Why is President Trump trying to kill off diversity training programs?

Last month, President Trump passed an executive order seeking to prevent government agencies and federal contractors from providing certain types of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training to their employees. In the weeks since the order was issued, several companies, universities, and government agencies suspended diversity-related training, programs, activities, and events. 

These actions are a worrying signal that Trump’s order is having its intended effect: to recast DEI training as inherently racist and sexist, breeding confusion and stalling action among organizations that want to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.

Trump’s order is powerful in its deception, mischaracterizing what DEI training teaches in order to tap into white Americans’ worst fears about diversity in general, and diversity training in particular: that its objective is to make white people and men feel guilty for who they are, or worse, deprive them of their rights. 

Specifically, the order bans the federal government and federal contractors from teaching an enumerated list of what the order terms “divisive concepts.” Quoting Lincoln and other American heroes to support its propagandist aims, the order bans the teaching of concepts that are clearly abhorrent and would never be part of responsible DEI training—like that one race or sex is inherently superior to another—alongside others that are well researched and accurate, like that the U.S. was built on foundations of racism. 

In mid-October, more than 150 businesses and chambers of commerce signed a letter in opposition to the order, saying it “will create confusion and uncertainty, lead to non-meritorious investigations, and hinder the ability of employers to implement critical programs to promote diversity and combat discrimination in the workplace.”

But the confusion is likely the point. Confusion breeds questions that stall action. To avoid violating a vague, misleading, and potentially unconstitutional executive order, federal agencies and government contractors face a difficult decision: abandon DEI commitments they made to employees, shareholders, and customers, or grapple with complex DEI challenges and charged internal conversations without the support of experts during a particularly fraught time. 

The order comes at a moment of national crisis. As our country struggles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Black and Latinx Americans are being hit hardest, contracting the disease at nearly three times the rate of white people. The pandemic has also exacerbated already existing wealth disparities due to rising unemployment. And we’re seeing troubling trends for women in the workforce: Working mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be managing most family housework and caregiving during the pandemic, one in four women are considering downshifting their jobs or giving up careers altogether, and these changes will disproportionately impact Black women. All of this is happening against the backdrop of communities around the country experiencing an ongoing cultural reckoning due to the unjust murders of Black people and the absence of accountability or justice.

When we come to work, we don’t leave these realities at the door. To navigate this unprecedented time, organizations must build the capacity to have important, if uncomfortable, conversations. This is the role DEI training plays: It provides a common language to discuss the root causes of structural and interpersonal inequity, and teaches people how to work together to create more inclusive and equitable outcomes. 

The preamble to Trump’s executive order warns that DEI trainings promote divisiveness and distract from the pursuit of excellence. What we see in our daily work and in the data is the opposite: Taking away this type of education doesn’t make conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion disappear; it makes them more divisive and less productive. 

The consequences of this order are particularly grave. A trove of research indicates that creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive outcomes requires structural change. It requires examining our systems and institutions to consider how they may be leaving some people behind, and redesigning those systems to build a better future for everyone. What does it mean when the very institutions responsible for shaping the future of this country are deprived of the opportunity for learning and understanding? 

Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion are hard, and they are necessary. Research shows that these conversations can help bridge perceptions, not prompt division. At a time when our President issues racist dog whistles for white supremacist groups to “stand by,” it’s more critical than ever to give people a shared vocabulary for calling out inequality and injustice.

Joelle Emerson is founder and CEO of Paradigm.

Evelyn Carter is managing director at Paradigm.

Y-Vonne Hutchinson is founder and CEO of ReadySet.

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