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Article written by NBC correspondent Derrick Clifton

The Trump administration announced two moves last week that target diversity training at federal agencies and public school lessons about American slavery. Experts in civil rights history and diversity consulting say the actions serve as an appeal to President Donald Trump’s base, while further stoking racial divisions that have been called into focus by recent protests.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a directive prohibiting departments from using federal funds to administer diversity training for executive branch staff that incorporates teachings about critical race theory and white privilege. Trump himself also threatened to cut off funding from schools that teach The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort released last year to coincide with the anniversary of slaves being brought to the Virginia colony 400 years ago.

In the executive memo issued by OMB, department director Russell Vought claimed that diversity trainings “run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception” and also “engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce.” He specifically cited elements of some training sessions that highlight how white people benefit from racism and may contribute to racial discrimination.

Mary Morten, president of the national consulting firm Morten Group, said federal agencies may become ineffective in serving the public without giving employees the benefit of training that incorporates lessons about diversity, inclusion and equity (or DEI).

“If government agencies are prohibited from doing DEI training, they’re missing an opportunity to build a unified workforce, to include groups of people who are underrepresented … and to bring these voices forward to effectuate real change.” said Morten, whose firm conducts training sessions with government offices, nonprofits and companies. “If people aren’t able to do it at the highest level of government, there will be a trickle-down effect. It means government policies from the federal level won’t be inclusive.”

Morten said her firm conducts a needs assessment before making recommendations on the types of sessions or training they offer to an organization. Then the organization drafts a long-term action plan based on its training to bolster inclusion.

“People realize this is an opportunity to make a difference,” Morten said, adding that the work of inclusion is an ongoing process. “Race is still the primary indicator of someone’s success in this country, and it’s important that we uplift race in our discussions of equity. Some organizations get concerned that centering race means we won’t include other areas of oppression. If we don’t address race, we won’t have equity in these other areas either. There’s no way around it.”

‘Divisive, un-American propaganda’

While diversity training is primarily informed by academic fields such as sociology, history and ethnic studies, the source material draws heavily from critical race theory, a legal framework that emerged from the work of scholars like Derrick Bell, who was the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School. Critical race theory posits that race is socially constructed, and that it is not exceptional but an ordinary and routine occurrence. It also examines how white supremacy and racial discrimination are written into and maintained by the law.

“Critical race theory is important because it’s in the family of critical thinking, which means you must look at something with an eye towards identifying flaws, truths and opening up different ways of thinking,” said Erika George, a professor of law at the University of Utah. George added that critical race theory may highlight ways in which laws and public policies may not explicitly name race as part of its language, but that the measures can still bear racial implications. “It’s about getting us to a place of understanding where we are by understanding where we’ve come from, and why it is that things are the way they are.”

In Vought’s executive memo, both the terms “diversity training” and “critical race theory” were offset in quotation marks in some instances, an apparent signifier that the teachings are considered inferior or illegitimate.

“The President has directed me to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions,” Vought wrote. He continued, “The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the federal government.”

The phrasing Vought used echoes government actions from decades past that criminalized or scrutinized elements of academic study, political thought and activism purportedly carried out in the service of communism and treason. The scare tactic, otherwise known as McCarthyism after Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious efforts, was used to target elements of the emerging civil rights movement and bears historical implications for present day, said Theodore Foster, an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who focuses on African-American history, civil rights memory and Black studies.

“If we think about what is being labeled propaganda, it’s a diversion. It’s a spectacle that’s familiar for this administration, but it’s also part of conservative rhetoric,” Foster said. “‘PC culture’ is a conservative phrase that’s become common in our political language [and] diminishes the demands of critical race theory and Black studies in their call for recognition of anti-Blackness in society.”

Through her work at an international human rights organization, George said governments that were headed toward authoritarian rule often openly harassed and policed academics.

“When ideas are under assault, that’s usually dangerous ground that you’re treading on,” George said, adding that she and her colleagues were concerned “with the academics because it was a free thinking space that needed protection for other groups to be protected.”

The 1619 Project in public schools

Trump’s skepticism about ideas and teachings on race extends to The 1619 Project, which has gained popularity among educators seeking to supplement their lessons about slavery with the project’s meditations on how the slave trade influenced American democracy and has continued to carry implications for the civil rights of Black people. The work recently came under fire from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

In an interview with The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton discussed his proposed bill to block funding from public schools that teach The 1619 Project, and described slavery as a “necessary evil” upon which the union was built.

“The 1619 Project is left-wing propaganda. It’s revisionist history at its worst,” Cotton told The Democrat-Gazette. “Curriculum is a matter for local decisions and if local left-wing school boards want to fill their children’s heads with anti-American rot, that’s their regrettable choice. But they ought not to benefit from federal tax dollars to teach America’s children to hate America.”

Foster said that while there are valid debates about the presentation of The 1619 Project, teaching the Times’ work could benefit students who might otherwise receive watered-down lessons from textbooks about the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Middle Passage.

“To call it un-American is to take conversations about power dynamics and relations off the table,” Foster said. “There’s a lot of criminalization of diversity going on here, [which] goes hand in hand with a criminalization of Black protest and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has demanded an ongoing recognition of anti-Blackness. In this moment, close to the election, it caters to an us-versus-them narrative that’s about the spectacle and not the substance.”

The apparent disconnect from Trump and his allies on diversity training and The 1619 Project may also signal an investment in maintaining any existing misinformation on the nature of race and racism. George noted that Derrick Bell’s approach to critical race theory suggested that there will be no progress unless there’s an “interest convergence” between white people in power and racially marginalized people.

“Critical race theory doesn’t even say that [white] people are inherently racist or evil. … It does say that people can be complicit in racist action,” George said. “I do think this is a play to the fear of displacement from what has been a relatively privileged perch in American society.”

Vince Pagán

Vince Pagán has blogged 180 posts