At the Heritage Foundation, the anti-DEI crusade is part of a bigger war

Last week, I attended an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, focused on “seizing the moment to defeat DEI.” I have written before about the right’s use of the acronym as a codeword to attack social progress generally and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically. The panel at Heritage—a think tank that in recent years has taken a turn from Reagnite conservatism to Viktor Orbán-loving, Trumpian populism—was a particular strain of this provocation. 

There is one kind of discussion over Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, with critics across the spectrum debating the efficacy and benefits of such programs. And then there is Heritage’s view: that DEI is a hidden agenda pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement—the plan of “committed Marxists nursed by an international network” who are “dedicated to overthrowing America and its entire system.” 


This ignores that, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written in the New Yorker, DEI is often a “popular tool of the upper management of businesses and universities [adopted] after the so-called racial reckoning of the summer of 2020” to quell frustrations—and “hardly constitutes a theory, an ideology, or a political movement.” (Many on the left even say it is, in fact, the corporatization of more radical strains of anti-racism.) But at Heritage and in other conservative circles, a potential compromising of leftist values is being touted as proof that the Reds have won and enshrined their agenda.

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Speakers at the event made the case that DEI and Critical Race Theory (CRT) have metastasized like cancer across every fiber of American society: from high schools, to colleges, to corporations, and even to the military. In their view, left-leaning ideologies that pit oppressors against the oppressed are replacing empathy and patriotism with anger and divisiveness. DEI is a “Frankenstein monster” under the bed.

But it isn’t all despair. They also celebrated that, as one of the moderators put it, “DEI is on the run.” Even Hollywood is turning against it, Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, claimed, saying that American Fiction—an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure—was an “anti-DEI” movie. “I find that reading of the film and my novel incorrect and offensive,” Everett told me in an email. “The right-wing, in fascist form, will take the slightest critique of a complicated subject and run with it. It takes a lot to misread so badly, but the educated followers of such people will, sadly, buy into it.” (Gonzalez clarified to me he “should have said that the movie was anti-woke” as it “questioned many of the tired shibboleths of wokeism.”)

The conservative obsession with DEI should be taken seriously. At the event I attended, there was no direct mention of the Project 2025 playbook for a second Donald Trump term. But the panelists—a mix of Heritage Foundation fellows and conservative activists—revealed their aspirations to dismantle and divest institutions, and eliminate guardrails for social and racial progress.

For over two hours, they talked about taking the American Bar Association “out of law schools,” getting rid of “agitators” (aka chief diversity officers), and cutting off DEI programs entirely. If DEI was not ousted, funding should be pulled away from universities and towards, conveniently, organizations like the Heritage Foundation. “If you hit them with the money they will change,” Jay P. Greene, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow, said of universities. “And if you take some heads—so getting some presidents out—that also will produce change.”

In Heritage’s 920-page Project 2025 manifesto endorsed by about 100 right-wing organizations and filled with contributions by Trump loyalists, the group suggests the next conservative presidential administration “must make the institutions of American civil society hard targets for culture warriors” and proposes removing terms such as gender equality, DEI, abortion, and reproductive rights from “every federal rule, agency regulation, contract, grant, regulation, and piece of legislation that exists.”

It also calls for: amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prevent the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from collecting data on race and ethnicity; doing away with disparate impact legal theory; limiting the applications of the Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County that established Title VII protections for employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and rescinding regulations that bar discrimination based on “sexual orientation, gender identity, transgender status, and sex characteristics.”

Christopher Rufo—who helped launch an overt campaign to rebrand CRT and DEI and publicly pushed for the resignation of Harvard’s former President Claudine Gay—didn’t attend the event, but he was represented by his right-hand man and chief of staff Armen Tooloee. In true Rufo fashion, Tooloee laid out their “deliberate strategy” clearly: To publicize the “most egregious” examples of DEI in universities and “create this illusion that we have eyes and ears everywhere.” (Toolee one of his tasks for doing this included doing Google searches on universities’ domains for mentions of “George Floyd.”)

“The strategy we had behind it was we timed it out to be going on during the legislative session in Florida specifically,” Tooloee said of their initial focus on Florida and Texas universities, “because we knew we had buy-in from the state government and from Governor [Ron] DeSantis that this was something they wanted to move on but they needed political cover basically because you know if you start targeting diversity and inclusion you’re going to get an enormous backlash in the press.” 

For all the backlash, this histrionic crusade and “gotcha” denunciation of DEI has found powerful adherents. Most notably, billionaires Bill Ackman and Elon Musk. Now, Heritage and its allies are betting on the 2024 elections to take their playbook nationally. “[We] get a bigger majority in the House, get the Senate, get a President Trump who really loves our country…,” Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah said at the event. “20 months and we’ll be exposing so much more and turning this whole thing around.”