On September 22nd, President Trump issued the Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, effectively banning modern iterations of racial equity and diversity training for federal contractors. The executive order states that government service providers will have their contracts cancelled if they fail to cease any training “that inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” (p. 1) Under the new executive order, contractors are prohibited from teaching concepts related to the U.S. being fundamentally racist or sexist, claiming members of a certain race are oppressors, identifying a group as privileged based on race, or blaming a certain race or sex for past actions of oppression.
Non-compliance can result in the Department of Labor cancelling contracts and debarring agencies from working with the government. The executive order directs the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) to establish a hotline and investigate complaints from people reporting agency violations. The director of OFCCP will publish a request for information on training, workshops, or similar programming provided to employees by October 22nd. Parameters and guidelines are currently limited, however, the order made it clear that language and content related to ’white privilege’ will be considered unacceptable. ‘Unconscious bias’ conversations may be targeted as well.
Following the results of the 2020 Presidential election, sources report believing that President-elect Joe Biden will scrap the executive order shortly after his inauguration. A lawsuit responding to the executive order has since been filed by a civil rights group for violation of free speech. The ideas espoused in the executive order are not strictly those of President Trump: it directly quotes Christopher Rufo’s journalism “exposing” Critical Race Theory as a dangerous ideology that is racist against white people. Rufo is a frequent flyer on Fox News, thus these ideas may not immediately go away following Trump’s departure from office.
As many are known to do when attempting to delegitimize people of color’s responses to racism, the executive order repeatedly references Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and insinuates this country has not had a problem with racism since the Civil Rights Movement. The document claims the current understandings of systemic racism resurrect the notions of 19th century slavery apologists that our government was made on the white basis by white men for the benefit of white men, that these views are “re-packaged and sold as cutting-edge insights made to divide us and prevent us from uniting as a nation.” It goes on to claim that our founding documents reject racialized views of America, which were “soundly defeated on the battlefields of the Civil War.”
Our founding documents reject racialized views of the United States to the same degree that President Trump rejected white supremacists on national television during the 2020 presidential debate: they don’t. Trump’s ability to control the ideas taught in modern diversity training seems shaky at best considering the First Amendment right to free speech, but the move is still symbolically important for the message it sends. We offer an explanation of Critical Race Theory using Trump’s document as an embodiment of everything the theory was created to understand.
CRT emerged in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement as a response to claims that the United States was achieving equality through affirmative action, arguing that racism is endemic to American life because the country itself is systematically structured to privilege whites and oppress people of color. Former Harvard Law professor Derek Bell developed the foundation for the theory by analyzing how racism was codified into law over time to systematically exclude people of color from obtaining status and rights automatically afforded to whites. Critical race theory is built on five central concepts used to analyze social structures and policies: racism as normal, critiques of equality versus equity, whiteness as ultimate property, interest convergence, and the unique voices of people of color.
CRT theorizes that we oftentimes can no longer recognize manifestations of racism in daily life because it is so deeply ingrained in American society. Race is socially constructed to create social and economic hierarchies perpetuating stereotypes that privilege whites while constructing people of color as “other.” Just fifty years ago, racism was undeniable in the face of blatant acts of racial discrimination such as segregation and unequal access. Today, daily racism exists in the form of microaggressions, microinsults, prejudice, unconscious bias, and failure to promote people of color into leadership roles. Socially constructed racial categories are invented, manipulated, and retired when convenient for those in power. Trump’s attempts to retire ideology identifying white people and heterosexual men as oppressors, while perpetuating the nonexistence of racism in American life, demonstrates the idea that socially constructed racial categories can be manipulated by whites to deny the existence of racism when it is convenient for them.
Liberal notions of equality, meritocracy, neutrality of law, and a colorblind society are critiqued by Critical Race Theory. Racism cannot be dismantled through equality, which assumes all people have the same opportunity, but through an honest evaluation of power and subsequent structural changes aimed at promoting equity, which assumes and accounts for an unequal playing field. Attempting to ensure equality through neutrality in the law is insufficient and disingenuous, fails to consider the impact of racism on opportunities for people of color, and justifies failing to address inequity by ignoring race-based policies. Donald Trump defends colorblindness, denies the existence of systemic racism, promotes the idea of neutrality of law by declaring race is not relevant, and claims meritocracy exists to choose people based on qualification alone. Silencing ideology that rejects colorblind racism and promotes examining the ways in which we all are complicit in the oppression of non-white non-heteronormative people is a tool of white supremacy.
