A Holocaust survivor said Sunday that history is repeating itself and the recent attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“Education is not memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Education is understanding how millions of ordinary Germans were convinced that it was required. Education is learning how to spot the signs of history repeating itself,” said survivor Barbara Schecter Cohen before a public audience at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan (suburban Detroit).
Schecter Cohen said that it’s important for Americans to remain vigilant and not remain silent.
“I tell my grandchildren and children to be aware, be alert and be an upstander, not a bystander,” Schecter Cohen added.
Legislators and courts throughout the nation have been attacking DEI from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision against affirmative action in college admissions to Florida’s banning of history books and the Wisconsin’s Supreme Court denying the State Bar of Wisconsin’s petition that would have allowed licensed Wisconsin attorneys to earn some of their CLE credits through education programs related to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA).
“Our state is going down a very dangerous path,” said Milwaukee Democrat Common Council member Jonathan Brostoff, during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Tuesday.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) officials stressed the importance of DEI programs during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal Tuesday.
“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs are critical to creating a just society and an equitable work environment. Through ADL’s Workplace Pledge to Fight Antisemitism, we are collaborating with companies and organizations across the Midwest to ensure that antisemitism and religious accommodations are addressed as part of DEI strategies. Values of education and learning about the experience of different communities are at the core of ADL’s mission to create a more inclusive society and fight hate on all fronts,” said David Goldenberg, ADL Midwest Regional Director.
NAACP Milwaukee Chapter President Clarence P. Nicholas agreed with Schecter Cohen and Goldenberg during a Tuesday interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal.
Nicholas said, “There is a definite parallel,” while describing the commonalities of what American Jews and African-Americans face and how history is repeating itself.
“What we are seeing now are subtle things happening, that in some ways makes it even worse than what it was in Germany in the 1930s (just years before the Holocaust),” Nicholas said.
“Lives of Jewish people and African-Americans are parallel in many ways. The (Court and Legislature’s) public policy are parallel for not only Jewish folks, but also African-American folks. There’s definitely a similarity,” he added.
Citing several older cases, Nicholas noted how Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968), focused on freedom of school choice to circumvent compliance with the 1955 Brown vs. Board of Education cases which sparked the Civil Rights movement.
Nicholas pointed out Wisconsin’s history when it comes to DEI, specifically mentioning the 1990’s case where the Wisconsin Supreme Court, “allowed 1,500 students to be experimented with” (in Davis v. Grover), the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision upheld a Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, a 1990 school voucher law permitting the use of state tax dollars to send a select number of low-income children to private schools).
Nicholas further blamed former Gov. Scott Walker for “restricting the right to vote.”
Now in 2023, the State Bar of Wisconsin was not pleased by the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision.
“We are disappointed the Supreme Court denied the petition but will continue to look for opportunities to educate our members on DEIA issues, as we believe education in this area makes lawyers better at delivering legal services to clients of diverse backgrounds” said State Bar of Wisconsin President Dean Dietrich.
Deitrich noted that “while some DEIA programming can be approved for CLE credit already, the leadership of the State Bar believed it was important to codify DEIA legal-related education as an essential part of lawyers’ professional development, just as the Court has with lawyer wellness, ethics, technology and practice management.
When asked by the Wisconsin Law Journal Sunday if history is repeating through sanitizing history books, Schecter Cohen, replied, “Absolutely.”
Schecter Cohen specifically mentioned a graphic novel that an audience member had discussed with her. The novel ‘Maus’ depicts the Holocaust and has been widely banned due to its content.
Democrats say sanitizing history takes the country in bad direction.
“When we start taking away the opportunity for learning about this sort of history, it’s extremely scary and is exactly the wrong direction for all of us,” Brostoff said.
Schecter Cohen said her parents would be appalled by the recent attacks on Democracy, including the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“The fact that I saw some t-shirts that were worn (on Jan. 6) that said Camp Auschwitz and Six Million … never enough. They came with baseball bats, weapons and I thought my parents would turn over in their graves if they saw that was happening,” Schecter Cohen said.
More than 1 million people died at the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans have made no secret their disdain for some DEI programs.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he’s ’embarrassed’ to be a UW System alumnus because of campus diversity programs. The Wisconsin State Journal reported in May that Vos wanted to cut gut $14 million in DEI programs.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin Republicans praised the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision that denied the State Bar’s petition for DEI CLE during interviews with the Wisconsin Law Journal.
“I agree with the Supreme Court. The State Bar pushing this contributes to its image as a liberal organization,” said Scott Kelly, chief of staff and legal counsel for Wisconsin Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine County). “CLE is continuing LEGAL education, not professional development. DEI isn’t law and shouldn’t be treated as such. Frankly, treating it as law (which is what CLE is about) is a mighty slippery slope.
“‘Equity’ is an entirely subjective term. Inserting it into the law makes the law subjective. In addition to meaning different things to different people, what may be equitable for one person is not necessarily equitable for another. It could lead to judges making their own law in the interest of equity and likely lead to more lawyers seeking change the law through court action rather than actually changing the law through the legislature.
“The Legislature is charged with making the law, not the courts. There’s a reason that that images of Justice have her blindfolded. No matter who is before the law, the law treats that person equally, not equitably. It doesn’t matter the person’s race, their sexual orientation, their religion, they are to be treated equally, not equitably. ‘All men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, ‘Equal protection of the laws’ in the 14th Amendment.”
