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We’ve heard a lot about ‘commitment’ to DEI. Where’s the follow-through?

It can be too easy for statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion to be about managing expectations rather than meeting them.

Valeria Araya/Adobe Stock

Recently, a friend and I joked sadly about how, in 2020, we’d briefly had the freedom to be ourselves in white spaces. When we’d been fully transparent on how unwell and not fine we were. Instead of chatting about weekend trips or pictures of the kids, we got to say how difficult it was to exist and pretend, when anti-Black violence was at our throats, when the next image or video of a brutal Black death disrupted any carefully constructed sense of safety.

“That was nice, wasn’t it?” my friend observed. “We got to say how [messed] up things were and not feel bad for it or be blamed for being ‘negative’ or ‘angry.’”


I remembered this when I started touring homes and neighborhoods before becoming a homeowner. I took note of the homes with Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, wondering what, if anything, that gesture was supposed to mean to a potential homeowner. Did it mean I’d get the same loan options as my white neighbors? Did it mean no one would call the cops on my child just for being outside? Clearly, it meant the neighborhood wasn’t among those prohibiting such signs.

George Floyd’s murder in 2020 was not the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement — the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin was — rather, it was a litmus test for what’s needed to move from reaction to action. That’s when Black Lives Matter signs became visible in storefronts and front yards all across the country. We saw global protests, hashtags, and new roles in Fortune 500 companies for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and people and culture directors. Commitment was the name of the game; mission statements saturated our LinkedIns and inboxes. The American consumer learned of the grand commitments that [Fill-in-the-blank] Corporation was making toward diversity and antiracism. (And there was the rebranding: Uncle Ben’s became Ben’s Original, and Aunt Jemima became Pearl Milling Company.)


The word “commitment” fascinates me in its simplicity and its generosity. It’s entirely up to the speaker to give it meaning. Click on the “Who We Are” page of a website or some “We are committed to . . . ” link, and there it is. But what, exactly, is commitment except a promise? Derived from an active verb, it’s used in the passive voice in pretty much every statement. In these contexts of culture setting, it’s implied that an act of committing is enough to affirm people’s needs — but what about the follow-through? When did the intention become more valued than the impact?

Good faith efforts are all that’s required when you commit to something — you don’t actually have to deliver results. These mission statements and public apologies reaffirming one’s “dedication” to diversity and equality do not come from the heart, they do not come from empathy. They’re forced.

Folks such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won’t let us forget that. On January 16, he tweeted to his nearly 4 million followers: “HAPPY MLK DAY!” with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. waving to an audience on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Imprinted on the photo was a quote from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet, DeSantis is the same governor who, just days before, banned Advanced Placement African American studies classes in Florida high schools, and last year signed legislation restricting or eliminating in-class discussions on race and LGBTQ+ issues.


“Commitment” appears to be much more about managing expectations raised by those DEI statement — not so much about meeting them. Anticipating a commitment rather than an outcome leaves everyone off the hook, doesn’t it? And, if this is the case, then such DEI language isn’t radical at all, nor is it progressive — it just maintains the status quo.

To be committed to something is to be in the midst of an action. Which, depending on the context, can be just fine. We want to know our partners and colleagues are actively working on something, yes. But is that all? When is it time to call it if the stated efforts have produced nothing? Do we “commit” to something else? If so, to what?

What if this were someone you were paying, and they fell down on their commitment? Would you ask for your money back after the first mistake? The third? The 50th? When is making a commitment not enough?

And here’s the rub. The very inconsistency between words and action directly affects the work of DEI. “[O]rganizations adopt pro-diversity talk, because they see communication as a driver of change toward a diverse and inclusive work environment,” researchers from a Belgian university wrote in a December 2022 working paper, “but they are unaware of the unintended effects of the inconsistency between talk and progress.” Inconsistencies can increase employees’ perception of corporate hypocrisy and negatively affect their work experiences around inclusion. In short, the message only further alienates the intended target when it’s followed by, well, nothing. It’s a vicious cycle.


So, where are we on those diversity commitments and pledges in 2023? Last May, the University of Massachusetts Amherst released a poll tracking people’s declining enthusiasm for publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, including among Black Americans. (No doubt many still support BLM but, like me, are simply exhausted.) A Pew Research Center poll released last June found those between the ages of 13 and 29 to be the largest group in support of BLM; over age 50, there had been a big drop, to just over 50 percent.

Here’s what I do know: It’s been almost 10 years since a jury acquitted Zimmerman on charges of killing a Black child who was walking home. It’s been two years and nine months since the world watched a cop strangle a Black man to death for nine minutes, after which numerous corporations made public pledges to commit to doing better. Language by itself does not age well. More honest phrasing would be less insulting and more refreshing.

After I moved into my new place, I found an old, dusty Black Lives Matter sign in the basement, reminding me of what happens when actions are no longer the focus. Intentions get left in the dust.


Linda Chavers is a writer in Somerville. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.