A presidential executive order banning the “malign ideology” of racial sensitivity training has rippled through government into academia and corporate America.
By Hailey Fuchs
WASHINGTON — 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.
“To see the progress, to see the movement, and then all of a sudden, ‘propaganda,’ ‘divisive,’ those words just are so, so untrue of what this training actually does,” said Ms. VanPelt, a Southfield, Mich., trainer. “If we’re going to actually have this conversation, move the needle, get people thinking about and doing something about systemic racism, you have to talk about it.”
The “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” appears transparently political, the latest effort by the president to shore up support among his largely white base ahead of the November election. Asked about it during the presidential debate last month, Mr. Trump said such trainings were “racist” and “teaching people that our country is a horrible place.”
Both implicitly and explicitly, Mr. Trump has made race a centerpiece of his bid for re-election, warning suburban voters of the perils of low-income housing and the spreading of “anarchy” in the cities. During the debate, he refused to condemn white supremacy and told the Proud Boys, an organization linked with white supremacy and acts of violence, to “stand back and stand by.”
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.”
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