Chick-fil-A drew fierce criticism this week from conservatives calling out the fast-food chain for its diversity, equity and inclusion policy and questioning the hiring of an executive to be in charge of such efforts.
The backlash has made Chick-fil-A one of the latest companies to draw public condemnation over “culture war” flash points like L.G.B.T.Q. rights or seeking fair treatment for racial or ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented. Several companies and brands have also been at the center of such criticism in recent months, including Bud Light, Target and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chick-fil-A itself has drawn controversy in the past, though more typically from the left.
‘Chick-fil-A has gone woke’
This week, many conservatives have rebuked Chick-fil-A, pointing to a corporate policy on its website that details the company’s focus on “ensuring equal access,” “valuing differences,” and “creating a culture of belonging,” under the title, “Committed to being Better at Together.”
Critics also singled out the chain’s hiring of Erick McReynolds to head its D.E.I. efforts, but that is also not a new development.
Citing that policy, Wade Miller, an executive director for Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank, said on Twitter that he could no longer support the company as a customer: “Everything good must come to an end.”
Jeff Clark, a former Justice Department official who was implicated in former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, said on Twitter that Chick-fil-A’s policy was “disappointing.”
“Chick-fil-A has gone woke,” wrote Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing critic with 625,000 Twitter followers. The conservative commentator Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA shared a similar sentiment with his 2.2 million followers.
It was unclear why Chick-fil-A was only drawing criticism now for its D.E.I. efforts, since the company has long had such a policy in place. As for Mr. McReynolds, company records show that he had been the company’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion since at least 2020.
The chain, known for its fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, declined to comment on Wednesday.
Chick-fil-A has faced past ‘social justice’ controversies.
Chick-fil-A has been on the spotlight in the past over matters of inclusion, but for different reasons and from a different direction.
Chick-fil-A was a founded by S. Truett Cathy, a religious man who wanted to have his business closed on Sundays so that his workers could rest and worship if they wanted to do so. The company, which says its corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us,” had aligned itself with conservative causes by donating to groups that tried to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
In 2012, its president and chief operating officer spoke in favor of traditional marriage, inviting protests from advocates for same-sex marriage. The company had also been criticized for closing on Sundays because of religious beliefs.
Under pressure, the company later stopped almost all donations to organizations that opposed equal rights for people of different sexual orientation.
The chicken chain was criticized again in 2019 for making charitable donations to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, two groups that had been criticized by L.G.B.T.Q. advocates. The company then stopped making donations to those groups.
What exactly is a D.E.I. policy?
Corporate companies have had policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion in some form for decades, largely to avoid discrimination on the basis of race, sex or religion. In recent years, these policies have increasingly been gathered under the acronym D.E.I.
Ivuoma Onyeador, a Northwestern University professor whose research examines how people understand discrimination and disparities, said that companies have D.E.I. policies to ensure that “their employees and customers and clients from marginalized backgrounds are having the same experience as employees, customers and clients from dominant groups or well-represented backgrounds.”
Those policies “signal to employees from marginalized backgrounds, or racial minorities, that the companies care about their experiences,” Dr. Onyeador said. “That’s the benefit of having these programs.”
Stephanie Creary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on inclusion in the workplace, said that D.E.I. efforts have traditionally focused on issues such as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, mentoring and sponsorship programs.
Over the years, Dr. Creary said that “D.E.I. practices have become broader in scope, particularly in terms of the dimensions of difference on which they focus, including religious values.”
Chick-fil-A strengthened its policies after the George Floyd protests.
Experts said that D.E.I. efforts were bolstered after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police in 2020 spurred nationwide protests calling for social justice and police accountability.
“The Floyd moment felt like a shift,” Dr. Onyeador said. “The 2020 moment, the Black Lives Matter moment over the last decade, has brought lots of these discussions to the forefront in a particularly unique way.”
Alvin Tillery, the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern, said that protests in the summer of 2020 revealed to corporations that many of their workers, especially younger ones, were “aggressively committed to racial justice.”
“The corporate diversity programs shifted from these kind of benign discussions of recruiting and nonconscious bias to an active discussion of accountability for antiracism and gender equity,” Dr. Tillery said.
In an internal report, Chick-fil-A said that in 2020 the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts “took on special significance for us as we proactively pursued new ways to work against racism, systemic or subtle, throughout the communities we serve.”
The report, which does not explicitly refer to the social justice protests from that year, said that the company held dozens of listening sessions “to better understand and address racial injustice.”
Those efforts informed the company’s plans “to address racial injustice,” the report said.
Corporations are now caught in the political crossfire.
Corporations in the United States have to follow federal laws — such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — that make it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or a disability.
Dr. Tillery said that many companies have D.E.I. policies to avoid the potential consequences of discriminatory practices.
“If companies don’t want to face lawsuits, or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, it makes sense for them to have equity policies to make sure that there are no racial gaps,” Dr. Tillery said.
Some companies also see D.E.I. as part of a moral commitment to justice and higher ideals. Dr. Onyeador added that many see a “business case for diversity..”
She described that as “the idea that being a more diverse company, or having a more inclusive climate, increases performance outcome for a company.”
This has put companies like Chick-fil-A at odds with some customers. It has also led to a political backlash among Republicans seeking to appeal to conservative voters. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, recently signed legislation defunding diversity programs at the state’s public universities and colleges.
Dr. Onyeador said that she believes conservatives have conflated increased D.E.I. efforts with support for other social justice efforts, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Because they’re against D.E.I. policies or ‘wokeism,’” Ms. Onyeador said, “they’re struggling with the connection between Chick-fil-A, as a company that they see as on their side, that is also engaging in this other work.”