One of the president’s most dangerous attacks on civil rights and free speech is getting relatively little attention amid the firestorm of news as Election Day approaches.
In an executive order and a series of administrative actions issued over the past month and a half, the Trump administration effectively banned diversity and inclusion training in the federal workforce and at any company or entity that contracts with the government or receives federal funding, a huge swath of American businesses and universities, covering millions of workers and students.
As part of the administration’s continued efforts to effectively ban anti-racism training, the Labor Department announced Wednesday it would begin collecting information on diversity training from contractors (Verizon, which owns HuffPost, is one such company) as a way of policing the way diversity is discussed within private companies.
When a society is moving to authoritarianism, it goes after the ideas. It goes after speech. Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School
The president ironically claims to be doing this in the name of equality. The administration says these trainings are un-American propaganda, claiming that learning about the history of race in the United States teaches the language of hate.
But diversity training is standard corporate practice, meant to encourage workers of all backgrounds to treat each other fairly. As the Me Too movement began, there was a shift to focus on sexual harassment education. These days, companies are increasingly concentrating on racism.
In the case of diversity training, the White House is basing its opinion on the findings of one conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, who has appeared on Fox News and written for the New York Post and Wall Street Journal.
The word Orwellian is thrown around quite a bit in the Donald Trump era, but the doublespeak in this order stunned the lawyers, executives, activists and academics who have pushed for diversity, inclusion and equality for decades.
The order is the bureaucratic equivalent of telling white supremacists to “Stand back and stand by,” or of claiming there were “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly neo-Nazi rally and counterprotest in Virginia.
The order is using the power of the federal government to essentially censor and police the actual thoughts and ideas and perspectives of not only federal employees and the U.S. military, but also federal contractors that are private entities and grant recipients. Jin Hee Lee, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
“This is far more serious than a lot of people think,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School, and an early pioneer of the academic theories now under attack from the administration. “This is no minor thing. This is an effort to put the weight of the federal government behind ideas that say anti-racism is racist itself.”
Crenshaw and others view the administration’s moves as a direct attack on their right to share thoughts and ideas. At least one person called the order fascist. They’re a huge and powerful move by the White House to curb the right of workers, businesses and universities to discuss one of the most pivotal issues in the United States: racism.
It’s a clear assault on free speech, in the name of equality, against efforts to learn about equality.
“When a society is moving to authoritarianism, it goes after the ideas. It goes after speech,” Crenshaw said.
The administration’s actions are a way of opposing the reckoning with race that’s taken place around the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, a killing that stunned the nation.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund told HuffPost it is weighing legal action against the Trump administration.
“This is an extraordinary and alarming act by our federal government and our president,” said Jin Hee Lee, the fund’s deputy director of litigation. “The order is using the power of the federal government to essentially censor and police the actual thoughts and ideas and perspectives of not only federal employees and the U.S. military but also federal contractors that are private entities and grant recipients.”
Timeline Of The Attack
The crackdown on diversity training began in September and has escalated over just the past few weeks.
The White House put out its order to ban diversity training, or what it called “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” on Sept. 4, just two days after Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and directly appealed to the White House to ban such seminars, calling them dangerous and “terrifying.”
In the executive order, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget directed all federal agencies to cease funding such training, as it is “contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.”
The memo even identified specific terms that could not be used, including “critical race theory” and “white privilege,” or any other teaching that would suggest the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country.”
Trump tweeted the news the next day: “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!” The conservative press and Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, quickly got in line. “Marxist-influenced nonsense that is racially divisive,” Hawley said. “If you didn’t know better, if you read this stuff, you’d think it was put out by some white nationalist. It’s unbelievable.”
The Congressional Black Caucus and other groups of lawmakers of color quickly responded, saying the administration was “trying to sweep our nation’s history of racism under the rug.”
Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 17, Trump broadened his attack to include The New York Times’s 1619 Project and seemingly any kind of study of history that examines race in America. “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda,” the president said. “An ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”
Then on Sept. 22, the administration went further, issuing the “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which extended the ban to any training that promotes race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the military; at any company with federal contracts, which could include such behemoths as Microsoft and Boeing; and any organization that gets federal grants, which would include universities around the country.