Kelly disagreed with Schecter Cohen’s holocaust comparison to cutting DEI funds.
“There’s a general rule in life that applies here, too. If you’re comparing something to Nazis, you know you have a losing argument,” Kelly said.
Others agreed with Kelly.
Rick Esenberg, president of Wisconsin Institute for Law And Liberty and a former Marquette University law professor, said he “doesn’t get the argument” comparing cuts to DEI to the Holocaust.
“That argument seems a little undeveloped me,” Esenberg said.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law And Liberty is a conservative law firm backed by millions in grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
When asked by the Wisconsin Law Journal what he has against DEI, Esenberg replied, “Decision making out to be race neutral. Treat people based upon whatever criteria you are selecting them, and not their race. Race is never really important.”
According to Esenberg, everyone has a different interpretation as to what DEI means.
“If you just take those words in their everyday meaning, they mean different things to different people,” he said.
Regarding the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, Esenberg said, “the courts have been concerned that this was a way station to mandatory DEI training and that DEI training would consist of contestable propositions of the nature of society and the legal practice.”
Wisconsin Senator Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) took issue with Schecter Cohen comparing DEI to the Holocaust too, during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal Tuesday.
“Comparisons to Nazi Germany or slavery in a lawyer licensing matter are absurd and intentionally inflammatory. Lady Justice is blind because it should not matter to the law who stands before the court. While we occasionally fall short of that principle in our society, we should never stop aspiring to it. We give up on this critical principle by entrenching group emphasis over the individual in either the law or lawyer licensing,” said Stroebel.
Milwaukee Attorney Nick Zales disagreed with Esenberg.
“The majority of the Court that voted to dismiss the Bar’s DEI CLE petition did so on the mistaken basis that it would lead to mandatory DEI CLE. They also mistook legal education about different kinds of people and their needs as some kind of Nazi-like indoctrination. Just the opposite is true. The Bar was asking that DEI CLE be made available for credit and nothing more,” Zales said.
“If, as the dissent noted, such classes were already available for CLE credit, then the BBE would have said so. It did not. DEI CLE is designed to bridge the gap between lawyers and clients of different races, countries and needs. Immigration has changed the face of Wisconsin and understanding different groups, such as Hispanics, Hmong and Native Americans, can only help Wisconsin lawyers serve their clients better,” Zales added.
Zales, who serves on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors, also noted, “The Bar’s goal was to simply make these kinds of classes available for credit. Just like any other kind of CLE. It was not going to be mandatory. Wisconsin lawyers are a smart, seasoned and a thoughtful group of people. There is no way any of them would be ‘indoctrinated’ into anything by simply attending a class on how people are different and have different needs to achieve justice.”
“Undoubtedly, some DEI goes too far. You can have equal rights, or equitable rights. They are not the same thing and, in fact, are diametric opposites. Anytime you treat someone different based on their race, religion, sex, etc. it is, by definition, a form a discrimination. Where that line gets drawn is frequently argued before the courts. You can have equal protection of the law, or equitable protection of the law. You cannot have both. Equality before the law in enshrined in our Constitution; equity is not,” Kelly said.
During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Tuesday, Wisconsin Sen. Chris Larson responded, “What corporate America has embraced, but continues to elude elected Republicans, is that DEI is actually about finding the best candidate for the job. To believe that DEI is somehow discriminatory is to deny reality.
“I would ask any opponent of DEI why women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and disabled Americans continue to be affected by disparities in income, wealth, incarceration and other life outcomes, if not for the fact that there is something inherently unequal about our institutions. If we accept that our society fails members of certain groups more than others, the question then becomes ‘what do we do about it?,'” Larson said.
“Most democrats believe that it is our responsibility to ensure equal opportunity for all people by creating more just systems. Republicans would rather bury their head in the sand and pretend they all got home runs when most of them were actually born on third base,” Larson added.
Brandon Weathersby, Communications Director for the Office of Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley told the Wisconsin Law Journal on Tuesday that his office remains committed to advancing the County’s diversity, equity and inclusion mission.
According to Weathersby, since 2019, Milwaukee County has worked to train employees on the importance of health and race equity, “as we progress towards our vision to become the healthiest county in Wisconsin,” he said.
“Since then, we’ve transformed our department leadership to be more representative of the people and communities we serve. Currently, half of cabinet-level departments are led by women, and more than half of cabinet-level leaders are Black,” Weathersby said.
According to Weathersby, earlier this year, Milwaukee County launched an internal Network Resource Groups (NRG) which aims to “promote a positive and inclusive environment for all employees through education, networking and workplace collaboration.”
“These employee-led, employee-driven groups promote the personal and professional development of a diverse and inclusive mindset by creating greater organizational connectivity, while educating and empowering each other and fellow employees on the specific demographics that we serve,” Weathersby noted.
“At a time when historically marginalized groups are witnessing increased pressure to return to the margins, and in some instances extreme threats of violence, we find it necessary to remain committed to our values and the communities we serve,” Weathersby added.
Back in Michigan, Schecter Cohen said history must not continue to repeat itself. “Democracy must be protected,” she said.
“I tell my children and grandchildren when they are old enough to vote, we have a voice here and we have to protect our democracy by voting and by reading … so we can vote with an educated mind,” Schecter Cohen said.