DEI Is Not DOA — At Least Not Yet

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Conservative activists are taking aim at race-based grants and programs designed to help members of marginalized communities. Will philanthropies soon find themselves in the crosshairs?

diverse group of film production employees running away from a giant judge's gavel

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The DEI dominoes started falling — or at least wobbling — last summer. There was a Supreme Court ruling all but gutting affirmative action on college campuses. In Hollywood, there was the mass exodus of diversity officers — at Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, Netflix and the Motion Picture Academy. Meanwhile, conservative activists launched a barrage of anti-DEI lawsuits with corporations in the crosshairs, like the one filed in March against CBS and Paramount by former (and possibly future) Trump aide Stephen Miller on behalf of a white SEAL Team writer who was allegedly denied advancement because of DEI policies.

Philanthropic work so far has remained largely unscathed by the DEI battles, but that may soon change. In June, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a judgment that could — if it sticks — upend how organizations administer grants and how they decide who should get them. The suit — brought by Edward Blum, the same activist behind the Supreme Court college admissions case — maintained that an Atlanta-based venture capital firm called Fearless Fund was acting in a discriminatory manner by using its nonprofit arm to administer a grant program that specifically helps Black female business owners. That sort of race-based philanthropic activity, Blum argued, was unconstitutional. The 11th Circuit agreed.

Those who operate in Hollywood’s grant-making realm are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach, generally viewing the Fearless Fund decision as narrow and preliminary. “The ruling is disappointing,” says Sundance Institute acting CEO Amanda Kelso, “however, we are confident this issue will not be settled by this case or this court.”

Still, some organizations have begun assessing their rainy-day legal fund capacities and scrutinizing verbiage on their websites. (For example, language explicitly referencing race might be euphemistically adjusted to “underrepresented communities.”) “There are a lot of companies that are doing audits,” explains Julie Ann Crommett, who worked in-house at Disney and now heads the Georgia-based DEI consultancy Collective Moxie.

For now, the biggest threat may be perception. “There’s a difference between legal reality and legal bullying,” notes Stacey Abrams, the two-time Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is now an adviser to the advocacy group American Pride Rises. “Stephen Miller and Ed Blum aren’t winning. They’re whining. Still, their intention is to have a chilling effect, and they’ve had some success. They’ve convinced reasonable organizations, including within the entertainment industry, to do a cost analysis about being sued.”

Washington, D.C.-based attorney Ishan Bhabha, who advises entertainment and media firms on their DEI programs, agrees. “I have many clients who think DEI is ‘under attack,’ and it makes them nervous. The climate of anxiety is real,” he says, noting that such nervousness is the point of these suits. “They want to create a fear-based environment that you might be next to be sued. If people are concerned, maybe they’ll pull back.” That’s particularly true of the more conspicuous philanthropic efforts. Says consultant Scott Curran, whose background includes a stint at the Clinton Foundation, “The higher the profile, the greater the likelihood you’ll be targeted.”

Others, though, don’t think these attacks will ultimately succeed, defiantly vowing to carry on no matter what Miller, Blum and their compatriots throw at them. “People who have dealt with historical oppression don’t have anything to lose,” says Maikiko James, senior director of programs at Women in Film. “Sure, the terrain can get rockier, and there’s obviously real threats. But for those of us who care about this, we aren’t going to give up.” Montea Robinson, CEO of Ghetto Film School, adds that DEI advocates, whether administrators or donors, “are ambitious and optimistic — but also pragmatic. They aren’t going to be easily swayed.”

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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