With just over a month to go before the November 2020 election, U.S. President Donald Trump has launched an election season attack on workplace diversity and inclusion programs, conflating them with an academic discipline known as critical race theory and calling them "divisive." But critics say the move is both based on misleading information and is pandering to racial animosity.
The move comes in the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism and high-profile incidents of police violence against Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake. It also comes amid a new wave of demonstrations over the Sept. 23, 2020, announcement by Kentucky officials that the Louisville police officers who shot Taylor wouldn't be prosecuted for killing her.
Snopes readers asked us to verify whether it's true that Trump is ending diversity and anti-racism training for employees in federal agencies. We have been unable to identify exactly what programs would be affected and how.
Even so, here's what we know:
Trump on Sept. 22, 2020, issued an executive order that alleges a "malign ideology" threatens to "infect" government institutions. Although the executive order doesn't mention it by name, the ideology in question is critical race theory, a scholarly discipline that seeks to explain the persistence of racism in American society despite laws that on their face are race-neutral.
The executive order was preceded by a Sept. 4 memorandum issued by Russell Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which directed all federal agencies to "begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on 'critical race theory,'" white privilege, or other topics relating to institutional racism.
We sent questions to OMB and the White House seeking specifics about what programs would be affected, but didn't get clarification. OMB spokesman Chase Jennings pointed us to examples listed in the executive order.
The executive order states that, "our Uniformed Services, Federal contractors, and Federal grant recipients should, of course, continue to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in race, sex, and other federally protected characteristics."
The executive order lists four examples of materials allegedly given to employees of the U.S. Treasury Department, Argonne National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Smithsonian Institution that discuss the role of whiteness, or claims of colorblindness, in perpetuating racism.
- The Department of the Treasury held a seminar recently that promoted arguments that “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism,” and that instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid “narratives” that Americans should “be more color-blind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”
- Training material from Argonne National Laboratories, a federal entity, stated that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” and described statements about “color blindness” and the “meritocracy” as “actions of bias.”
- Material directed at white males from federal entity Sandia National Laboratories stated that an emphasis on “rationality over emotionality” was a characteristic of “white male[s],” and asked those present to “acknowledge” their “privilege” to each other.
- A Smithsonian Institution museum graphic recently claimed that concepts like “[o]bjective, rational linear thinking,” “[h]ard work” being “the key to success,” the “nuclear family,” and belief in a single God are not values that unite Americans of all races but are instead “aspects and assumptions of whiteness.” The museum also stated that “[f]acing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear.”
The seminar in question was hosted by the Treasury Department's Office of Minority and Women Inclusion on June 24, 2020, titled "Beyond Words: Race, Work and Allyship amid the George Floyd Tragedy." It featured Howard Ross, a diversity consultant and author, and Dr. Johnnetta Cole, national chair of the National Council of Negro Women, as speakers.
We reached out to Cole for comment, but didn't hear back in time for publication. But we did speak to Ross, who told us that the description of the event in the Executive Order is inaccurate.
Ross described the session as being livestreamed in a town hall format, in the wake of nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.
"They [the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion] were specifically concerned that the white folks in the organization didn’t know how to talk to people about race," Ross told us. "There was a lot of pain and anger among folks of color, and the whole focus was around allyship and helping people learn to talk to each other."
Although it was voluntary, an estimated 9,000 employees of federal fiscal agencies participated in the event.
"We do often remind people that saying people are 'colorblind' is just inaccurate, because virtually all human beings see color," Ross said. "So it is much more effective to acknowledge what you see and be aware of how it might influence your decisions about others."
Ross added that he would actually agree "that it is people’s skills that should ultimately differentiate them," and added that he has no recollection of “'small group leaders' at the event."
The phrase, "'virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism," is a quote from a talk given by author Robin DiAngelo. A link to a YouTube video of that talk was included in a pamphlet that provided a list of tips and resources that event participants could download and look through.
"Our whole emphasis was, how can we work together?'" Ross said, and added that calling his work un-American is misleading, because he advocates for the American value of "equal protection under the law."
Smithsonian Institute spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told us that the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture did briefly have a graphic on its website with language described in the Executive Order, but it was removed months ago.
St. Thomas said the graphic was outdated and was removed in June 2020, within a week of being posted to the museum's website, because, "it was ruining all the good conversations that were talking about race."
We reached out to Sandia and Argonne laboratories for comment. Argonne didn't respond to our inquiry and Sandia didn't address the statements about it in the executive order.
Critical Race Theory
Trump appears to have launched his attack on critical race theory on Sept. 5, 2020, in response to a segment on the Fox News show "Tucker Carlson Tonight" that aired Sept. 2, featuring an appearance by conservative activist Christopher Rufo.
