The news cycle is awash with terrifying stories about air travel safety. At the start of the month, the door plug of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew off mid-flight, leaving a gaping hole on the side of the Alaska Airlines plane. Over the weekend, another Boeing passenger jet’s nose wheel fell off just before the Delta flight took off.
While these incidents have reopened important conversations about outdated technology, workforce shortages, and the financial tradeoffs that airlines have made, right-wing pundits are claiming to have found the real source of the aviation industry’s troubles: DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
According to these commentators, airlines hired certain workers solely to meet diversity goals and sacrificed their commitments to safety and quality in the process, despite the global conversation about airline safety that’s been underway for years following high-profile accidents.
Among them was Elon Musk, who took to his platform X after the Alaska Airlines incident to ask, “Do you want to fly in an airplane where they prioritized DEI hiring over your safety? That is actually happening.”
He added, “People will die due to DEI.”
After news of the wheel flying off of the plane, the term “DEI” began to trend Tuesday. Donald Trump Jr. posted, “I’m sure this has nothing to do with mandated Diversity Equity and Inclusion practices in the airline industry!!!” Other users questioned whether Delta has “DEI quotas for their mechanics” and stated that “DEI practices are going to cause disasters” and that “DEI actually means DIE.”
Aviation experts have never cited DEI — programs that organizations have widely adopted to increase representation among underrepresented groups — as a cause of air safety problems. Various investigations point to a variety of other factors. One New York Times analysis stated that aircraft manufacturer Boeing, for example, “opted against adopting additional precautions and made decisions for the sake of saving money or raising profits.” After these latest incidents, airline executives are pressuring Boeing’s leadership to improve quality control and engineering.
Conservatives’ growing critiques of diversity efforts illustrate how they have turned DEI into their culture war’s newest bogeyman ahead of the 2024 general election. In the way that critical race theory became a catch-all target in 2021, DEI is the right’s new punching bag. In the last year alone, Republicans have blamed DEI for everything from the Silicon Valley Bank collapse and “failing” higher education institutions to antisemitism. Underneath the attack on DEI are racist, sexist, and anti-gay ideas that women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community do not have the qualifications, skills, or intelligence to participate in society through jobs, education, leadership, and more.
Where did the link between DEI and airplanes come from?
Aviation has long been dominated by white men. United Airlines, for example, didn’t hire its first Black pilot until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2016, 18 Black pilots sued the airline over widespread racial discrimination at the company. Around that time, about 97 percent of pilots were white and only about 5 percent of commercial airline pilots were women, according to CBS News.
After the racial reckoning of 2020, airlines and aircraft manufacturers pledged to change their hiring practices to create more opportunities for qualified women and people of color. Boeing’s latest diversity data for 2020–2022 shows that the company is still short of its goals to hire more women and people of color. Racial and ethnic minorities make up 35 percent of engineers for commercial airlines, up from 32 percent in 2020. Women make up 17 percent of engineers at the company, up from 16.5 percent in 2020.
That these diversity efforts haven’t led to a notable shift in the company’s demographics casts doubt on the right-wing ideas that DEI is causing safety issues.
In a news segment from February 2023, Carlson focused on the 2019 crash of a jet that carried Amazon packages. Following the crash, it was revealed that the pilot, a Black man, had failed several training sessions but managed to withhold this information from his employer, Atlas Air. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that the Federal Aviation Administration must devise a better system of logging airline pilot records.
Carlson seized on the incident in the segment, arguing that the pilot received the job despite “his obvious inability to fly an airplane,” ignoring the fact that the pilot intentionally lied about his credentials.
“Why was he flying an airplane?” Carlson asked. “All of the airlines are doing their best to hire and train pilots on the basis of irrelevant criteria like their appearance. And your appearance ... has nothing to do with your ability to fly an airplane, or perform heart surgery or do anything. It’s immaterial. But on their websites, both Amazon and Atlas Air explain that diversity is paramount in everything they do.”
According to Carlson, “This is not an outlier ... This is happening at every major carrier in the United States. Safety concerns ignored in favor of something called equity. Hiring by appearance, not by ability. This is insane. And in this case, it killed three people.”
Carlson blamed other accidents on what he called “diversity hires.”
“The airlines are in a mad scramble to meet equity targets, meaning they are pushing safety aside in favor of ideology. People will die. People have died.” His right-wing followers are now spreading this anti-DEI message far and wide.
The anti-DEI movement plays into tropes about the inferiority of marginalized groups
The moral panic surrounding DEI is the latest way that Republicans are undermining social justice progress. Criticism of DEI has emerged from all corners of the political spectrum, but instead of trying to unpack the ways that DEI has gone astray and remains underfunded, Republicans want to tear it down and suggest that policies that ignore race are the ideal.
The attack on DEI suggests that the marginalized groups these programs are supposed to help are undeserving of opportunities. It also suggests that people from marginalized groups lack merit and that hiring or admitting them into certain spaces will worsen outcomes for society.
During his X rant against DEI, Musk also replied to a post that suggested that students at historically Black colleges and universities have lower IQs and therefore shouldn’t become pilots. “It will take an airplane crashing and killing hundreds of people for them to change this crazy policy of DIE,” he replied. Similarly, conservatives went after the hiring of gay applicants. Chaya Raichik, behind the X account “Libs of TikTok,” complained that Alaska Airlines was jeopardizing passenger safety by setting diversity and inclusion goals and “making their planes gay.”
Conservatives have complained that higher education institutions also spend too much money on DEI, at risk to students. And they’ve turned their attention to the medical profession, too, claiming that medical schools are lowering their standards to let anyone be a physician. Critics made the same arguments against affirmative action, claiming that those hired or admitted through the initiative were unqualified.
“The newer attacks on DEI seem, to me, to be more in line with attacks on diversity in general, from the attacks on diversity in college admissions to the attacks on university presidents to the general whining about white men, in particular, not being hired, to the attacks around immigration,” Matthew Florence, a DEI consultant, told Rolling Stone. “It feels like an overall last-ditch effort to preserve a more white-centered United States culture.”
Republicans have made it clear that they are only just getting started in their campaign to roll back the very slow progress the country has made in confronting systemic injustice. States including Florida and Oklahoma are preventing some higher education institutions from using state funding to support DEI programs. Corporations are pulling back on their commitments to diverse workforces. The aviation industry is just the latest target in conservatives’ high-pressure effort to undermine multiracial democracy.