WASHINGTON  — As diversity, equity and inclusion continues to come under fire on the state level, lawmakers and officials in Washington are trying to step into the issue on the federal level. 

The Congressional Black Caucus last week implored the Department of Justice to investigate whether it is lawful for states to “dismantle” diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher education. 

“We were dismayed and extremely disappointed to see what’s happening,” said Vincent Evans, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We find it unacceptable.”

In a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, group members said they were “concerned by the strident actions taken by states like Florida, Alabama, Texas, and others.”

In a statement to Medill News Service on Thursday, Rep. Steven Horsford (R-Nev.), the chair of the caucus, said he was deeply concerned about the efforts conservatives are taking to dismantle DEI programs.

 “The push to end diversity programs on college campuses are being waged by the same forces that fought to end women’s reproductive choice and affirmative action through the courts,” Horsford said. “Now, these forces want to end programs that create economic opportunity, provide an even playing field, and improve performance in the public and private sector.”

The extra attention being placed on college campuses as part of DEI is because many states began with K-12 and are now moving on to colleges and universities. 

“It has become easier… for some conservatives to view higher education, not as something that needs to be reformed, that needs more intellectual diversity,” Jeremy Young, Freedom to Learn program director for Pen America, an organization dedicated to protecting free expression, said in an interview. “But instead as just a power base for Democrats that needs to be destroyed.”

White voters with no college degree made up 54% of Republican voters in 2022 as opposed to 27% of Democratic voters, according to a July 2023 survey by the Pew Research Center. 

Earlier this month, the University of Florida announced that it eliminated positions and contracts centered around DEI and closed its Office of the Chief Diversity Officer to comply with a law passed by the Florida government last year. The measure says that state universities cannot spend any public funds that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion as defined in this regulation.” 

The $5 million previously set aside to the roles will be redistributed to a faculty recruitment fund, according to a memo by the university. 

The caucus letter last week said in part that the elimination of DEI at the University of Florida would hurt “an already low percentage of Black students at 5% of the student body, and even lower percentage of Black faculty at 4.5%.”

“We’ve got to speak truth to power to ensure that we are protecting an environment that, for decades now, has worked to open up their doors for students of all opportunities, backgrounds and colors,” Evans said.

The caucus requested that the Department of Justice “reviews the action of these states to assess their legality, especially as it related to the need for a safe, learning environment for students.”

It’s unclear whether the Justice Department under the Biden administration will take action. The DOJ confirmed receipt of the letter, but declined further comment. 

Florida is not the only state targeting DEI. Alabama’s House last week passed a law in “prohibiting certain public entities from maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and from sponsoring diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The bill is now waiting for a vote in the Alabama Senate. 

At least 81 bills across 28 states objecting to DEI have been introduced since 2023, according to tracking by the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Eight of those bills have become law. Each has varying degrees of intensity when it comes to limiting DEI within the state. 

For months, GOP members on Capitol HIll have stepped up their attacks on DEI. 

Last week, the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing intended to spotlight DEI across college campuses

“DEI bureaucrats are hired not only to control conversations but also to stifle free speech and open discourse by asserting leverage on every aspect of university management,” argued Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. 

Owens claimed that it is “divisive.” Opponents of DEI believe that it actually represents a lack of political freedom and makes students be at odds with one another rather than finding common ground. And last month, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), in an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, called on Congress to take steps “to ensure federal dollars go toward improving learning, not promoting divisive ideologies.”

Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, testified at the hearing that there is a lack of evidence to support the idea that DEI improves the climate of college campuses.

Some advocates are also dismayed that efforts to dismantle DEI have been caught up in the crossfire of attacking the rise of antisemitism, especially after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by Hamas. 

During a contentious congressional hearing last year, Claudine Gay, then the president of Harvard, faced backlash for how the university responded to antisemitic attacks on the campus. Gay later resigned after  plagiarism accusations and harsh criticisms over her testimony. 

Throughout the hearing, a heavy emphasis was placed on how DEI could be considered exclusionary for those who are not a part of marginalized groups. 

However, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) warned at the House hearing last week against weaponizing antisemitism as a “vehicle to push an extreme political agenda that is determined to erase any mention of the words diversity or equity on campus.”

Opponents of DEI argue that professors and students feel as though they cannot speak up without being blacklisted by their classmates. 

However, the vagueness of the anti-DEI legislation makes it so professors are unsure of what they can discuss in a classroom without fear of being reported. 

“The effect of these laws is to make students and faculty feel not only unwelcome on campuses, but also afraid,” Young argued. 

As a result of the legislation passed in Florida, the University of North Florida started to phase out the LGBTQ+, Intercultural, Interfaith and Women’s Center at the beginning of January. 

The new laws do not just concern race and gender equity, but also religious liberties, according to Young.  

“When they wrote and approved the First Amendment, they were not losing sleep over what an administrator might do on college campuses. They were losing sleep over the government telling people what they can and cannot say,” Young said.