During Tuesday night’s Presidental debate, Donald Trump made numerous racist claims. From calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” to refusing to condemn white supremacy and telling members of the white supremacist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Trump’s words were littered, as always, with insensitive and bigoted ideas. But one moment that flew under the radar amidst all the other racist commentary was when Trump was asked about his administration’s decision to end racial sensitivity training, calling anti-bias trainings “absolutely insane” and full of “very sick ideas.”
Moderator Chris Wallace brought up the fact that the Trump administration “directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege or critical race theory” and asked the president why. “I ended it because it’s racist,” Trump said. “We were paying people hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas and frankly, very sick ideas. And really, they were teaching people to hate our country And I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to allow that to happen. We have to go back to the core values of this country. They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place.”
And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this is, in fact, true: Trump did issue an “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” earlier this month, as a way to outlaw anti-bias training. The document invokes the actions of civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., the folks who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Union soldiers in the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln as evidence that the United States has achieved racial equality and no longer has a problem with systemic racism. It refers to structures calling for equity and based on an anti-oppression lens as “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country” and calls them “divisive concepts.”
In demanding an end to all anti-bias trainings in federal agencies, the memo instructs that “All agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
In total, it demands an end to trainings and curriculum that explicitly name or imply that a specific race or gender of people is responsible for oppressive policies and cultures, seemingly in response to the now-mainstream and largely understood idea that patriarchy (establishing men as the dominant gender) and white supremacy (naming whiteness as oppressive) have created systems that uphold those values and harm people from marginalized groups. And by doing this, Trump is effectively pushing back against the idea that white men are responsible for the unequal society we currently live in, despite the fact that recent polling has shown that a large majority of Americans believe that police officers, the media, and the government need anti-bias training.
But Trump is merely trying to discredit a movement to rebuild a broken system that has prioritized white male lives. Anti-bias trainings and new accounts of history, like the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which has been adapted to teach in schools, attempt to tell a more accurate version of the sanitized and white-washed history of the United States currently accepted as fact by mainstream textbooks and narratives.
By centering the lens and experiences of the marginalized people throughout history — Black people, Indigenous people, women, immigrants, queer and trans folks — it de-centers the narrative of colonialism and whiteness as the savior or hero. “We actually do need to be reforming our social studies curriculum because we actually don’t teach a very accurate and comprehensive history of America,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, told NPR earlier this month.
Shifting that narrative is a threat to the very white supremacy that Trump and his supporters seek to uphold, which is why the president is hell-bent on discrediting it. Back in July, Republican Senator Tom Cotton attempted to do the same when he introduced congressional legislation titled the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” in an effort to “prevent… federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools.”
“What we’ve seen in the last few months is the Trump administration and the right targeting Black Lives Matter, a 30-year-old academic theory called Critical Race Theory, of course, the 1619 Project,” said Hannah-Jones. “So this is just an attempt to appeal to racial animus and to stoke his base, which is white Americans.”
We saw Trump appeal directly to that base last night when he refused to condemn the Proud Boys, who interpreted his comments as a direct endorsement of their group. Shortly after the debate, the Proud Boys released a new logo with Trump’s words strung across it: stand back and stand by. But this is exactly what the president wants: As long as he occupies the White House, he will continue to roll back gains towards equality that have been made and directly harming the marginalized communities who call America home. And he will do it under the radar, with executive orders that target the very institutions trying to address and course correct systemic racism.
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