The rhetoric surfaced on social media almost immediately.

“Is this another preventable accident or was this intentional act due to a DEI hire?”

As people around the world rushed to social media for news of the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse, they found racist disinformation blaming the tragedy on Baltimore’s Black and immigrant communities. Lots of the posts attacked DEI, a movement among the public and private sectors to bring more diversity, equity and inclusion to their organizations. Even Mayor Brandon Scott got caught up in the fray, with people calling him a DEI mayor.

“Must have been DEI,” the posts continued.

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“DEI did this.”

The Key Bridge collapse became the latest focus of a national far-right campaign spreading thinly veiled racism after a catastrophic event. It echoes the racist depiction of Black people during Hurricane Katrina, the Islamophobia that followed Sept. 11 and the anti-Asian hate that followed COVID-19. Now the vitriol is targeting a majority Black city, its mayor and the six Latino immigrants who were killed in the collapse.

“The impact of this is not just for the people in Baltimore,” said Kolina Koltai, a disinformation researcher at investigative collective Bellingcat. “In the next few days or weeks, I think this will also contribute to long-term attempts of trying to convince people that DEI is bad, which ultimately hurts people of color.”

The far-right movement has latched on to the term DEI much in the same way it has adopted “critical race theory” and “affirmative action” as political dog whistles. Some use the term on its face value to attack diversity efforts. But others use it more nefariously to mean “Didn’t Earn It.” Scott said it was used in place of the N-word.

Maynor Suazo, one of the six construction workers who died while working on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, had two children.
Maynor Suazo, one of the six construction workers who died while working on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, had two children. (Courtesy of Hector Suazo)

This is just the latest example of the far right vilifying immigrants with xenophobic rhetoric and overlooking the victims pouring “unseen care” into cities and communities, said Greisa Martinez, executive director of United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country.

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“Working-class people … bear the brunt of a lot of the work that makes this country go around, including undocumented folks,” Martinez said. “This is a reminder of how precious that labor is and how it should be elevated.”

They do the jobs that need to get done, she said. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many immigrants were essential workers. The economic recovery was in large part because of immigrants, she said.

In Maryland, immigrant households pay $13.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes, according to 2021 data from the American Immigration Council. Undocumented immigrants paid $607.2 million in taxes that year. At least half of the construction industry in Maryland is made up of immigrant workers, according to the council.

Veronica Namnun Cool, founder of Cool & Associates LLC, a Hispanic engagement and strategy company, said she has seen racist remarks resurfacing online that, “had the work on the bridge been done by non-minorities, somehow the bridge would still be standing.” She pushed back against that idea, saying immigrants work jobs that keep the city running.

“Baltimore City’s population has declined steadily for decades, wiping out the tax base,” said Cool, the former president of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “But you know who has moved in? Filling those vacant houses? Working all the jobs needed to keep the city running? Immigrants!”

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Charles Sydnor III has served in the Maryland Senate since 2020 after he was a member of the House of Delegates. (Shan Wallace)

The disinformation campaign’s vitriol has reverberated to lawmakers in Annapolis, including Governor Wes Moore.

When asked about DEI disinformation on CNN Sunday morning, Moore said, “I’m making sure we’re going to get the Key Bridge rebuilt. I have no time for foolishness, so I’m not going to delve into it.”

Lawmakers denounced the online targeting of Black government officials, saying allegations weren’t just pointed at Scott but also two Black members of the Maryland Port Commission.

“To falsely equate diversity with a lack of knowledge, and our Blackness with incompetence, is simply a lie,” Sen. Charles Sydnor III said.

Far-right account Young Conservative Federation posted a thread discrediting the two members on X, including their pictures and bios from the Port of Baltimore website. The posts received over 600,000 views.

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“It does not matter to some of these people that the aforementioned were duly appointed or duly elected,” Sydnor said. “Why? Because many of these folks don’t believe that me and my colleagues that hold the offices that we hold even should be voting in the first place.”

Online extremists started pushing an anti-DEI narrative when airplane manufacturer Boeing made national headlines for mechanical issues and when the Titan submersible imploded. Both companies employed people of color, Koltai said, and the far right alleged they were not qualified for the jobs, spreading an implicit and misleading message they should’ve gone to “more qualified” candidates: white people.

The rhetoric comes as no surprise to Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, a majority-Black city where he experienced his own share of race-based attacks.

“The reflex to lay blame for every disaster at the feet of workers of color or simply to assume their incompetence is the most primitive expression of racial animus,” Morial said.

“The success of diversity, equity and inclusion policies in building adept, dynamic and innovative organizations is well documented — as the politicians who exploit tragedies like the Key Bridge collapse to provoke resentment are well aware,” Morial said.

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And the message spreads fast.

Florida Congressman Anthony Sabatini tweeted “DEI did this” midday Tuesday to his over 100,000 followers. The tweet had been viewed almost 4 million times Friday.

Even though the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, updated the post with “reader-added context” debunking that DEI caused the event, by then, Koltai said, the damage was irreversible.

“Why this information is such a frustrating problem to deal with, particularly in the social media age, is because anyone can tweet anything out and they can go viral,” Kolati said.

Social media accounts with millions of followers have started parroting disinformation about DEI.

Elon Musk, the owner of X, tweeted conspiracy theories about the acronym, blaming “a DEI hire” for the blowout of a flight door plug on a Boeing aircraft earlier this year. The post has over 30 million views.

In recent years, Musk’s X has become the social media of choice for many far-right extremists. Since Musk purchased it in 2022, Koltai said, the site has significantly dismantled its content moderation policies, resulting in more tweets that would’ve been removed in the past remaining posted. X has allowed accounts previously banned for spreading disinformation and hate, such as far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, back onto the site.

Not only that, but Musk’s decision to monetize the platform has further enabled the spread of disinformation, according to cybersecurity and disinformation researcher John Scott-Railton.

When users dole out money for X premium, Scott-Railton said, their posts are prioritized in the algorithm, ensuring more people view and see them. They also get a verification badge — the blue checkmark previously reserved for verified public figures, governments and news sources.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gives updates on the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse at a news conference on Fort Smallwood Road Tuesday morning.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gives updates on the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse at a news conference on Fort Smallwood Road on Tuesday morning. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Many people have become conditioned to go to X when breaking news occurs, Scott-Railton added, and these verification badges used to act as a guide for finding reliable information.

“Now you get a situation where, even when people who are experts are saying sensible things, their voices can be drowned out and completely eclipsed by random blue-check accounts with no credentials,” Scott-Railton said.

Baltimore Mayor Scott said he has come to expect this type of racist treatment, recounting a series of incidents throughout his administration in which he’s been referred to with racist epithets, described with racist tropes and even threatened to be hanged.

“For me, if a week goes by and some racist doesn’t say something, I know I haven’t done my job,” Scott said.

He added about the people posting the vitriol: “We know they haven’t set foot into Baltimore. And, even if they have, they don’t understand what these folks have been through in their lives.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story.

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