December 5, 2020

Trump Bars Federal Grants for ‘Divisive and Harmful’ Racial-Sensitivity Training

College diversity officers and people who support efforts to improve racial climates on campus reacted with alarm on Thursday to word that President Trump had expanded a ban on training programs that he says promote racial or sexual “stereotyping” and “scapegoating.”

In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Trump said the ban, originally aimed at programs for government employees, was being extended to federal grantees and government contractors.

“Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t, there’s nothing in it for you!” he tweeted.

Diversity leaders say the executive order could have a chilling effect on efforts to improve campus racial climates.

In an executive order signed on Tuesday, Trump wrote that contracts can be refused or canceled if they don’t include an assurance that the recipients will avoid “workplace training that inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.”

Experts interviewed by The Chronicle said it was not clear whether colleges that received federal grants would have to halt programs that violate the executive order’s provisions or whether they would just be prohibited from using federal grants to pay for them.

The order states that “instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the federal government and among federal contractors.”

To obtain federal grants, recipients will have to state that they won’t use federal money to promote, among other things, ideas that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” that anyone “by virtue of his or her race or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive,” or that anyone “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

The executive order singles out higher education for programs that Trump finds objectionable. “Such ideas may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by federal taxpayer dollars,” it states. It goes on to contend that “research also suggests that blame-focused diversity training reinforces biases and decreases opportunities for minorities.”

Trump told agencies that dole out grants to identify which recipients violate the order, and directed the Department of Labor to set up a hotline to monitor complaints about such trainings.

‘Firing Up’ the Base

Shaun R. Harper, a professor of education and business at the University of Southern California, accused Trump of trying to create a distraction from the 200,000 lives he said had been lost due to the president’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. Trump, he said, is also “firing up a base and further dividing the nation along racial and ideological lines.”

Harper, who founded and runs the USC Race and Equity Center, said he had no plans to change what his center does, but others might react differently.

“I’m afraid that institutional leaders and policy makers who didn’t want to do this stuff in the beginning — they were pushed and pressured by activists — will take an extremist view” in interpreting their training programs and assume they won’t pass federal muster, he said.

None of the programs Harper is aware of are “blame focused” or engage in stereotyping, he said. “I am pretty sure the Trump administration has no real idea of what actually happens in most of these programs. It’s reckless to engage in policy making without knowing what their substance and goal might be.”

Earlier this month, Russell Vought, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, notified federal agencies that Trump had learned that millions of taxpayer dollars had been spent “‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” He directed all government agencies to ferret out and cancel contracts related to training on “critical race theory” and “white privilege.”

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, which represents 1,100 members at 750 colleges and universities, released a statement this month decrying that ban. “At this time of racial reckoning with our past, the president deepens the divide and eliminates any possibility that individuals within the federal government can learn the consequences of racism and its deadly effects,” the group wrote. “Worse yet, it is a signal to our citizens and the world that racism does not exist and never existed. Eliminating these critical conversations on race is an erasure of history at a time when we need this understanding more than ever to transform our society into a just one.”

Eliminating these critical conversations on race is an erasure of history at a time when we need this understanding more than ever.

In an interview on Thursday the association’s president, Paulette Granberry Russell, said the vast majority of diversity officers would probably conclude that their programs didn’t violate any of the provisions about stereotyping or scapegoating that the order outlines. Therefore, she said, “it would be difficult to conclude that we should stop our workshops or training.”

She still worries, though, that the order could have a chilling effect on colleges’ diversity training since it will be subject to interpretation by federal agencies that dole out grants.

In an interview with The Chronicle, two top diversity officers said recently that their work had never been more important or exhausting, given the national reckoning on race.

Tuesday’s executive order invoked the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that instead of treating everyone as equals, supporters of diversity training are pushing an ideology that says “that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges also weighed in on Thursday, saying it was “concerned and alarmed” by the executive order. “While the executive order contains some elements that are universally agreed upon and with which we agree, it also exhibits a misunderstanding of most diversity- and inclusion-training programs and therefore will only further divide an already fragmented nation,” the group said.

The health-care disparities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality have demonstrated that the country hasn’t always lived up to its ideals of racial equity, the association said. “Only through better understanding of our conscious and unconscious biases, learning about other cultures in our pluralistic society, reaffirming our commitment to being anti-racist, and challenging long-held beliefs — that we hold ourselves and that we hold about others — will we heal the divisions now shaking our nation to its core.”

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