Why Protecting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Is a National Imperative

Next month, we mark a momentous civil rights milestone — the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Historic anniversaries provide an ideal opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and to rededicate ourselves to what lies ahead.

Sixty years ago, schools, restaurants, public bathrooms, and even drinking fountains were strictly segregated through much of the South. In the 1960s, a series of landmark federal laws was enacted to make real the constitutional commitment of equal protection. The first of these, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, catalyzed the most successful peaceful revolution in human history.

Sixty years later, however, America’s track record of creating opportunities for people of color and ending racial discrimination is decidedly mixed. As more than 140 organizations told President Biden on the eve of the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery in the United States, we still struggle to turn the language of landmark legislation into living realities for all of our people.

In 2024, while drinking fountains may be open to all, race-based barriers to wage equality, credit access, and educational opportunity continue to hinder economic progress. Too many workers continue to face discrimination because of their race or ethnicity, including being denied apprenticeship and job opportunities, being subjected to more dangerous job duties and lower pay, and facing increased scrutiny. For example, while 11 percent of the U.S. workforce overall is Black, Black people represent only 9 percent of STEM workers; similarly, while 16 percent of the U.S. workforce is Latino, Latino people represent only 7 percent of all STEM workers. The median Black worker earns 24.4 percent less per hour than the typical white worker, and Black women are paid 67 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Latinas were compensated just 57 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2022.

Moreover, for many people of color, these barriers and experiences of discrimination and marginalization are amplified because of their intersectional identities. Women, religious minorities, language minorities, seniors, immigrants, and people who are LGBTQI+ or disabled also do not have equitable access to our economy because of the barriers they face.

In enacting the Civil Rights Act, Congress strongly encouraged employers to make voluntary efforts to break down barriers, end occupational segregation, and increase access to opportunity. Congress has charged federal agencies with advancing these same goals, and a whole-of-government commitment is therefore needed.

Programs that achieve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) are designed to help employers and agencies comply with these longstanding civil rights obligations and increase opportunity. These programs include efforts to:

  • Expand recruitment efforts to increase the diversity of qualified job applicants;
  • Create an inclusive work environment, such as by providing workforce trainings to prevent and remedy harassment;
  • Set aspirational workforce representation goals;
  • Communicate the value of diversity and its importance to the work; assess artificial barriers to equity, such as algorithmically based hiring systems, for potentially discriminatory outcomes;
  • And remove job qualifications that are unnecessary and unrelated to the position to increase the diversity of qualified applicants (such as degree requirements that are not job-related).

Beyond helping to meet employers’ legal obligations to create workplaces free from discrimination, DEIA programs can also make businesses more competitive, successful, and profitable. When employers remove unfair barriers, seek out applicants from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and create a workplace culture that fosters respect, workers, businesses, and the nation as a whole can thrive.

That’s why civil rights, employment, education, labor, women’s, and public interest organizations are urging President Biden, who has already issued three groundbreaking executive orders on racial equity, to promote, protect, and strengthen programs that achieve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for private employers and government entities.

Both Republican and Democratic presidents have for many decades invoked the national imperative of achieving diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. A commitment to this national imperative by President Biden would be consistent with the values reflected in his executive orders, which stated that “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths” and that “Achieving racial equity and support for underserved communities is not a one-time project. It must be a multi-generational commitment, and it must remain the responsibility of agencies across the Federal Government.”

At a time when DEIA programs are under attack, the groups are calling for employers to double down on creating opportunities for all — and for the federal government to demonstrate leadership and provide clarity to that end. In addition to disregarding or misrepresenting the well-established role of the federal government in promoting equal economic opportunity, DEIA opponents have mischaracterized the Supreme Court’s June 2023 decisions in Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard College/University of North Carolina in a cynical effort to advance a longstanding agenda of economic exclusion and discrimination.

However, the Supreme Court’s decisions do not change employers’ duty to create workplaces free from discrimination, including through efforts designed to achieve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. As Charlotte Burrows, chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has rightly emphasized, “It remains lawful for employers to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and accessibility programs that seek to ensure that workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace.”

Historic anniversaries like the ones we will celebrate this year remind us that our journey toward justice is like an Olympic relay; we take the torch from those who came before us and pass it along to those who will follow. This year, as we recall the generation of giants whose sacrifices came before us, we are inspired to make the less risky but still righteous commitment to carry their work forward in removing barriers to opportunity and ensuring equal justice and equal opportunity for all.