Black civil rights organizations are rallying to counter anti-DEI rhetoric

An unofficial coalition of civil rights, political and advocacy groups are launching a multifaceted counter to the growing cries to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion efforts stoked by billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Ackman, among others.

The quests to abolish DEI “are a literal slap in our face,” Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, told NBC News. “We’re up against an effort to contort and misrepresent what DEI really means.”

Morial said Black organization leaders like himself began contacting one another in recent weeks, as the attacks on DEI began to gain momentum. Out of those communications came a commitment to create or increase existing efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion. Their goal is concrete, and based on what Morial calls “fairness”: to assure Black people receive equal opportunities — not less — in the workforce.

Musk and Ackman, in particular, have been outspoken in their opposition to DEI. Last month, Musk called DEI “another word for racism.” He and Mark Cuban have engaged in a spat on Musk’s X platform, with Musk calling the former Dallas Mavericks owner a racist for supporting diversity and inclusion in businesses. Musk did not respond to a request for comment but did acquiesce to Cuban that “if merit for a given job is roughly the same, then the tiebreaker should be diversity (of all kinds).”

Last month, Ackman said Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech proves that the civil rights icon would have opposed DEI, baffling experts in the field. Ackman also led the charge to push Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard, out after what he and others deemed a lacking response to antisemitism on campus, as well as an uproar over allegations of plagiarism in Gay’s academic work. After stepping down from her position, Gay wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that she continues to stand by her research.

Ackman declined to comment for this article.

Morial counters that Black people have received fair opportunities because of legislation like the Civil Rights Act and equal employment opportunity programs created to balance the workforce. “That opportunity might get you in the door, but it can’t sit for the test,” Morial said. “It can’t do the homework. It can’t sit for the bar exam or the medical board. You have to do that, and Black people have succeeded in doing the work when given the chance.

“So, when you attack DEI, you are literally slapping us in the face. You’re literally saying that we don’t deserve an opportunity.”

The National Action Network led by MSNBC host Al Sharpton, protests at Ackman’s offices every Thursday. “And you’re going to see a lot more action,” Morial said. The National Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus and the Black Economic Alliance are among the groups that have been quietly working together to counter this latest front in the culture war.

The caucus took the first step in this multipronged approach in December when its members sent a letter to each of the Fortune 500 companies querying them about their commitments to DEI. The letter asks the companies that pledged commitments to support diversity, equity and inclusion during the social justice movement of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder to share data on their progress.

“We need to assess and evaluate who remains committed to diversity, equity and inclusion” to determine a path forward, Morial said. They are still acquiring responses from those businesses, some of which did not make pledges in 2020. He said the results of the responses will determine the Black organizations’ actions.

Morial was not willing to share other specific plans to counter the calls for imploding DEI initiatives, but he said part of it is directly addressing business leaders. He said he has asked to speak at a meeting of the Business Roundtable — made up of 200 CEOs of top U.S.-based companies — to share the importance of DEI and gauge their views. Business Roundtable did not comment to NBC News on the record.

​​Ken L. Harris, president of the National Business League, a not-for-profit trade association for Black-owned businesses and professionals, said the anti-DEI movement has, in essence, always existed.

“I’d say businesses never really supported DEI anyway,” Harris said. His organization, founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington, is “going to do business with folks who want to do business with us, people who want to benefit from the $1.5 trillion consumer patronage and buying power that is expended in the U.S. by Black people.”

He added that the Business League will increase its effort to finding “corporations who want to do the right thing, who are vested in doing the right thing.”

Morial said this upheaval around DEI, specifically, began with the Supreme Court’s decision last June banning affirmative action, or race-based selection, in college admissions. That ruling has led to similar challenges to race-consciousness in business, prompting some companies and business owners to downplay their own inclusion efforts to avoid lawsuits.

These shifts have made the work of these advocacy groups, like the National Black Chamber of Commerce, even more crucial, said its president, Charles H. DeBow III.

“It’s one thing to throw rocks at a fortress,” DeBow said. Anti-DEI agents “are dropping bombs. And now the reality is Black businesses are getting killed. And so we’ve got to lift them up. So we’re focused on developing a whole new generation of entrepreneurs that are sustainable in their communities.”

Morial said he has spoken to some corporate heads (who he did not want to name) who say they remain committed to DEI and won’t be pressured into abandoning “what they think is best for their companies,” Morial said.

Still, Morial knows his opponents have momentum.

“We’re in for a long, long fight,” he said. “We don’t need to persuade most businesspeople on diversity. We just have to encourage them to be courageous and not be intimidated by politicians, mainly a bunch of politicians, billionaires and right-wing actors.”

Especially since the battle is bigger than DEI, Morial said.

“There’s going to be more to be said, but the organizing phases are here, and steps are being taken,” he said. “We’re going to fight. We’re going to battle because this is also about the soul of America.”