As Juneteenth is celebrated, DEI is rolled back in Georgia and beyond

A tour guide speaks to attendees of the Oakland Cemetery's Juneteenth Family Festival on June 15, 2024. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

On a sweltering Saturday morning in June, a historic cemetery in Georgia hosted its second annual Juneteenth Family Festival.

Past and present were connected as attendees strolled the grounds of the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. A libations ceremony honored the resilience and the strength of Africans that were forced to become Americans through slavery. Actor portrayals brought to life prominent Black Atlantans that were born during Reconstruction.

“Most people don’t look at cemeteries as a place where you would have a festival,” says Charvis Buckholts, the cemetery’s director of education. “So I think it’s really cool. And I think it also brings a sense of connection with the history that the [residents] – we call them residents, not the dead – have played in terms of shaping who we are today.”

The Big Bethel AME Heaven Bound Choir performs at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta on June 15, 2024. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

This month in Atlanta, the Fearless Fund — a grant program specifically for women of color, whose businesses are historically underfunded — lost a court battle and was forced to shut down. It sends a message to other programs meant to benefit one part of the population: that they are now considered discriminatory.

It’s part of a larger rollback of initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI.

Before its backslide, DEI peaked in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, during the nation’s so-called “racial reckoning.” President Joe Biden’s promise to federally recognize Juneteenth was made during this time and became official in 2021.

Though the Juneteenth holiday outlived the racial reckoning in the U.S., much of the emphasis on DEI didn’t.

The life cycle of DEI

While diversity, equity and inclusion programs are typically found in universities and businesses, DEI has become a common catch-all term to also refer to affirmative action, critical race theory and divisive concepts, and programs intended for people with marginalized identities.

Over the last couple of years, Georgia has targeted DEI efforts. In 2022, Gov. Brian Kemp signed the “divisive concepts” law restricting discussions of race in K-12 classrooms. In 2023, the University System of Georgia banned DEI training for new hires. This month, the Fearless Fund lost a lawsuit that forced it to end its grant program for women of color.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as of May 24, 12 states had passed anti-DEI laws in higher education since 2023. 14 additional bills nationwide have final approval and are set to become law. Texas and Florida both already have two laws in place.

In 2023, the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action was the biggest marker of a shift toward intolerance of DEI.

Dr. Jennifer Sarrett, a DEI expert in Atlanta, says that DEI largely operates as a reactive field – to a fault. She says DEI initiatives first started appearing after the Equal Employment Act of 1972.

“Various instances in our history for the past 30, 40 years, like George Floyd’s murder, instigate a sort of revitalization of the field,” Sarrett says.

In the months following the murder of Floyd, public figures proclaimed their allyship with Black Americans. Lawmakers scrambled to address racial inequities, there were more conversations about systemic oppression, and reparations movements began to blossom in Democratic states.

But Sarrett doesn’t see any of these reactionary decisions as a sustainable way to create a truly inclusive culture.

“And that’s just kind of like a Band-Aid, and it leads to the ability for it to be forgotten once the hype is over, which is where we’re at now,” she says.

A tour guide speaks to attendees of the Oakland Cemetery’s Juneteenth Family Festival on June 15, 2024. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

Higher education is the target

The DEI battle is largely taking place in higher education, which is where policy is most effective.

The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank with model legislation to abolish DEI.

Its legislation includes four parts: ending DEI offices and positions, ending mandatory diversity training, ending “political litmus tests” in hiring, and ending identity-based preferences beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.

Ilya Shapiro, the director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, helped author this framework. He’s pushing for “race blind, meritocratic excellence in teaching” as opposed to “DEI bureaucracies.”

“These illiberal structures have grown up in opposition to the classical mission of higher ed, for free speech and due process and open inquiry, treating everyone equally, all of these things under critical theory that infuses DEI are suspect and are illegitimate,” Shapiro says.

A Pew Research survey conducted in the spring of 2023 found that 50% of adults disapprove of affirmative action. There’s a divide along party lines: 74% of Republicans disapprove, while 54% of Democrats approve.

The data is similar in a 2023 survey about DEI in the workplace: overall, 56% of adults say it’s a good thing. But just 30% of Republicans agree and 78% of Democrats agree.

“I think we’re at a moment where there’s a pushback, there’s a backlash to the excesses of wokeness, of marginalizing people, discriminating against people, excluding people for not conforming to this radical progressive ideology,” Shapiro says.

DEI in times of crisis

Nzinga Shaw has worked in the DEI space in Atlanta for nearly two decades.

Her career has been subject to the ebbs and flows of national perceptions of DEI. Even before 2020, it had always been impacted by crises.

Shaw says fatal police shootings that gain national attention are always catalysts for people becoming aware of what DEI is and pushing for system change. So it was no surprise that the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — all in 2020 — had the impact that it did.

In her DEI work, she measures success by the wins that historically underrepresented employees have in the workplace.

“If you’re not going about the process of solving your issue or your crisis in a methodical manner, then once the crisis simmers down … you’re going to find yourself in the same trouble again, and that’s what we’re contending with right now,” Shaw says.

It’s why she feels like the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday — which she calls out as 150 years late — felt performative.

“It feels no different than watching corporations write mission statements, and Twitter and Instagram posts about their commitment to equity and equality. And not really have any real depth around their words,” she says.

Keeping the integrity of Juneteenth

Despite the fleeting circumstances surrounding Juneteenth’s federal recognition, the holiday will have longevity. In Atlanta, more Juneteenth celebrations occur each year.

A tour guide speaks to attendees of the Oakland Cemetery’s Juneteenth Family Festival on June 15, 2024. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

Buckholts was aware of this as he planned Oakland Cemetery’s Juneteenth event. He says the holiday has become more commercialized over the past few years.

“We will always be competing with those companies and corporations that are trying to make a dollar off of it,” Buckholts says.

He wanted to keep the integrity of the holiday by immersing people in history and education — something more lasting than a typical festival.

“We need this event for all cultures to feel somewhat on the same path and have a better understanding of each other,” he says.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the Oakland Cemetary is the oldest cemetery in Georgia.