Whiteness as ultimate property originates from legal analysis of property rights in the United States to include reputation, status, or position in society as forms of personal property. CRT analyzes the formation of laws and regulations positively impacting whites while working to the detriment of non-whites to posit that whiteness is the ultimate property value perpetuating advantages and privilege. Numerous examples include discriminatory housing practices, racial disparities in prosecution outcomes, and racial profiling by police officers, to name a few. During the first 2020 presidential debate, America watched Trump refuse to denounce white supremacy and double down on his notion of modern diversity training as “un-American and racist against white people.” Attempting to control the dialogue around whiteness and perpetuating false historical narratives upholds white supremacy by reinforcing ideas that what is pro-American is pro-white. Donald Trump’s position is clear: the real problem is criticizing whiteness, not criticizing race.
Interest convergence is the idea that white leadership is only willing to support people of color so long as their personal interests align. Trump’s attempts at rolling back modern diversity training are a result of changes in interest convergence with whatever audience he is seeking the approval of. His executive order should be understood as a lack of interest convergence between people of color and his political campaign rather than the United States as a whole. The workplace is one of the only spheres of life in which conversations on race, inclusion, and diversity are required and viewed as important for organizational success across the board. Many public and private sector organizations are fully on board with modern diversity training based on Critical Race Theory. White privilege and systemic racism are more commonly understood as fact than ever before. As we stated in our last blog post, if leadership positions hold to existing power structures, they are communicating a lack of concern and priority with creating equitable, inclusive, and supportive cultures. It is clear who President Trump is choosing as his target audience with this executive order, and it is not people of color.
People of color sharing their experiential knowledge of racism and oppression provides a direct contradiction to the “othering” process by giving voice to their experiences, understandings, and knowledge. Sharing encounters of racism and oppression reveals the persistence of racial bias and existence of oppression in a way white people are unlikely to know or acknowledge in any other context. People of color critically reflecting on their position within a racist society empowers them to confront racism and provides an important learning tool for white people capable of listening and reflecting on their own role in a racially oppressive system. Our work at Full Circle Strategies focuses on empowering the unique voices of color and building connection between people through an honest assessment of the impact of racism on the individual and organizations.
Despite the executive order, many federal contractors have reported continuing diversity trainings through the lens of Critical Race Theory. Seeing organizations remain committed to anti-racist work inspires hope and optimism. We encourage people of color to not be intimidated from sharing lived experiences of racism despite the white backlash from this administration. We encourage organizational leadership to maintain a steadfast commitment to anti-racist work to send a clear message that racism will not be tolerated and freedom of speech will not be infringed upon.
Dr. King is often misconstrued and manipulated by white people to fit their narrative of colorblindness, but he provided a factually rigorous analysis of systemic racism and frequently criticizes the complacency of white liberals throughout his work. In response to the declarations of the executive order that racism is no longer a problem because of Dr. King’s work in the Civil Rights movement, we include this quote from his last published book as a counter-storytelling response to the white-washing of Black history.
To define much of white America as self-deluded on the commitment to equality and to apprehend the broad base on which it rests are not to enthrone pessimism. The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always faced it is equally real. The value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed. To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of a very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically unsound, morally repugnant and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease. A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgment of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.
Where Do We Go From Here by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967
The framework and understanding created by Critical Race Theory cannot be extinguished, not even by the President of the United States. The truth can no longer be hidden and the status quo will not continue. Attempted steps backward by the highest leadership in this country will not keep its people from moving forward – we will continue calling out false narratives of white supremacy, educating others on the realities created by the cycle of oppression, and acknowledging internalized racism in ourselves. Now is the time to remember the critical need for the work and commit to creating an organizational and national culture embodying anti-racist practices. Anti-racist training will continue in the workplace to help our nation reach the democratic goals so many have long been denied.
Cineas, F. (2020, September 24). Critical race theory, and Trump's war on it, explained. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/2020/9/24/21451220/critical-race-theory-diversity-training-trump
Hein, K. (2020, September 29). Legal expert unpacks what Trump's executive order on diversity training means for agencies. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.thedrum.com/news/2020/09/29/legal-expert-unpacks-what-trump-s-executive-order-diversity-training-means-agencies
Kolivoski, K. M., Weaver, A., & Constance-Huggins, M. (2014). Critical Race Theory: Opportunities for Application in Social Work Practice and Policy. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 95(4), 269-276. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.2014.95.36
King, M. L. (1968). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? Boston: Beacon Press.