In the segment, Rufo railed against "how critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government," calling it an existential threat to the United States." He stated:
I broke the story on the Treasury Department which held a seminar earlier this year from a man named Howard Ross, a diversity trainer who has billed the federal government more than $5 million over the past 15 years conducting seminars on critical race theory. And he told Treasury employees essentially that America was a fundamentally white supremacist country, and I quote virtually all white people uphold the system of racism and white superiority, and was essentially denouncing the country and asking white employees at the Treasury Department and affiliated organizations to accept their white privilege, accept their white racial superiority, and accept essentially all of the baggage that comes with this reducible essence of whiteness.
Rufo then called on Trump to "immediately issue" an executive order to "stamp out" critical race theory training in federal agencies.
We reached out to Rufo for comment, but he declined to answer questions for this story.
Ross was not personally paid $5 million by the federal government — he is the founder of the consulting firm Cook Ross. Ross told us that Cook Ross has contracted with "virtually every major department" in the federal government for diversity and inclusion workplace training and has done so for decades, going back to at least the Clinton administration. Although Rufo characterized his stories as being sourced from "whistleblowers," Ross told us all this work has been open to the public.
"If anything, I try and steer people away from the kind of work that demonizes white people, because I know what the mindset is," Ross told us. "If you demonize people when 90% of what they do is unconscious, you shut them down."
Ross, who sold the company in 2018, said for the vast majority of government-contracted work Cook Ross performed, it was the government that sought his firm out, because Cook Ross has a reputation for being balanced, and not pursuing a political agenda.
Ross pointed us to a talk he gave in 2014 to Google employees about unconscious bias for an example of what he teaches, and said that he doesn't teach critical race theory.
"If people want to give a terrible review of my book, I'm a big boy, it's reasonable to hold me accountable for what I've done," Ross told us. "But the frustrating thing is that I'm being targeted for stuff I didn’t even do."
Ross said that the result of the affair has been a large amount of hate mail directed at him — much of it anti-Semitic.
Khiara Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and author of the book, "Critical Race Theory: A Primer," called invectives against the body of scholarship a "disinformation campaign." It's not "un-American," she said, nor is the theoretical framework "fringe." In the legal academy, Bridges said, it's largely mainstream. Critical race theory has been taught in law schools for decades.
The body of scholarship emerged in the 1970s and '80s in response to the fact that landmark legislation from the civil rights movement of the '60s had largely failed to accomplish what it set out to do — for example, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were intended to bring equity, yet phenomena like mass incarceration and housing inequality continued to disproportionately impact minority communities.
Traditional civil rights lawyers "were in search of bigots, white supremacists, racist who were harming individuals and communities through diabolical plans," Bridges said. "Critical race theory came on the scene and said, perhaps civil rights laws fundamentally misunderstand racism. Perhaps racial inequality endures because of other mechanisms, like race-neutral laws that nevertheless function to reaffirm and support the hierarchies that were created during the days of formal discrimination."
There are a lot of debates among scholars about critical race theory, and Bridges said the definition of the theory can't be bounded by shallow, catch-all descriptions.
"There are some shared assumptions, which are very basic," Bridges said. "The shared assumptions are there is a racism problem, and the law plays a role in reproducing this problem. But there’s a hopefulness to it. The law can play a role in defeating the problem."
Bridges surmised that the recent criticism of critical race theory is just a proxy for condemning the mass protests in the spring and summer of 2020 after the death of Floyd.
"An attack on people in the academy is an attack on the people in the streets who are protesting systemic anti-Black racism and racism generally," she said. "He's trying to stoke the fears of white voters through his attacks on nonwhite people."
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee's union, issued a statement in September slamming what AFGE National President Everett Kelley described as the Trump administration "making major policy changes based on unconfirmed press reports President Trump saw on Fox News, without even a pretense of actual research into the issue."
The union noted that racism in the workplace impacts the public as well as the federal workforce, pointing to a survey that found that more than half of Veteran's Administration employees witnessed discrimination perpetrated against veterans the agency is supposed to serve.
Donald Sherman, deputy director for the government transparency advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, offered a scathing critique, telling us that he views Trump's desire to cripple diversity training for federal workers as a demonstration of a track record of racist policy to match rhetoric.
"Racism is wholly incompatible with an ethical government that serves all Americans equally instead of a privileged few," Sherman told us. "But I think what the last four years have demonstrated is that the President's racism is corrupt, but also his corruption is racist."
Sherman pointed to policies like "zero tolerance," in which immigration authorities separated migrant parents from their children at the border — without keeping records on how to reunite them, which Sherman said violates the Federal Records Act.
He also pointed to Trump placing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in an influential position handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that minority communities were hardest hit — not just by the virus, but by the economic fallout. And on top of that, he said, financial relief has largely excluded minority-owned businesses.
Sherman said he believes that since Trump feels more politically vulnerable as the election nears, he will use "every tool of the government to stoke racial division and prop up his political campaign."
We reached out to the White House for comment on this criticism and received the following statement from Russell Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget:
Requiring or pressuring employees to attend trainings where they are told they are inherently racist is un-American. President Trump’s Executive Order builds off his recent directive to halt agencies from using Critical Race Theory in training sessions to ensure Federal contractors are not discriminated against.