In response to growing awareness of the ongoing disparate treatment of people based on their race and sex in the United States, American institutions have endeavored to teach a more holistic perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion. Educators have brought previously-hidden voices from history into mainstream curriculums, and private and public employers alike have embraced anti-bias training programs which account for generations of cross-cultural miscommunication. For as long as Americans have learned and grown through diversity training programs, these efforts have been the subject of political and cultural debate (Dishman, 2018).
A recent executive order from the White House (Executive Order No. 13950, 2020) has banned diversity training for federal employers and federal contractors and has banned other institutions from using federal funds to promote science-backed diversity and inclusion efforts. The executive order claims that these diversity, equity and inclusion programs are “anti American” and asserts that the intended effect of this new law is to end “race and sex stereotyping” (Executive Order No. 13950, 2020).
Describing these programs as “anti-American” erases a proud history of American innovation arising out of debate and dissent. Our history is rich with complex characters and brilliant minds who built the American nation, with all of its triumphs and its failures, by daring to call injustice by its name and imagine a more equitable path forward. Educating in the classroom, in workplace trainings, and in popular media about the complex dynamics of these moments in history does not diminish the greatness of American progress. Telling the complete, unvarnished, and sometimes unflattering truth of our nation’s history is one of the most patriotic efforts an institution can undertake.
The text of the executive order explains that these new efforts are meant to “embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (Executive Order No. 13950, 2020). However, Dr. King’s vision did not develop in a vacuum; the civil rights movement was a response to generations of violence against people of color in the United States. To erase this history from the story of America cheapens the legacy of great thinkers and activists who resisted injustice and made remarkable contributions to the country we live in today.
Instead of endeavoring to expand social justice education and empower a new generation of American innovation, the executive order claims to defend Dr. King’s legacy while also asserting that “racialized views of America . . . were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War.” The timeline presented here by the president may leave some Americans wondering why Dr. King was only dreaming of (rather than experiencing) racial equality in 1963 if racism in America had ended with the Civil War nearly a century before. This warped narrative of our nation’s history speaks to what the impact of this executive order will be: victory for those who think some aspects of that history are not to be taught, but to be forgotten.
Importantly, legal language of the order is not as clear as the cultural messaging surrounding its announcement (The White House, 2020). According to an analysis by shareholders at Littler Mendelson, P.C., an employment and labor law firm, the language of the order is broad and at risk for judicial challenge on First Amendment grounds (Goldstein et al., 2020). Compliance with the order is slated to go into effect in late November. How the order’s broad language will be enforced in the real world remains to be seen. However, higher education institutions have already canceled events to avoid violating these unclear guidelines (Flaherty, 2020). Organizations subject to the order are understandably concerned by the potential impact this executive order will have on the right to provide employees with an opportunity to connect with our nation’s complex history in new ways.
Numerous studies have detailed the role bias plays in social interactions across the globe (Mason, 2020). The roots of these racist ideologies can be traced through generations. The White House order claims that programs dedicated to examining these dynamics teach “that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans” (Executive Order No. 13950, 2020). Contrary to this language definition, education which examines the psychology and economy of racism and sexism throughout American history does not convey a message of hopelessness or a vision of an irredeemable nation. Rather, it is because America has inherited the enterprising and innovative spirit of generations past that diversity advocates seek to understand and confront the historic trends that have, at times, caused this great nation to fall short of its promise. Only through education and analysis of past failures can we hope to thrive in and improve upon the legacy previous generations left for us.
About the author
Mikayla Schneiter is SPEC CITISEN research associate and an undergraduate student at Empire State College, where she is pursuing a degree in Public Affairs with a concentration in Advocacy. She is a graduate of SUNY Erie Community College, where she earned a degree in Paralegal Studies. Mikayla works as a paralegal in the litigation department of a downtown Buffalo law firm which serves and advocates for injured and disabled people.
Dishman, Lydia. (2018). A Brief History of Diversity Training. Fast Company. Retrieved from www.fastcompany.com/40579246/a-brief-history-of-diversity-training.
Executive Order. No. 13950, 3 C.F.R. 60683–60689 (2020).
Flaherty, C. (2020). Colleges cancel diversity programs in response to Trump order. Insidehighered.com. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/07/colleges-cancel-diversity-programs-response-trump-order.
Goldstein, D., Paretti Jr., J., & Lolito, M. (2020). New Executive Order Seeks to Regulate Diversity Training by Federal Contractors and Grant Recipients. Littler Mendelson P.C. Retrieved from https://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/new-executive-order-seeks-regulate-diversity-training-federal.
Mason, Betsy. (2020). Making People Aware of Their Implicit Biases Doesn't Usually Change Minds. But Here's What Does Work. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/making-people-aware-of-their-implicit-biases-doesnt usually-change-minds-but-heres-what-does-work.
The White House. (2020). Remarks by President Trump at the White House Conference on American History. The United States Government. Retrieved from: www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-white-house conference-american-history.