Missouri Republicans are sending a message: We don’t want diversity in public colleges | Opinion

The often brutal history of race relations in Missouri starts even before the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which allowed it to enter the Union with slavery intact while Maine entered as a free state.

But no matter where the story starts, it has been marked by long, persistent battles between advocates for — and critics of — white supremacy. The current effort in the Missouri General Assembly to ban public colleges and other institutions from requiring diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI statements is just the latest evidence that some state leaders still aren’t committed to the idea that publicly funded entities should treat everyone as equals. As The Star recently reported, the first of two bills on this subject is designed to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion higher education hiring standards.

The second bill, filed by state Rep. Ben Baker, a Neosho Republican, would forbid licensing boards, medical providers and medical schools from having any DEI requirements.

What are DEI statements? They show a commitment to creating a diverse community and a culture that includes not just people of color and various ethnic origins, but also gender identities.

The current systems are inadequate for hiring and promoting a diverse faculty, attracting a varied student body or creating an atmosphere in which everyone on campus is valued. The result at the state’s flagship school, the University of Missouri in Columbia, is a faculty and student body that continues to be unrepresentative of the state’s population, and that removes opportunities from people. The system is based not on ability but on bigotry. The proposed new laws would almost certainly make things worse.

Slavery, Jim Crow, lawful segregation, lynchings and the rest of the sorrowful American history of race relations did not happen inadvertently. They were a result of specific prejudices, policies and laws designed to make sure people of color were kept as — at best — second-class citizens. So the long effort to stop that downward-spiraling history and bring about generative change also needs policies and laws — including DEI — to achieve equality under the law for everyone.

The proposals in Jefferson City banning DEI practices do precisely the opposite. They’re an embarrassment to Missourians and should be dumped. Similar efforts to block DEI work across the nation also should be halted.

The Mizzou campus in Columbia is, of course, not the only part of the state’s higher education system that would be affected. The University of Missouri-Kansas City also would be forced to curtail, if not abandon, its considerable DEI efforts that have helped to make its faculty and student body more representative of society at large.

UMKC, in fact, has a Division of Diversity and Inclusion working on all this. As its website notes, “UMKC values diversity as central to our mission as an urban research university. We serve a student body and a community that is diverse in age, gender and cultural background.” An example is the campus chancellor, C. Mauli Agrawal, a native of India.

State Rep. Marlon Anderson, a St. Louis Democrat, pointed to the real risks of anti-DEI legislation when he told state Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican and sponsor of an anti-DEI bill, that “things like this are going to stop amazing academic minds from matriculating and teaching in Missouri.” If Anderson, who is Black, is right — and we think he is — it would be a serious loss for the state.

It’s not always clear what drives politicians who fear diversity. What is clear is that when they put their fears into laws and public policies, they perpetuate a long-running, ugly story that has kept worthy people from becoming all they can be. And in doing that they work against America’s aspirational vision of itself as a land in which all “were created equal.”