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Editor's Note: Questions about Woody White's rebuke of DEI elicit muted responses, and a little snark

Woody White, seen here when he was the Chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, in 2018.
New Hanover County
Woody White, seen here when he was the Chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, in 2018.

Woody White, the former Republican state senator and New Hanover County commissioner left his last elected office in 2020 — but he's remained influential, particularly in conservative circles. Though not for the first time, he recently published a forceful call to end DEI in North Carolina's state university system and other government bodies. However, White has been apparently unwilling to discuss his comments — and few in his spheres of influence seem eager to engage with his critique of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

DEI is really having a moment right now. Just, not a good one.

The Supreme Court ended race-conscious admission last summer. Over 30 states have introduced or passed legislation curbing or ending Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs. Public schools have made similar moves, including New Hanover County’s school board, which scrapped its DEI committee late last year. And in the corporate world, top companies have slashed DEI workforces amid broader cutbacks.

In mid-April, the governance committee of the UNC-System Board of Governors unanimously approved a motion without discussion to effectively remove DEI offices and policies at UNC-Wilmington and 15 other public universities across the state. The full UNC system board is set to vote on it later this month.

On the day of the committee vote, the Carolina Journal ran an opinion piece by UNC board member Woody White, an influential Wilmington conservative. A former UNC-Wilmington trustee, New Hanover County commissioner, and state senator, White still keeps his finger on the pulse of local politics. And his exit from elected office in 2020 hasn’t reduced his clout; last year he was appointed to the boards of the UNC system and the $1.3ish-billion New Hanover Community Endowment.

Besides White, no other board member has publicly shared any insights on the change, beyond a boilerplate statement from Chair Randy Ramsey.

In his opinion piece, he recalls the implementation of DEI at New Hanover County, the city of Wilmington, and UNCW. He admits to being initially uncertain of what the programs were all about. But now, as he has frequently posted on social media, White is not a fan.

“The acronym ‘DEI’ has morphed into an unwieldy and un-American construct that teaches that, so long as it has an altruistic purpose, discrimination is acceptable,” White writes.

White also includes a folksy anecdote about his encounter with a Black man at a Circle K in Jones County:

Recently, I was in Jones County at Circle K, wearing a suit and tie and grabbing a pack of nabs and a drink for a quick lunch before a court appearance in New Bern. A black gentleman was standing next to me. He was in his early 40s, dressed in nice black slacks and a black turtleneck. He wore brown-tinted sunglasses, and his hair was neatly cropped, as if he had just exited the barbershop moments before. As I turned to head for the checkout counter, he held out his fist and said, “Hey, brother; you’re looking sharp today!”

Without missing a beat, I fist-bumped him back and said, “Thanks, my man; so do you! I hope you have a great day,” to which he responded, pleasantly, “You too.” We smiled at each other and departed.

The anecdote serves as a kind of Just-So Story which, White argues, gives the lie to the “Outrage Industry and the DEI establishment.”

At the conclusion of his piece, invoking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., White calls on “higher-education system and other government institutions” to defund and reject DEI once and for all.

The opinion piece left me with a lot of questions about a post-DEI world, which I would have preferred to ask White directly. For example, how should we tackle things like UNCW’s racially imbalanced enrollment, or — beyond the issue of race — the challenges faced by veterans, single parents, people with disabilities, and others? But the usually responsive White did not return texts, emails, or messages on social media (although the offer still stands).

Likewise, the institutions where White has sway were at best hesitant to engage.

UNCW declined interview requests and in a short statement noted the DEI repeal is still a “pending policy consideration” and that it continues to support people “of all backgrounds, beliefs, income levels,” and so on. One hopes that when the UNC Board of Governors does vote, UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety and his administration will have more to say. As the issue simmers, dozens of UNCW students protested the proposal this week.

The Endowment, which features ‘Equity’ as a core focus and ‘Inclusion’ as a core value, also issued a brief statement from Chairman Bill Cameron, who said “Woody was speaking as an individual,” and “the Endowment’s goals are unchanged.”

New Hanover County did not respond to questions.

Republican Commissioner Dane Scalise offered a spicier take — although not exactly an answer.

Unofficially, White's support was likely helpful in securing Scalise's nomination by the New Hanover County Republican Party to replace Commissioner Deb Hays, who passed away unexpectedly last year. And, on social media, White is supporting Scalise's campaign to keep his seat as a commissioner in the upcoming 2024 general election. Scalise, meanwhile, led the party-line charge to appoint White to the Endowment.

Asked about what impact, if any, White’s comments would have on the county or the Endowment, the entirety of Scalise’s response was a quote from the recent piece in The Free Press, written by Uri Berliner, a longtime NPR editor who recently resigned.

"There’s an unspoken consensus about the stories we should pursue and how they should be framed. It’s frictionless—one story after another about instances of supposed racism, transphobia, signs of the climate apocalypse, Israel doing something bad, and the dire threat of Republican policies. It’s almost like an assembly line,” Scalise wrote, quoting Berliner.

In the quote, and the piece in general, Berliner alleges that NPR refuses to consider conservative points of view, among other failures. I suggested to Scalise that this would be a good opportunity to help hear a conservative voice — namely his own — but he did not reply.

Which is a shame. Because White threw down the gauntlet, but now it’s just awkwardly sitting there. Opinion pieces aren’t supposed to be edicts from the mountain top, they’re supposed to be conversation starters. But that only works if people start a conversation.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.