Editor’s Note: This issue, we introduce a new column dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion and related topics. The column editor, Anton Lewis, is a published author on critical race theory in the accounting profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. He is an associate professor of accounting at Governors State University in Illinois. He has written two books about Black professionalism, A Critical Analysis of The Black Accounting Experience in the U.K: Tales of Success and Failure in the British Professional Workplace and Counting Black and White Beans: Critical Race Theory in Accounting. He has also been published in The CPA Journal before, most recently in the September/October issue’s co-authored article on diversifying the pipeline to the profession, “What Can the Profession Do?”

How important is it that you keep your word? It means a great deal to me, and I strive to fulfil the promises that I make. Trust is a marker of the true essence of an individual, whoever they may be. In principle it is an issue of trust in me as a person and as a professional. Lest we forget, trust in the individual accountant is a function of public trust in the profession as a whole (A. Lewis, A Critical Analysis of the Black Accounting Experience in the U.K.: Tales of Success and Failure in the British Professional Workplace, Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012). But if trust is a pivotal function of accounting, what does it mean when our profession seemingly reneges on its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) promise made loudly not so long ago? Hypothetically, what is at risk? As I look at the profession now, it clearly runs risk of sowing mistrust where DEI is concerned and so disenfranchising potential new accountants of color from entering the profession. They clearly see a vocation that does not keep its word, one that is “talking the talk but not walking the walk” on DEI. But is this actually the case? To be fair, we have had no actual official pulling back from DEI from the Big Four, the AICPA, or NASBA. So why would I even suggest such a provocative, and possibly incorrect, thing?

Well, “If it looks like a spade, acts like a spade, then it’s a spade.” This bit of advice from my homeland of Britain usefully points out that we should seek always to see things as they are and not what we would wish them to be, irrespective of what is said—or perhaps where DEI in Accounting is concerned, completely ignored. This is what I believe is occurring today in the accounting profession and U.S. business in general. It is a danger I warned of in a previous CPA Journal article, that many of the promises made to improve Black representation in the accounting field in the wake of the killing of the Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the global attention garnered by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement may not materialize in any meaningful way (A. Lewis, “Smoke and Mirrors. Race and the Black CPA,” The CPA Journalhttps://www.nysscpa.org/2112-al, 2022).

And so, it has come to pass that rhetoric around George Floyd and BLM has descended to virtually a whisper in these politically charged times. Accounting leaders who once flocked to show their DEI/anti-racist credentials are nowhere to be seen as attacks on DEI gain momentum. Where is the once soaring rhetoric by our accounting leaders, a prime candidate being PwC’s U.S. Chair Tim Ryan and his superb DEI initiatives announced only a year or so ago? The Big Four all made impressive announcements, noting that corporate America has failed Black workers in terms of diversity and that must now change (J. Sahadi, “PwC Chairman: How Corporate America Can Stop Failing Black Workers and Diversify Its Ranks,” 2020, https://tinyurl.com/3w3aky52). But a few years on, nothing has really changed, apart from the steady dismantling of the idea of DEI as a positive tool to increase diversity across professions. Again, allusions to bravery in the face of adversity were made by accounting leaders, but where are their voices now? Strong oratory is hollow without demonstrable action. Silence often speaks volumes in terms of what is and what is to be. I posit that “what is” equates to DEI not being good for business, and “what is to be” is the forerunner of letting DEI die slowly, but more importantly, quietly on the vine. Republican attacks against company diversity initiatives in red states have become a significant force making the advancement of DEI difficult, costly, and in some cases possibly illegal (A. Moshiri, “Republican Prosecutors Target Corporate Diversity Programmes,” https://tinyurl.com/2mb5jf2v, 2023).

