being indoctrinated against America! — and his own power as governor. This is also why DeSantis’s attention has shifted to state programs and policies aimed at DEI: These, too, are low-hanging fruit within his reach as Florida’s chief executive.

On Thursday, a bill was filed in the state Senate that aims to fulfill DeSantis’s desire to uproot DEI, particularly at state-funded colleges. Jeremy Young of the free-speech advocacy group PEN America described the bill as potentially leading to “the most draconian and censorious restrictions on higher education in the history of this country” — almost entirely in service of rooting out “CRT” and “DEI.”

When DeSantis announced his plans this month to target DEI, Rufo joined him onstage. Rufo at one point admitted that his approach to CRT was to “have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” an effort that was built on having “decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” In other words, to change its meaning to encompass a range of cherry-picked, unpopular things.

This approach, about which Rufo isn’t shy, appears to be what’s happening with DEI as well. Rufo’s Manhattan Institute produced model language for bills allowing state legislatures to formally eliminate DEI. It includes language purportedly demonstrating the need for such legislation, like claiming that students at schools with more DEI staff feel “less welcome” than at other schools. That argument comes from a report by the right-wing Heritage Foundation that considered surveys conducted at a handful of schools in which views of the climate on campus were generally even. It focused on the University of Michigan, where the DEI staff was presented as particularly large — but failed to mention that the survey was from 2016, soon after the DEI initiative at the school was launched.

On social media, Rufo has presented lengthy tweets purporting to have identified toxic, massive efforts at racial indoctrination. One thread, focused on the University of South Florida, focuses on a page of “anti-racism resources” that the school had removed. It insinuates that the linked material is part of “USF’s DEI programming,” as though it’s mandated for students. And, of course, Rufo frames it in apocalyptically anti-White terms.

Fox News dutifully wrote about the thread. A month before, DeSantis had appointed Rufo to the board of a public college in the state.

There’s an obvious reason that colleges might want to have concerted efforts to consider issues of race. One is shown in the graph above; college-age Americans are more racially diverse than older Americans, and, therefore, issues of systemic racism are more personally salient. This is probably in part why young Americans are more likely to support a sophisticated consideration of race in the country. But it’s easy for DEI programs, as with CRT, to be framed as undermining White Americans instead of addressing the needs and concerns of non-White people. The parallels to affirmative action are obvious.

But DeSantis and Rufo are in the position of Pete Hegseth, not of Fox corporate. DeSantis almost certainly intends to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, meaning that his target audience overlaps with Fox News’s: older White Republicans. The University of South Florida made counseling sessions available to students in the tumultuous year of 2020 — part of Rufo’s complaint — not because it was implementing a curriculum of maligning White Americans but because it’s a school serving a diverse population.

Other Republican governors, like those in Texas and Virginia, have taken aim at DEI programs, seizing the opportunity to leverage state power to target something disliked by their core base of support. The short-term result of these efforts may be to eliminate positions aimed at boosting the involvement of Black, Hispanic and Asian people in state programs — a change that may have only modest effects. But it also has a longer-lasting, broader effect: casting consideration of race and America’s racial history as inherently dangerous or toxic.

This is probably not tenable as a long-term strategy for the right. The good news for advocates of sophisticated assessments of race is that Fox is actively hoping to attract a more diverse pool of employees, a group that might introduce more nuance into the network’s coverage.