Incredibly, the order claims its actions are in the name of equality. “The President, and his Administration, are fully committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals in the United States.”
But the administration is shutting down training meant to facilitate understanding, equity and belonging in the workplace.
On Oct. 4, the White House went further still, ordering all agencies to suspend diversity training until they are deemed to be in line with the president’s order.
The Labor Department has even set up a hotline that workers can call to complain about diversity training.
The Damage Is Already Done
Though Rufo, Hawley and others are calling this training Marxist, the capitalists of Corporate America actually seem to like diversity training. Not only because it feels like the right thing to do and it helps foster a welcoming atmosphere for women and people of color, but also because it’s a relatively simple way to deal with the hard issues of racial and sex discrimination.
A few years ago, for example, Sephora convened a one-day diversity training after a well-known R&B artist said she was racially profiled at one of the makeup store’s retail outlets.
This week, the traditionally conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce signed on to a letter to the president from more than 150 business and nonprofit organizations asking Trump to withdraw his executive order.
“The [order] is already having a broadly chilling effect on legitimate and valuable D&I training companies use to foster inclusive workplaces, help with talent recruitment, and remain competitive in a country with a wide range of different cultures,” the letter says, noting that the order is ambiguous as to what is and isn’t permissible to discuss in these trainings.
There are growing reports that because of the order companies are increasingly wary of continuing with diversity efforts. A few businesses have put programs on hold.
The order has a possibly even more harmful effect on universities, especially public institutions loath to risk federal money during a severe recession.
The University of Iowa and Texas State University have put programs on ice. John A. Logan College in Illinois canceled its programming, including a talk by an anthropology professor about his own Latino identity.
A screening of the movie “Malcolm X” and a planned talk was reportedly canceled at a military nonprofit.
Last month, the White House canceled a training on racism and public health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is currently grappling with the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black and Latino people. The death rate for Black people from COVID-19 is twice that of white people; the rate of infections among Latinos is nearly three times higher than for non-Latino whites. (These are current examples of systemic racism, which Rufo and Trump and other conservatives claim is not real.)
Diversity Training Was Hardly Radical, Until Now
What’s particularly startling is that diversity training in the workplace is hardly radical stuff. At least not until now. If anything, these efforts have long been criticized as something companies do instead of actually hiring more people of color and women.
These trainings have exploded in popularity since the summer, when millions took to the streets to protest police brutality. Companies at the time spoke up, too, asserting that Black lives matter; they doubled down on these kinds of trainings as a way to show their commitment to the cause. Diversity consultants said business was booming.
Businesses wanted to find a way to acknowledge what their employees of color were going through in a way that was constructive.
“We knew there was a lot of trauma in the nation and among our employees. We know individuals don’t leave that pain and confusion at the door when we come to work,” Lorraine Cole, director of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at the Treasury Department, told a congressional subcommittee in September, explaining why she helped put together an online seminar on racism in June for some federal workers.
“We knew it was important for us to address these issues, not only as a compassionate activity but as an important business decision. We know that this can affect productivity.”
The webinar on June 24 was viewed by 8,500 federal employees and was a pretty open and, at times, moving conversation about race, Floyd’s murder and the experiences of Black Americans in the United States.
Notably, it was moderated by Rodney Hood, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, a Trump appointee and the first African American ever appointed to lead a federal banking agency. He spoke candidly about his experiences with racism in the financial industry.
A few weeks later, in mid-July, Rufo, the conservative activist, wrote about the event for his blog, condemning it. The next day, July 17, he wrote about it again, for the New York Post, and also appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. (He appeared on her show again this week.)
Things settled down a bit as the story circulated on conservative websites. Then on Sept. 2, Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
On air, Rufo called for the White House to outright ban diversity training.
Two days later, the White House put out its first order banning diversity training in federal agencies.
Anatomy Of The Backlash
The conservative media and Rufo appear to believe diversity training is radical and somehow racist and anti-white. In part that’s because they cherry-pick examples to distort meaning.
Take the June webinar for federal employees. Critics of the event appear most incensed over not what was discussed but about the text of a supplemental resource guide given to attendees afterward.
Rufo has portrayed the guide as some sort of directive, but really it’s just resources for those who want to learn more: a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” and oral histories about the civil rights movement. There was also information for people of color looking for counseling or other support during a traumatic time.
