AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott's office is warning state agency and public university leaders this week that the use of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives - policies that support groups who have been historically underrepresented or discriminated against - is illegal in hiring.
The video above is from a previous story we covered on how George Floyd's death in 2021 impacted diversity in the workplace
In a memo written Monday and obtained by The Texas Tribune, Abbott's chief of staff Gardner Pate told agency leaders that using DEI policies violates federal and state employment laws, and hiring cannot be based on factors "other than merit."
Pate said DEI initiatives illegally discriminate against certain demographic groups - though he did not specify which ones he was talking about.
"The innocuous sounding notion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has been manipulated to push policies that expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others," Pate wrote.
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Diversity, equity and inclusion is a moniker used for policies developed to provide guidance in workplaces, government offices and college campuses intended to increase representation and foster an environment that emphasizes fair treatment to groups that have historically faced discrimination. DEI policies can include resources for underrepresented groups, which can include people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and veterans. In hiring, it can include setting diversity goals or setting thresholds to ensure that a certain number of diverse candidates are interviewed. At universities, DEI offices are often focused on helping students of color or nontraditional students stay in school and graduate.
The governor's directive represents the latest effort by Republican leaders fighting back against policies and academic disciplines that Republicans nationwide have deemed "woke." DEI, along with critical race theory, has become a target of conservatives who argue that white people are being unfairly treated or characterized in schools and workplaces.
"Rebranding this employment discrimination as 'DEI' doesn't make the practice any less illegal," Pate wrote. "Further, when a state agency spends taxpayer dollars to fund offices, departments, or employee positions dedicated to promoting forbidden DEI initiatives, such actions are also inconsistent with the law."
Abbott's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Andrew Eckhous, an Austin-based lawyer for Kaplan Law Firm, which specializes in employment and civil rights litigation, said the governor's office is "completely mischaracterizing DEI's role in employment decisions" in an apparent attempt to block initiatives that improve diversity.
"Anti-discrimination laws protect all Americans by ensuring that employers do not make hiring decisions based on race, religion, or gender, while DEI initiatives work in tandem with those laws to encourage companies to solicit applications from a wide range of applicants, which is legal and beneficial," Eckhous said in an email.
"The only piece of news in this letter is that Governor Abbott is trying to stop diversity initiatives for the apparent benefit of some unnamed demographic that he refuses to disclose," he added.
The letter cites federal and state anti-discrimination laws as the underpinning for why Pate says DEI initiatives are illegal. Those laws notably have come about as a response to discrimination over several decades.
President Lyndon B. Johnson prohibited employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion and national origin as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, during a time when people of color, especially Black Americans, were excluded from higher-wage jobs based on race.
Across the country, state leaders, most recently Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, decried DEI offices and their efforts on college campuses, arguing their work is an attempt to impose "woke" liberal ideologies on students.
Two conservative think tanks, the Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute, recently published a legislative roadmap for state legislatures to "abolish DEI bureaucracies" in higher education, which DeSantis has used to craft his agenda.
In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been more critical of liberal indoctrination in public universities, proposing to end tenure and restrict certain conversations about race and racism in the college classroom.
Late last year, state Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, filed a bill prohibiting state funding toward "any office of diversity, equity, and inclusion," or an office that supports DEI goals.
James Barragán and Jolie McCullough contributed to this report.