American Academy of Dermatology Votes to Keep Its Diversity Policies After Anti-DEI Proposal

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The American Academy of Dermatology on Sunday voted to reject a proposal to end its diversity, equity and inclusion programs, in what Black dermatologists are calling a small victory for the organization and the field in general. 

The academy, a nonprofit organization of dermatologists in the U.S. and Canada, has been embroiled in DEI-related controversy since February, when dozens of members co-authored a resolution looking to put an end to DEI initiatives and programs being implemented in the institution. The group called the resolution “Sunsetting all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs” and held that the “DEI movement” would do more harm than good to the branch of medicine. News of the resolution spread quickly, with several news outlets detailing the diversity battle brewing in the AAD.

In the latest turn Sunday, the advisory board not only voted to reject the resolution, but to expand the academy’s mission to prioritize diversity and address inclusion issues within the field. 

“We celebrate diversity in all forms including, but not limited to, religious, ethnic, cultural, gender, and racial identities and aim to improve disparities in health care,” academy president Terrence Cronin Jr. told NBC News in a statement through a spokesperson. “We are ardent opponents of any form of antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian hate, and racism of any kind.”

The vote came two days after the board heard testimony from several dermatologists, of many races, who opposed the resolution. Wendy Roberts, a California-based dermatologist, said she believes hearing from the dermatologists may have cemented the board’s decision to oppose the anti-DEI resolution.

“Department chairs stood up and talked about how their programs were stronger because of DEI. They felt diversity made their programs better,” Roberts recalled. She said she was disappointed to see her colleagues and people she considered friends sign on to the anti-DEI resolution. “The turnout for supporting DEI was massive and I was so proud of dermatology.”

Black dermatologists make up just 3% of dermatologists in the country, research shows. This disparity can lead to misdiagnosis and mistreatment from white doctors who may not know or understand how skin ailments manifest in darker skin. The AAD has taken steps to address these disparities with programs specifically intended to create and support more dermatologists of color. One of those initiatives is its Diversity Mentorship Program, in which medical students from underrepresented groups team up with a dermatologist of their choice for a month of one-on-one mentorship. 

The board voted during the 2024 AAD Annual Meeting this weekend in San Diego. The board heard from academy members on Friday and issued their decision on Sunday. Roberts said the atmosphere at the meeting was initially tense, with the prospect of the academy ending its DEI programs hanging in the air. Afterward, she said the mood lightened up and Black dermatologists and other minority practitioners gathered to make a social media video yelling, “We belong here.”

The resolution in dispute was introduced by Brian Raphael, a dermatologist in East Syracuse, New York. According to Raphael, the resolution links the “DEI movement” to antisemitism and DEI efforts have evolved into an unfair political movement that stifles “diversity of thought” and creates a “racist” or “nonracist” binary. 

“DEI, while initially well-intentioned, is now believed to hinder rather than help the diversity in our specialty and the broader healthcare field, and to obstruct efforts to address and improve racism within our systems,” his resolution reads. 

Raphael did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC. He said in a statement to Allure that the resolution wasn’t received in the way he intended. 

“The original intent of the proposal was always to work with our colleagues and the AAD/A to adopt an even more inclusive policy, one that promotes the end of racism and hate speech — and supports the equal treatment and respect of all individuals, especially within the health care system,” he told Allure. 

After learning of the initial resolution, Roberts, the California doctor, teamed up with two other dermatologists, Jeanine Downie, who is Black, and Heidi Waldorf, a Jewish white woman, to put forth a counter-resolution: “Opposition to the Resolution to Dismantle/Remove The Current American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiative.” They also launched a petition to expand rather than end the AAD’s DEI initiatives. The petition garnered more than 6,000 signatures. 

Waldorf said the matter isn’t a battle between Jewish people and Black people, but the original resolution appeared to be an effort to undermine and dismantle DEI and use outrage over recent antisemitic incidents to do it. 

“It was misguided, and I think, in my opinion, it hid a political agenda. There was an agenda to stop DEI and they tagged on antisemitism to get people to sign,” Waldorf told NBC News in an interview. “It started as a debacle. I’m very proud of the American Academy of Dermatology members for seeing what was the right thing to do for public health.” 

Conservative politicians, lawyers, activists and social media influencers have spent recent years countering DEI initiatives in several industries. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the national protests that followed, companies, schools and organizations have sought to become more racially and socially inclusive. Those efforts have prompted a backlash and a right-wing push against “wokeness,” with anti-DEI advocates calling such policies and programs unconstitutional

A recent NBC News Analysis found that Republican lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced or passed more than 100 bills to either restrict or regulate DEI initiatives in the current legislative session. The anti-DEI efforts follow, and have gained momentum from, the backlash to Black Lives Matter and the implementation of laws to limit what can be taught about race in schools. 

Starling Tolliver, a dermatology resident at Michigan’s Wayne State University, participated the AAD’s Diversity Mentorship Program in 2019. She said she was devastated last month when she learned that the anti-DEI resolution could have led to the end of the academy’s program.

“It really just saddened me,” Tolliver told NBC News of the initial resolution, “because it really does not represent what DEI is. To say you want to dismantle it is taking it out of context and disregarding all the amazing things it’s done for people.”

“I would not be where I am without these policies,” she added.

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