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Tractor Supply

Tractor Supply caved to anti-DEI pressure. Their promises were too good to be true.

The effect is to reverse progress on opening opportunities to marginalized groups who once could not get certain jobs, attend certain schools or accumulate wealth on par with their white neighbors.

David Plazas
Nashville Tennessean

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

Corporations made grand statements promising to do better on commitments to fully embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) − hiring more people of color, investing in organizations led by underrepresented groups and conducting more training in the summer that became known as the "racial reckoning." The purpose was to enhance business while investing in people.

Diversity initiatives were nothing new, but the escalation in rhetoric and action was astounding and impressive.

However, some observers wondered whether this was too good to be true.

For the July 3, 2020, episode of the "Tennessee Voices" video podcast series that I host, I interviewed Jacky Akbari, a Nashville area community, business and diversity leader and wrote: "Jacky Akbari was paying close attention to what they said and how they said it. Would this be a socially conscious fad or was this a sign of fundamental and transformative change?"

The recent news that Brentwood-based Tractor Supply was pulling back on its initiatives after an aggressive anti-DEI social media pushback campaign shows, at least in this case, that a fad trumped any real change.

'Cancel culture' critics now employ this tactic to go after the 'woke'

Brentwood-based Tractor Supply Co. is looking to fill nearly 100 corporate positions.

In 2021, the CEO of Tractor Supply, Hal Lawton, touted his company as a leader in DEI and ESG (environmental, social and governance) policies, urging other companies to follow its lead.

He talked about the gains and the culture of "Stronger Together" and ended his guest column in The Tennessean by writing: "Tractor Supply can and will do more. We applaud others that have also stepped up and we encourage others to do the same."

Tractor Supply CEO:Why businesses should follow Tractor Supply's push for diversity, inclusion and climate change prevention

A lot has happened in those three years:

  • Tennessee and other states passed laws limiting curriculum based upon fears that critical race theory − a law school academic theory − would indoctrinate students in K-12 schools and colleges. Thus, students do not learn about uncomfortable truths in the past that are deemed by the state as a "divisive concept."
  • Book bans and censorship became normalized in state legislatures with accusations of "wokeness" seeping through academia. The net effect was to erase the stories about or written by people who are Black or identify as LGBTQ+, even those about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old who desegregated her school.
  • The Supreme Court's 2023 ruling ending affirmative action in college admissions emboldened officials to apply the justices' decision to all aspects of life. Later that year, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti sent a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs warning them about diversity policies and "race-based preferences in employment and contracting," in light of the high court ruling.
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti speaks during a news conference on April 30, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.

Google's Dictionary defines "wokeness" as: "The quality of being alert to and concerned about social injustice and discrimination."

However, it has been turned into a byword to describe people who place excessive attention on these topics to the detriment of the free thought or free speech of others. Ironically, the remedy from critics has been been to shut down "wokeness" in the court of public opinion and/or legislation.

The pushback is not just from social media influencers and conservative activists who use "cancel culture" methods they once accused liberals of employing to "expose," harass or boycott businesses. It is also state-sponsored policies and laws that are seeking a major correction from the promises of 2020.

The effect is to reverse progress on opening opportunities to marginalized groups who once could not get certain jobs, attend certain schools or accumulate wealth on par with their white neighbors. This is an incredibly uncomfortable truth when one explores why that was and who perpetuated and benefited from these policies.

Has DEI failed?DEI is unraveling at our universities. Good riddance to a failed and divisive bureaucracy.

Beneficiaries of Civil Rights Act wanted the same, not more, rights

The swinging of the pendulum is not new. The 1796 Tennessee Constitution allowed free Black men to vote, but the 1834 version eliminated that right.

After the Civil War, Reconstruction promised a more egalitarian society, but then came legalized segregation, public lynchings and poll taxes that disproportionately affected Black citizens.

Sixty years ago on July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which was about making things equal and correcting the wrongs of the past.

The harms of slavery, restricted voting for women and people of color, and Jim Crow segregation laws all have had generational impacts on people's ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness, according to the United States of America's Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Newly protected citizens were not asking for special rights; they were asking for equal rights. Now, apparently, in pushing boundaries and asking questions, they are being put in their place.

DEI critics are making the case that their success is either unfair to other citizens, unwarranted or undeserved.

Many companies continue to invest in their DEI initiatives even as they may be looking to de-emphasize or rebrand them. The consequence is making these company policies and programs unimportant, or at least less important.

So, while Tractor Supply's decision to pull back on DEI and ESG is disappointing, it is not surprising given the political environment in America today.

As other companies think about how to proceed, rather than abandoning their commitment to DEI and ESG, they should have some tough discussions internally and externally about what has worked since 2020, what hasn't and how to move forward without making it seem as if none of this work ever mattered.

David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY Network Tennessee. He is an editorial board member of The Tennessean, where this column first appeared. Email him at dplazas@tennessean.com or tweet to him: @davidplazas

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