When she was asked to serve on the Maryland Port Commission last year, Karenthia Barber knew it would be her chance to better promote all the opportunities that the port industry provides. After all, her father worked as a longshoreman for 40 years.

Barber said she has been “honored” to have the opportunity with her colleagues to expand the economic impact of the port and the maritime industry.

But when the devastating collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge prompted racist falsehoods to spread like wildfire online, Barber found herself in the crosshairs of a far-right disinformation campaign against “DEI” — diversity, equity and inclusion — alongside her co-commissioner Sandy Roberts.

Now, both are speaking out.

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“The reality is that I’m the first Black woman, but that is not my focus. I’m capable, credentialed, and qualified. I don’t even allow this to penetrate my psyche,” Barber said.

Roberts told The Banner that the onslaught of online vitriol was “not important to me.”

“I usually don’t spend time on stupid, uninformed comments and choose to ignore it all,” he said.

Just hours after the tragedy, an account called the Young Conservative Federation posted a thread on X about Barber and Roberts, both of whom are Black.

Alongside their photos, the posts alleged Barber was only hired because she is a well-known DEI consultant and “knows nothing about Ports.” It went on to allege that Roberts “only generally knew some maritime law.”

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The tweets were quoted and shared by hundreds of far-right personalities and conservatives politicians on X, ultimately garnering over 650,000 views.

It has become the latest instance of the far-right using coded language to spread thinly-veiled racism. Much in the same way the right has adopted “critical race theory” and “affirmative action” as political dog whistles, the group has embraced the term DEI, a movement among the public and private sectors to bring more equity to their organizations.

Barber didn’t immediately realize the attack on her was taking place. She dropped her Twitter account last year so she didn’t see the barrage of race-based rhetoric alleging that she and Roberts were DEI appointees who were ill-prepared to work with the governor-appointed six-person commission.

“It’s ridiculous. My being on the port commission is not about me. It’s about creating opportunity and access for others. My mission is to demystify the Port of Baltimore,” Barber said, adding that there are so many in the community who are unaware of the various employment opportunities that revolve around the ports.

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Some far right personalities are using DEI to attack diversity efforts. But others use it more nefariously to mean “Didn’t Earn It” or as a substitute for racial slurs.

Historically, the far-right has spent most of its efforts targeting prominent Black political figures, such as Barack Obama. But the conservative movement has since evolved to singling out local politicians and community leaders, like Barber and Roberts.

“The reality is excellence and equity can coexist. And that’s the message. The idiots out there want you to believe that they are not one in the same. So while yes, I have been appointed in this time and space, I approach it the way I approach everything in my career—with excellence. To the naysayers, that needs to be the understanding,” she said. “I’m unbothered and unaffected by this. I know what I know, and I know what I bring to the table. Any of that noise and nonsense, I don’t allow or accept it.”

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Roberts told The Banner that the onslaught of online vitriol was “not important to me.”

“I usually don’t spend time on stupid, uninformed comments and choose to ignore it all,” he said.

Some Republican politicians shared the post in an effort to promote their own political campaigns.

“This is what happens when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens,” wrote Phil Lyman for Governor, a gubernatorial campaign account for the congressman from Utah.

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In response to Lyman’s comment, Moore told CNN he “has no time for this foolishness.”

Lyman’s account has tweeted about DEI over a dozen times since November 2023, repeatedly posting that “DEI is poison” and spreading disinformation that the equity movement contributed to the failure of Boeing airplanes.

Lyman did not respond to request for comment.

Lyman said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that he did not personally write the tweets, but someone on his staff did.

“It was not our best moment,” he told The Tribune.

“I prefer a dignified approach and sometimes the people who handle the social media are more provocative than what I’m comfortable with,” he added.

In Maryland, Moore said he had more important things to address than baseless attacks.

“I am laser-focused on providing closure to these families, clearing the channel, and rebuilding the bridge. This type of foolish armchair commentary does nothing to make progress on any of those priorities, and I have no time for it,” Moore said in an email to The Banner.

Moore also defended the work of Barber and Roberts—he appointed both to the commission in 2023.

“Our administration is proudly one of the most diverse in the country, and we are fortunate to have Karenthia Barber and Sandy Roberts on our team at this moment. With years of experience in their field, I couldn’t be more confident in their abilities to help lead our state in this moment,” Moore said.

A state statute requires that the six gubernatorial appointees to the Port Commission not be “a representative of any entity whose principal activities are ports-related” or “employed by any entity whose principal activities are ports-related.” Geographic representation must also be taken into consideration when the governor appoints commissioners, according to the statute.

The Key Bridge collapse is not the first time racist rhetoric has been used to scapegoat diverse groups amid a tragedy.

Racist depictions of Black people during Hurricane Katrina clouded that disaster, Islamophobia followed Sept. 11 and anti-Asian hate followed COVID-19.

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, according to disinformation researcher Kolina Koltai, 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.

Under the same logic, the far-right has also set its sights on Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, claiming he is a “DEI mayor” despite being an elected-official.

In a previous interview with The Banner, Scott said he has come to expect this type of racist treatment. Since he became mayor, he said, 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.

Barber has limited her time on social media — instead focusing her attention on her work with the commission — adding that the port has been important to her family members in Turner Station, a historic Black neighborhood populated by workers at the now shuttered Bethlehem Steel and nearby factories.

“The important thing must remain the important thing. That’s where my focus is. You take away any power that negativity has in your life by not giving it any attention — which I have opted to do,” she said.

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