When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his powerful I Have a Dream speech, he spoke of his hope that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King dreamed of a world where people were judged on their individual merits—where all men were created equal. That dream was the foundation on which the civil rights movement was built.
But King’s movement for racial equality is unrecognizable today. The belief in equality for every individual has been replaced with a push for “equity” and “inclusion” in a system that favors some people over others based on race. This distortion of the civil rights movement is a direct contradiction of MLK’s goal to eradicate racial discrimination and segregation.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in academia, where the new goal of universities across the country is to push the idea that race matters.
What does it take to get hired as a professor at a university today? Is it a good education? Experience? A commitment to teaching young adults how to think critically?
In the past, these qualifications may have been enough to secure you the job. But today, unless you’re willing to sign a “diversity and equity” pledge (DEIs), you may not even get an interview.
Pacific Legal Foundation client J.D. Haltigan wanted to apply for an opening in the psychology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As he navigated his way through the application process, he discovered that the school required him to submit a statement on “diversity, equity and inclusion.” But the university wasn’t interested in his views—instead, they provided him with a detailed guide of what to say, and what statements would be unacceptable. This requirement amounts to nothing more than a pledge to commit himself to DEI.
Rather than assess J.D.’s individual merits as an educator, the purpose of the DEI statement requirement is as a political litmus test—a means of assuring that he will fall in line and use his platform to promote the routine discrimination against “unacceptable” political ideologies and prohibition of diversity of thought on campus.
UC Santa Cruz’ version of a DEI pledge is called a “Statement on Contributions to Diversity,” which invites candidates to detail “faculty candidate contributions to advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging,” and provide specific plans to implement DEI practices once on campus.
J.D. and other candidates would be assessed using a three-part rubric to gauge commitment to the cause and fluency in the language of what can only be described as racial disequilibrium. This detailed and demanding process is viewed by proponents as necessary to make the university a more welcoming and inclusive place. In other words: People who disagree with the political orthodoxy might make us uncomfortable and are not welcome.
To receive a high score under the terms set by the rubric, an applicant must express agreement with specific socio-political ideas, including the view that treating individuals differently based on their race or sex is desirable.
J.D. saw this requirement for what it is: a tool to discriminate and gatekeep academia from anyone with diverse opinions.
Today, about half of higher education institutions require applicants to conform to DEI criteria. Academics who wish to maintain their posts, get promoted, or access research funding will be expected to take this loyalty oath and to be assessed by self-selected arbiters of racial justice efforts.
While universities claim this is the way to achieve the kind of world Martin Luther King Jr. wanted, the mission of the University of California, Santa Cruz does not fit into his vision of a colorblind America. On the contrary, it seeks to establish a world where every aspect of society is viewed through a racial lens.
And when we examine the words both written and spoken by King during the civil rights era, it’s obvious that, if applying to teach at UC Santa Cruz today, he would have failed the institution’s DEI test.
Of King’s vision for the future of racial justice, he wrote, “…in the nonviolence army, there is room for everyone who wants to join up. There is no color distinction. There is no examination, no pledge…”
His words are a far cry from where the equity movement is today, where you either believe in a school’s DEI mission or are dismissed as a racist. And these colleges aren’t just asking for pledges—they are asking faculty to live under a watchful eye to make sure they are staying in line.
Some binding documents (the names vary from school to school) go so far as to require preferential mentorship and selection of direct reports, instructing professors to privilege the applications of minority candidates. This “you’re either with us or against us” mentality does a great disservice to the many people who are committed to upholding equality for all but do not support mandatory DEI pledges as the path to get there.
The political pressure to make race the most pressing issue on college campuses does a disservice to everyone, from every background. The so-called woke activists have abandoned King’s vision of a colorblind America and instead want to make race the most salient characteristic any of us possesses.
“To receive a high score under the terms set by the rubric,” J.D. Haltigan’s complaint alleges, “an applicant must express agreement with specific socio-political ideas, including the view that treating individuals differently based on their race or sex is desirable.”
How does this fit in with King’s belief in colorblindness? It doesn’t.
Instead of the content of our character, the DEI pledges suggest, the color of our skin should be prioritized above all else—race should determine how we are treated by institutions, what programs we can access, and what is expected of us in the future.
These pledges are discriminatory.
If a professor knows the race of the next research assistant he will hire before meeting any of the candidates, that is discrimination—the same discrimination that is prohibited in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. That is as true now as it was in 1960. And requiring a professor to sign a commitment to prioritize candidates of a certain race and discriminate against others would have been a transparently discriminatory, reprehensible move then. It is no less so now.
Viewing people primarily as members of groups, whether advantaged or disadvantaged, and not as individuals, is antithetical to King’s teachings. Treating students as individuals, without regard to their identifiable or professed minority status, is anathema to universities’ DEI directives.
In 1963 in Detroit, in a speech widely seen to be a rough draft of his I Have a Dream address later that summer, King said, “Segregation is a cancer in the body politic, which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”
What would he make of racially specific “safe spaces,” where students of color are seen to require sheltering, coddling? Would he have been shocked to see “Black students only” housing and courses labeled as inclusive and progressive?
“Segregation is wrong because it is nothing but a new form of slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity,” he continued.
Colleges are now asking professors to pledge to hold students of color to a lower standard, and promise not to view them as individuals, but as members of a group with special challenges and shortcomings. The language of oppression and trauma, suited to individual experiences (and individual therapy) is tied to race, labeling students as damaged and deficient, although through no fault of their own. “Certain niceties of complexity,” indeed.
In addition to the dubious nature of these race-aware commitments, requiring faculty to pledge devotion to an amorphous philosophy compromises the whole concept of academic freedom.
Similar statements were common during the Red Scare, requiring university faculty to disavow the Communist Party and affiliation with any group that might seek to overthrow the U.S. government.
While any pledge of such raw ideology would be problematic, the modern flavor of DEI may pose a direct challenge to the rigor and utility of universities.
Dr. King called on us to fulfill the foundational belief of the United States—to “at last redeem the full promise of the Declaration of Independence”—that all are created equal and have unalienable rights.
But today, objectivity has been rebranded as racist, and racial discrimination as activism. Instead of treating all people equally, regardless of race, modern DEI acolytes want faculty to see students’ race as the most important thing about them. How faculty interact with students should be guided by race, whether that means prioritizing mentorship or support for students of color or lowering course expectations to ensure equitable outcomes.
DEI defenders say holding “marginalized students” to the same standards as majority-race (white and Asian) students is unreasonable. The embedded assumption is that on an equal playing field, students of color can’t be expected to rise to the occasion.
King wrote: “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives, to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”
What can “DEI commitment documents” be, but official acceptance of the dominating class, of the constructed “truth” that students of color are always and everywhere inferior, and at a disadvantage compared to peers? The DEI mandate on college campuses, the special favors and safe spaces, are injunction to professors, to “every waking moment of their lives to remind [black students] that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth, in the society dominating them.”
Pacific Legal Foundation is committed to protecting the right to equality promised by the Fourteenth Amendment and supported by King.
This means taking a stand against this perverse distortion of equality, starting with University of California, Santa Cruz. We are helping J.D. Haltigan fight back against the DEI pledge requirements and creating an academic environment where each student and professor is evaluated as an individual, not measured by a race-obsessed rubric.