All across our great country, people of all races, ethnicities, and gender identities are working in good faith every day to create our more perfect union, forge connections, appreciate different cultures and perspectives, and ensure that being different doesn’t mean being excluded. And in this moment of a renewed national reckoning over systemic racism and racial violence and injustice, it is work that has never been more vital to our civic health and our democratic enterprise's future stability.
That is why it is hard to fathom the rationale behind the Trump administration’s executive order demanding that all organizations, from defense contractors to colleges, receiving government contracts submit their diversity training programs for government inspection, whether or not the funds are being used for that purpose. According to the “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” all organizations with government contracts must now send the government every handout, PowerPoint, speaking notes, readings, marketing and any other document related to the program so that they can be scoured for the presence of a set of forbidden ideas.
In creating its list of nine forbidden ideas, the administration has cherry-picked certain challenging insights, restated them in inflammatory language, and overstated the intentionality and extent of reasonable efforts to address racial bias in the workplace. Their language, on the face of it, seems reasonable enough. Still, in fact, they are stated just vaguely enough to potentially encompass a broad array of key points that racial bias training exists to fix.
Government offices have been instructed to seek information from federal contractors about their training programs in the next 30 days. Further, organizations are to comply not only with the terms of this executive order, but “such other sanctions may be imposed and remedies invoked as provided by any rules, regulations, or orders… pursuant to the order.”
Non-compliance with this order and the “blank check” of all future regulations to be imposed by the administration on this topic results in the cancellation of government contracts and loss of eligibility for future contracts, not a small matter to corporations, small businesses, and all those organizations keeping people employed through these challenging times.
Surely true conservatives must be concerned when the government demands a nationwide turning over training documents to hunt for ideas with which it disagrees.
Nor is it made clear who will determine all this once the documents have been submitted, nor how they will be consistently applied across so many government offices. Will the Department of Education treat these matters in the same way as the Department of Labor? What about the armed forces? One can imagine the lawsuits based on inconsistency alone.
The order even goes so far as to direct the Attorney General to consider whether workplace actions that are found out of compliance “contribute to a hostile work environment and give rise to potential liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” In short, the Civil Rights Act can be used to suppress training on behalf of racial sensitivity.
As this USA Today story made clear, there are widespread fears in the corporate world that this order will severely harm efforts to increase workplace equality and address race and gender disparities. I agree and fear that the impact will reverberate across our entire society — at just the wrong moment.
Ironic coming from an administration that claims to be against over-regulation and a guardian of free speech and has criticized the previous White House for improperly governing by executive branch fiat.
The election outcome may determine whether it is worth challenging this new executive order, especially because it does not go into effect for 60 days. Indeed, the real aim of the order may well be to generate partisan heat. But, for the sake of free speech unencumbered by government oversight and all of our efforts to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, this order warrants our hard questions and continued scrutiny.
Racism is America’s original sin and continues to complicate all our attempts to create a truly human civil society. As the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities president, I see every day how our member colleges and universities work hard for the greater good. I see how they strive to cultivate a deep sense of human dignity and to form engaged citizens who fight every form of injustice and effect positive change, emulating Jesus’s own heart for those on the margins.
I fear that the misuse of the federal government's power through this executive order will interfere with that mission and harm our entire country.
Rev. Dennis Holtschneider is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.