Posted on October 16, 2020

Trump Attack on Diversity Training Has a Quick and Chilling Effect

Hailey Fuchs, New York Times, October 13, 2020

For the diversity consulting industry, this summer was like no other. Amid the racial reckoning spurred by the death of George Floyd, a wave of senior-level executives began to look critically at their companies, and consultants like Melanie Miller and Loretta VanPelt found themselves deluged with work.

Then President Trump stepped in.

An executive order, issued in late September as Mr. Trump was stepping up his charged attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters and “political correctness,” banned the federal government, as well as its contractors, subcontractors and grantees, from offering certain diversity training on racial and gender biases — teachings that the order called “divisive” and a “malign ideology.”

Such orders, prompted by the president’s fixations of the moment, have been staples of the Trump years and often lead nowhere. Like others, Mr. Trump’s focus on diversity training seems to have originated with an interview he saw on Fox News, when Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative scholar at the Discovery Institute, told Tucker Carlson of the “cult indoctrination” of “critical race theory” programs in the government.

But this time, the impact has rippled through corporate America, academia and the government with remarkable speed. Two government agencies canceled their sessions with Ms. Miller and Ms. VanPelt within weeks, and two companies put their training on hold. Two more might follow suit, the consultants said.


Beyond rhetoric, the president has mobilized the federal government to prosecute his efforts. Microsoft said this month that the Labor Department had initiated an investigation into its commitment to double the number of Black employees in leadership posts by 2025. The Justice Department sued Yale University last week, accusing the school of discriminating against white and Asian-American applicants in admissions. After Princeton University publicly acknowledged a history of systemic racism, the Trump administration opened a civil rights investigation of the school last month “based on its admitted racism.”

The offensive against diversity training takes those individual efforts further. The White House’s budget director, Russell T. Vought, informed government leaders that they were to make significant changes to diversity training sessions that were “un-American propaganda.” Mr. Vought told the agencies to begin to identify training programs on white privilege or “critical race theory,” which holds that racism is foundational to American institutions, and any training that suggests that the United States is inherently racist or evil or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.

Mr. Trump’s executive order cited a Treasury Department seminar that promoted the idea that “virtually all white people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism.” The seminar also asked small group leaders to urge employees to avoid the notion that Americans should “be more colorblind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”


The response to the executive order has been swift. The Justice Department suspended all diversity and inclusion training last week, and the agency has indefinitely postponed implicit bias training for federal prosecutors that was planned for September.

The University of Iowa, fearing a loss of federal research grants, paused programs across the university, including training for university employees on race or sex stereotyping and scapegoating. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the university’s general counsel suspected that the executive order may apply to all employees, not simply those who receive money from the federal government.

Roberto Barrios, a professor at Southern Illinois University, had planned to give a talk at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill., on Monday in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. The program included discussions of Hispanic identity as well as Mr. Barrios’s own story as an immigrant from Guatemala. The talk was canceled for fear of the executive order, less than two weeks before it was scheduled, he said.


The reaction has been driven, in part, by the severity of the penalties. Violation of the executive order by contractors carries the risk of debarment or blacklisting from government contracts, which could put some companies out of business.

The Labor Department has already rolled out a hotline for tips about noncompliance. The department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will also require that federal contractors and subcontractors send in for review the content of diversity and inclusion training programs as well as their duration and expense.


{snip} Civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are considering litigation, and Washington’s business lobbies are fighting back. {snip}


Smaller companies are not able to mount a defense. Christina Dawkins, a social justice consultant in New Jersey, said she had agreed to lead a workshop at a public university on social movements around racism after the summer’s protests. Just days before the first session was scheduled to begin, a dean informed her that it was canceled for now.

“Everything I do is in violation of the executive order,” Ms. Dawkins said. {snip}