What got conservatives worked up is a description and link to the work of Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” which hit the bestseller list this summer, as more Americans were buying books about race, and has been criticized among both liberals and conservatives.
The manual links to a video of DiAngelo on YouTube, and there is text next to that link that says: “She discusses the roots of White supremacy, of which she asserts virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism.”
That last clause of that passage has been repeated and replayed in the conservative press as evidence that diversity training teaches people they are racist.
Again, that’s not what is happening. For the most part in anti-racism training, Americans are being taught history and sharing their personal experiences with racism in hopes of furthering understanding of why racism persists today and how they fit into that history.
“I can tell you definitively that the kind of training Howard and I do is not centered in hating white people,” said Johnnetta Cole, who took part in the conversation that day with the well-regarded diversity consultant Howard Ross on the webinar. Cole is the president emerita of Spelman and Bennett colleges, and president and board chair of the National Council of Negro Women. She’s done consulting work for years.
“It is not centered in hating white people. It is centered in trying to understand the current state of our country and how, 401 years ago, language was created. Systems were invented. Policies were made that explained why it was all right to brutally, inhumanely enslave Black people for the economic good of some white folk,” she said.
Cole, who is 84 and grew up in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era, characterized the crackdown on diversity training as deep denial of the reality of systemic racism in the United States.
“Denial is perhaps among the most dangerous reactions to reality,” she said. “When systemic racism is denied. How will we ever move beyond it?”
Twisting The Study Of Critical Race Theory
In his writing and on Fox News, Rufo particularly went after something called critical race theory, which he mischaracterizes as the idea that the U.S. and white people are racist and evil, a line of argument picked up in the conservative press and elsewhere.
In fact, critical race theory is a line of legal scholarship that for decades has sought to understand why structural racism persists in the U.S. despite laws on the books ensuring equality and prohibiting discrimination.
Crenshaw, an early pioneer in the field, (she also coined the term “intersectionality”) calls it a framework through which to view history and the law in the U.S. Through the prism of the theory, you might ask, “Why do we still have a society in which it’s predictable who is going to occupy the CEO’s office and who’s going to clean it?” she said. “It’s a way of thinking about race that challenges the idea that we can do away with racial inequality by not paying attention to race at all.”
Typically these aren’t ideas that come up in corporate diversity training. Though, after this summer, more workplaces were open to discussing the roots of inequality and racism in the United States.
Some backlash was inevitable, though the fact that it’s coming from the White House was not.
The executive order reflects the deepest fears that some white folks have when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion training, said Evelyn Carter, managing director at Paradigm, a diversity consulting business. (She said the company already lost one client in the wake of Trump’s order.)
“Our general stance is that the executive order is meant to sow confusion that will make people pause and wonder if they should keep going,” Carter said. “It is essentially propaganda, and I’m concerned what this means in terms of a descent into fascism.”
Oftentimes discussions of racism can bring up a lot of anxiety for those groups in the majority; in this country that’s white people, Carter said. That fear looms large especially for those who have little experience talking about these issues.
There’s an underlying fear that conversations about racism will “belie their egalitarian self-concept,” as researchers from the University of Virginia and Northwestern explain in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
In plain terms, they’re afraid that they’ll appear racist if they talk about racism.
That fear can trigger defensiveness, anger and lashing out. White people might feel like it’s unfair to have to even hear about discrimination.
By shutting down the conversation on race inside the government and within companies and universities, Trump’s order caves to that fear and lets aggrieved and scared white people off the hook.
“This is a way to say, if you feel angry that you are being forced to consider a different perspective or being made to feel your identity is being privileged, then we are going to protect you,” Carter said.
The executive order and the conservative talk about how anti-racism training is racist are also clearly examples of the backlash against the growing conversation about race in America that’s been taking place since the summer amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd. There’s also a growing fear that more white people are joining the fight against racism.
Crenshaw said it’s absolutely necessary to keep the conversation going, as she has in her work for more than 40 years. The idea is to continually work to perfect the American experiment ― and the notion that all people are created equal.
“It’s part of what it means to be a part of a society that had a flawed start,” she said. “It’s not easy work to do.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.