Accounting does not exist in isolation from society, as illustrated by the substantial Republican backlash against DEI in red states, spearheaded by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis under the guise of a justified attack against unjust “wokeness.” [Wokeness here is defined as awareness and concern about systemic social inequality and discrimination (as in progressive politics), a notion which those on the conservative right reject (A. Weinberg, “DeSantis Officials Finally Tell Us What “Woke” Means,” MoJo Wire, 2022https://tinyurl.com/muywrrvk).] This chills the DEI discussion and lets promises be ignored. The recent Supreme Court ruling against using race as a criterion in college admissions all but guts affirmative action in the higher educational space and has chilled discussion about diversity and equality [Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, (n.d.), https://www.oyez.org/cases/2022/20-1199]. The current fall in the number of Chief Diversity Officers across business and academe is now extreme, removing the ability of organizations to employ knowledgeable human capital to aid in the creation of effective policies to help redress the situation (C. Bunn, “Hamstrung by ‘Golden Handcuffs’: Diversity Roles Disappear 3 Years after George Floyd’s Murder Inspired Them,” 2023, https://tinyurl.com/4mmnmbzp). Given these two examples of the racial status quo in many parts of the country, it behooves the accounting profession to stand by its own words, to fight for DEI in its own house, and to be vocal about doing so. But when it fails to do this, it chills discussion further. The culmination of this chilling effect amounts to what I call the “DEI Winter”—a current freeze on DEI progress in the realm of accounting and elsewhere that is even back-sliding advancements already made (R. Ayas, P. Aceves, D. Rawlings, “Cutting Costs at the Expense of Diversity, Is Big Tech Revealing Its True Colors?,” 2023, https://tinyurl.com/24adudhy). And let us not forget that the accounting profession is currently facing a crisis in the supply of new entrants and can ill afford any kind of to damage to the talent pipeline caused by not fulfilling its DEI promises (D. Niehaus, “Fixing the Crisis in Accounting: Five steps to attracting tomorrow’s CPAs,” The CPA Journal, Sept/Oct 2022, https://www.nysscpa.org/2022-09-dn). Put more simply, I believe a sustained retreat from diversity and inclusion advocacy will cause significant injury to recruitment where minorities are concerned.

Critics might argue that I don’t have much evidence to back up my claims. This is in fact true. Historically, data on diversity/race and racism has been thin on the ground. Indeed, it bares more investigation, as it seems paradoxical for a profession that specializes in providing information to be unable to produce quality data where race and racism is concerned. It has long been an open secret among critical accounting scholars researching race and racism that finding freely available quality data on race is as rare as finding hens’ teeth! (See T. Hammond, D. W. Streeter, and S. Musundwa, “Using qualitative research to effect change: African/American accountants in Black and White,” Critical Perspectives On Accounting, vol. 89, pp. 1-9, 2022; and P. Madsen, “The Integration of Women and Minorities into the Auditing Profession since the Civil Rights Period,” The Accounting Review, vol. 88, no. 6, pp. 2145–2177, 2013.) Truly, if any meaningful progress is to be made in the numbers of people of color coming into the profession, then freely available racial metrics as a benchmark are an imperative. But where is this data? The more suspicious among us might well assume that the profession simply does not want to openly admit decades of failure. To my mind, this is racial apathy in thought and deed, showing that the real (in)action of the profession is to follow the status quo of a racialized society, set against the lack of progress of Black and Brown colleagues.

It is worth noting that mid-tier and smaller accounting firms also take their lead from the action (or inaction) of large institutions such as the AICPA, the American Accounting Association (AAA), National Association of States Board of Accounting (NASBA), and the Big Four. If these institutions do not voice their concern that “winter is coming,” then who will?

Soaring rhetoric and demonstrable action is desperately needed to challenge concerted attacks by a number of Republican governors against environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting. To ignore this would allow another chilling wind to roll across the “social” in ESG. Yet this implies a more straightforward and demanding question: Is the accounting profession brave only when it is safe to be so? If so, what does this say about the integrity of accounting? What does it say about what we will, and will not, fight for? Worryingly, this points the finger toward venal self-interest as the only barometer holding us to our word. Instead, I advocate that the accounting profession make a powerful stand right now to do more on DEI—even if it costs us to do so—because it is the right thing to do, perhaps paving the way for other differing positions to follow.

To sum up, as I have written elsewhere, the Black experience in accounting—and by extension that of People of Color from the very beginning—has been that of disenfranchisement because of promises made and not kept; because of good intentions that fail, even though nobody is to blame, fueled by ignorance and apathy each time. Frankly, to renege once again on DEI promises is simply business as usual to the eyes of critically minded professionals of Color. But I call for something different. Accounting, in my opinion, has to become “uncommon.” An uncommon accounting profession would risk doing the right thing first and foremost, even if it hurts the bottom line, putting DEI first, making sure the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (as Star Trek’s Spock would say). This means keeping its diversity promise, no matter what. Quite simply in my view, if a profession is not honorable, it runs the risk of destroying trust it can ill afford to lose in a number of ways enumerated above. Lastly, if one cannot trust a professional accountant to do the right thing socially, then why should any of the technical work provided be trusted either? It is in the interest of the accounting profession collectively as well as individual professionals to keep their DEI pledge to diverse colleagues past, present and future.

Anton Lewis, PhD, is an associate accounting professor in the college of business at Governors State University, University Park, Ill.