The American Council on Education (ACE) has sent a letter on behalf of more than 50 other higher education associations to the White House asking United States President Donald Trump to withdraw the controversial executive order on ‘Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping’, arguing that it has caused ‘enormous confusion’ on campuses and in workplaces.
The executive order, which applies to federal contractors and grantees, including colleges and universities, will prohibit contractors from using concepts the administration specifies as ‘divisive’ forms of race or sex ‘stereotyping’ or ‘scapegoating’ in their workplace training programmes.
It also instructs federal agencies to identify which grant programmes should be subject to the executive order and how to apply these restrictions to grantees in those programmes.
But opponents say the order, which attempts to expand a ban on ‘divisive’ and ‘un-American’ anti-racism training to federal contractors, will deal a crippling setback to efforts to increase workplace equality and address race and gender disparities.
Further, the language used in the order places it firmly in the centre of the culture war engulfing the US, and directly confronts arguments made by the Black Lives Matter movement that there is systemic racism in the US.
It says: “From the battlefield of Gettysburg to the bus boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, heroic Americans have valiantly risked their lives to ensure that their children would grow up in a Nation living out its creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
“Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our forebears, America has made significant progress toward realisation of our national creed, particularly in the 57 years since Dr King shared his dream with the country.
“Today, however, many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual.
“This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief 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.”
It says that, “unfortunately, this malign ideology is now migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country”.
“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.”
It cites examples such as training materials from Argonne National Laboratories, a Federal entity, stating that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America”, and a Smithsonian Institution museum graphic recently claiming that concepts like “objective, rational linear thinking”, “hard 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 order says federal departments, agencies, contractors and grant recipients should continue to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in race, sex, and other federally protected characteristics and training employees to create an inclusive workplace is appropriate and beneficial.
“But training like that discussed above perpetuates racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint. Such ideas may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars.”
It, therefore, bans the promotion of “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the Federal workforce and will not allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. And federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.
The open letter signed by ACE President Ted Mitchell says: “We strongly oppose race and sex stereotyping, which inhibits efforts to build more inclusive workplaces and communities. But the timing, content, and discordant tone of your executive order is creating concern, confusion, and uncertainty for federal contractors and grant recipients across the country.”
It says higher education, business and military communities, and other sectors of American society fundamentally agree that promoting and enabling diversity and inclusion are essential to the long-term strength, economic competitiveness, and security of the nation.
“The recent tragedies of racial violence underscore now, more than ever, the importance of vigorous efforts to address racism and injustice and to promote diversity and inclusion, as Americans strive together to create a more perfect union.”
But the order is “disrupting the planning and delivery of workplace diversity and inclusion training programmes on our campuses” that align with federal and state anti-discrimination laws, creating a “chilling effect on the good faith and lawful efforts of campus officials to build and sustain non-discriminatory and non-hostile workplaces and learning communities”, the letter says.
‘Sweeping and intrusive’
Mitchell argues that the order is “sweeping and intrusive” and should be subject to a regulatory process under the Administrative Procedure Act, which would allow affected organisations to ask questions, seek clarifications and recommend changes before the new requirements take effect.
He said the order will create “enormous and costly compliance work”, as colleges and universities with government contracts and grants will be required to send the government any and all documents related to training programmes so that they can be scoured for forbidden ‘divisive concepts’.
The executive order also contains too many grey areas, meaning substantial penalties for federal contractors and grantees will be based upon the subjective determinations of federal officials, Mitchell argued.
In addition, he said the Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping Executive Order “exercises executive power to limit speech on campuses in ways that undercut the administration’s prior order seeking to increase it”.
Mark S Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, and his Provost and Executive Vice president for Academic Affairs, Susan M Collins, said in a joint statement that the order has potential to undermine “efforts here and across the nation” to “commit to dismantle those structures that contribute to racial inequality”.
They said: “The very troubling language in this executive order seeks to ban federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training, and places off limits the discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in federally funded training, and potentially, in organisations that receive federal grants. As noted by many, the main purpose of diversity and inclusion training is to bring the country together, not to further divide it.”
Schlissel and Collins described the executive order as a “direct violation of our right to free speech” and as “having the potential to undermine serious efforts to acknowledge and address long-standing racist practices that fail to account for disparate treatment of our citizens throughout our society”.
“The educational efforts this order seeks to prohibit are critical to much-needed action to create equitable economic and social opportunities for all members of society; to confront our blind spots; and to encourage us all to be better teachers, scholars and citizens,” they said.
When asked in the recent presidential debate why he decided to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege using critical race theory, President Trump said: “I did it because it is racist, because a lot of people were being asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place.
“We would pay people hundreds of thousands to teach very bad ideas and frankly very sick ideas and really they were teaching people to hate our country… that our country is a horrible place, that it is a racist place.”
Democratic candidate Joe Biden responded that “the fact is there is racial insensitivity. People have to be made aware of what other people feel like, what insults them. People need to know. Many people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings.”
In the same debate President Trump, when asked to condemn white supremacist group the Proud Boys, equivocated, saying they should “stand down and stand by”.