By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and the state’s NAACP have called for the resignation of Martin D. Brown, the state’s chief diversity officer, who denounced the state’s use of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs during a speech at Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
“Let’s take a moment right now to kill that cow. (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) DEI is dead,” said Brown, whom Governor Glenn Youngkin appointed last in November.
“We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore,” he continued, before an audience of VMI cadets. “It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility, treating – living the golden rule, right?”
Brown, a conservative Black Republican with Norfolk, Va. ties, is a former Heritage Foundation fellow and worked for two prior GOP governors.
He was the featured speaker at a mandatory annual “inclusive excellence” training for VMI’s faculty and staff members. VMI recorded the speech and made it available to various media outlets.
Democrat State Senator, Lamont Bagby of Richmond, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, described Brown’s rhetoric as “appalling” and said all 19 members of his group believe that he needs to leave his job at once.
The Virginia NAACP also issued a statement demanding that Brown step down immediately, citing his “erroneous assumptions” and “lack of fitness for the critically important position he occupies.”
Brown, who is a graduate of Norfolk Catholic High School, according to his LinkedIn account, declared “DEI is dead” during an April 21 mandatory diversity training.
He called diversity the “wrong mission,” and argued that the pursuit of equity means “you’re not pursuing merit or excellence or achievement.”
Brown and other right-wing Republicans have been echoing the sentiment of Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis who said Florida is where “woke” diversity comes to die.
Last year, DeSantis signed legislation, dubbed the “Stop Woke Act,” that restricts certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses. The law bars instruction that says members of one race are inherently racist or should feel guilt for past actions committed by others of the same race, among other things.
Brown, 60, makes $160,000 a year and oversees the state’s renamed Office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion.
Black lawmakers said Brown’s remarks were especially infuriating because they were made at VMI.
The nation’s oldest state-supported military college has been working to be more welcoming to minorities and women in the wake of a state-ordered investigation in 2021 that found a “racist and sexist culture” on its Lexington campus.
The 183-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy, hired its first Black superintendent, retired Army Maj. General Cedric T. Wins, and created a diversity, equity, and inclusion office, headed by two Black women. But its reforms have faced a backlash among some conservative White alumni. VMI recently renamed its DEI office to “Opportunity” to reflect the name of Brown’s office.
“For him to hold that role as a Black man and to continue to collect a six-figure salary in that role and go to VMI and make statements like that, I think that takes disingenuousness to another level,” Bagby said. “We’ve collectively done a lot of work to address some of the racial challenges VMI has been facing, and VMI – under the leadership of its superintendent Cedric Wins – has turned out to be a serious partner in addressing those challenges associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, for Brown to go there and say, ‘Oh, stop what you are doing, we’re no longer interested in that work.’ It was appalling. It’s evident that he doesn’t appreciate his role, and it’s time for him to make it official and offer his resignation.”
Robert Barnette Jr., the Virginia NAACP president, said in a statement to the press that Brown essentially talked his way out of the job while he was onstage at VMI before several hundred professors and college staff members.
“If diversity is the wrong mission, isn’t he in the wrong job?” Barnette asked. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been a staple of corporate organizations for many years, so to say that it’s dead at an institution of higher learning is very troubling and that’s why we called for his resignation. This man is in the wrong job.”
The Governor said he stands behind Brown and his statement.
Late last week the president of the Heritage Foundation, where Brown served as a visiting fellow from 2014 to 2018, issued a statement supporting him and his remarks at VMI. “Conservatives around the country support Martin Brown for having the courage to speak truth to power when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Kevin Roberts, Heritage’s president.
“The people of Virginia categorically denounced the nationwide effort to push Marxist critical race theory to our kids when they elected Glenn Youngkin governor in 2021 … Martin Brown was speaking truth to power. It was an act of bravery. I and Heritage salute Gov. Youngkin for making such a stellar choice.”
Janice Underwood was the state’s first Diversity officer. She was appointed in September 2019 by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam.
The next year, the General Assembly codified the position of director of diversity, equity, and inclusion – a law that has never been changed, said Democrat State Delegate Don Scott of Portsmouth, the minority leader of the House of Delegates.
In March 2021, the General Assembly voted to require state agencies to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plans.
But when Youngkin came to office in 2022, he rooted out the word “equity” from the state’s education system and changed the name of the state’s DEI office to Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, though the General Assembly has not approved the department’s name change.
Brown’s most recent job was as president of a marketing and public relations firm, and manager of a Chick-fil-A franchise in Richmond, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Cozy Bailey, vice chair of the Virginia African-American Advisory Board, said Brown recently told the board that he’d offer a strategic vision for the state’s diversity office by the end of March. Bailey, who also serves as the president of the Prince William County unit of the Virginia NAACP, said that the report has yet to materialize.
“Those who oppose equity try to frame it as something that is less than meritorious,” she said. “But the true concept of equity is, in fact, about the government and other entities providing each individual with what they need in order to be successful.”