I’m not surprised that Tractor Supply has broken its promises on diversity and the environment.

The effect is to reverse the progress made in opening up opportunities for marginalized groups who previously could not get certain jobs, attend certain schools, or accumulate wealth on an equal footing with their white neighbors.

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  • David Plazas is the opinion and engagement director for USA TODAY Network in Tennessee.

In 2020, Americans posted black squares on social media to represent their protest against racism and police brutality in the wake of the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Companies made big statements pledging to improve their commitments to fully embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion—hiring more people of color, investing in organizations led by underrepresented groups, and conducting more summer training that became known as “racial reckoning.” The goal was to strengthen business while investing in people.

Diversity initiatives were not new, but the escalation in rhetoric and action was astonishing and impressive.

However, some observers have questioned whether this is too good to be true.

On the July 3, 2020 episode of my Tennessee Voices podcast series, I interviewed Jackie Akbari, a community, business, and diversity leader in the Nashville area, and wrote, “Jackie Akbari was paying close attention to what they said and how they said it. Was this a conscious social whim or was it a sign of radical, transformative change?”

Tennessee Employers Remain Committed Towards diversity, equality and inclusion despite rejection

The recent news that Brentwood, Tennessee-based Tractor Supply has backed away from its initiatives after an aggressive social media campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion shows that, at least in this case, the new fad has trumped any real change.

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Critics of “cancel culture” are now using this tactic to go after “woke” people.

In 2021, Tractor Supply CEO Hal Lawton praised his company as a leader in DEI and ESG (environmental, social and governance) policies, and urged other companies to follow suit.

He spoke about the gains and the “strength together” culture and ended his guest column in The Tennessean by writing: “Tractor Supply can and will do more. We applaud other companies that have also stepped up and encourage others to do the same.”

A lot has happened during those three years:

  • Tennessee and other states have passed laws limiting the curriculum based on concerns that critical race theory—an academic theory taught in law schools—would be indoctrinated in elementary, high school, and college students. As a result, students are not learning about uncomfortable truths about the past that the state considers a “divisive concept.”
  • Book banning and censorship have become the norm in state legislatures, with accusations of so-called “consciousness” seeping into academia. The net result has been the erasure of stories written or by black or gay people, even stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who desegregated her school.
  • The Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling that ended affirmative action in college admissions encouraged officials to apply the justices’ ruling to all aspects of life. Later that year, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti sent a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs warning them against diversity policies and “race-based preferences in hiring and contracting,” in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
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Google dictionary defines “mindfulness” Such as: “quality of vigilance and interest in social issues” unfairness But the word has become synonymous with people who give these issues too much attention to the freedom of thought or expression of others. Ironically, the remedy that critics have resorted to has been to silence “awareness” in the court of public opinion and/or legislation.

The resistance is not only coming from social media influencers and conservative activists who are using the same “cancel culture” tactics liberals once accused of using to “shame,” harass, or boycott businesses. It’s also coming from state-sponsored policies and laws that seek to significantly correct the promises of 2020.

The effect of these policies is to reverse the progress made in opening up opportunities for marginalized groups who previously could not get certain jobs, attend certain schools, or accumulate wealth on par with their white neighbors. This is a deeply disturbing fact when we explore why this is so and who has continued to support and benefit from these policies.

Beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act want the same rights, not more.

The pendulum swing is nothing new. Tennessee’s 1796 constitution allowed free black men to vote, but an 1834 version stripped that right away. After the Civil War, Reconstruction promised a more equal society, but then came legal segregation, lynchings, and poll taxes that disproportionately affected black citizens.

Sixty years ago in July, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Which was about making things equal and righting the wrongs of the past.

The damage caused by slavery, the restriction of voting rights for women and people of color, and Jim Crow segregation laws have had long-lasting effects on people’s ability to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 proclaimed.

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The newly protected citizens were not demanding special rights; they were demanding equal rights. Now, it is clear that by crossing boundaries and asking questions, they are being put in their place.

Critics of diversity, equity, and inclusion claim that their success is either unfair to other citizens, unjustified, or undeserved.

Many companies continue to invest in their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives even as they seek to downplay or reframe them. The result is that their policies and programs become irrelevant, or at least less relevant.

So, while Tractor Supply’s decision to withdraw from DEI and ESG is disappointing, it’s not surprising given the political environment in America today.

As other companies consider how to move forward, rather than abandoning their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, community, and governance, they need to have some tough discussions internally and externally about what worked since 2020, what didn’t, and how to move forward without making it seem like all that work didn’t matter at all.

David Plazas is the opinion and engagement director for USA TODAY Network Tennessee. He is a member of The Tennessean’s editorial board. He hosts the Tennessee Voices video podcast and oversees Tennessee Voices And Latin Voices from Tennessee Newsletters. Call him at (615) 259-8063, or email him at [email protected] Or tweet him on @davidplazas.

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