WASHINGTON — For the diversity consulting industry, this summer was like no other. Amid the racial reckoning spurred by the death of George Floyd, a wave of senior-level executives began to look critically at their companies, and consultants like Melanie Miller and Loretta VanPelt found themselves deluged with work.
Then President Trump stepped in.
An executive order, issued in late September as Mr. Trump was stepping up his charged attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters and “political correctness,” banned the federal government, as well as its contractors, subcontractors and grantees, from offering certain diversity training on racial and gender biases — teachings that the order called “divisive” and a “malign ideology.”
Such orders, prompted by the president’s fixations of the moment, have been staples of the Trump years and often lead nowhere. Like others, Mr. Trump’s focus on diversity training seems to have originated with an interview he saw on Fox News, when Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative scholar at the Discovery Institute, told Tucker Carlson of the “cult indoctrination” of “critical race theory” programs in the government.
But this time, the impact has rippled through corporate America, academia and the government with remarkable speed. Two government agencies canceled their sessions with Ms. Miller and Ms. VanPelt within weeks, and two companies put their training on hold. Two more might follow suit, the consultants said.
“To see the progress, to see the movement, and then all of a sudden, ‘propaganda,’ ‘divisive,’ those words just are so, so untrue of what this training actually does,” said Ms. VanPelt, a Southfield, Mich., trainer. “If we’re going to actually have this conversation, move the needle, get people thinking about and doing something about systemic racism, you have to talk about it.”
The “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” appears transparently political, the latest effort by the president to shore up support among his largely white base ahead of the November election. Asked about it during the presidential debate last month, Mr. Trump said such trainings were “racist” and “teaching people that our country is a horrible place.”
Both implicitly and explicitly, Mr. Trump has made race a centerpiece of his bid for re-election, warning suburban voters of the perils of low-income housing and the spreading of “anarchy” in the cities. During the debate, he refused to condemn white supremacy and told the Proud Boys, an organization linked with white supremacy and acts of violence, to “stand back and stand by.”
Beyond rhetoric, the president has mobilized the federal government to prosecute his efforts. Microsoft said this month that the Labor Department had initiated an investigation into its commitment to double the number of Black employees in leadership posts by 2025. The Justice Department sued Yale University last week, accusing the school of discriminating against white and Asian-American applicants in admissions. After Princeton University publicly acknowledged a history of systemic racism, the Trump administration opened a civil rights investigation of the school last month “based on its admitted racism.”
The offensive against diversity training takes those individual efforts further. The White House’s budget director, Russell T. Vought, informed government leaders that they were to make significant changes to diversity training sessions that were “un-American propaganda.” Mr. Vought told the agencies to begin to identify training programs on white privilege or “critical race theory,” which holds that racism is foundational to American institutions, and any training that suggests that the United States is inherently racist or evil or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.
Mr. Trump’s executive order cited a Treasury Department seminar that promoted the idea that “virtually all white people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism.” The seminar also asked small group leaders to urge employees to avoid the notion that Americans should “be more colorblind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”
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Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist and consultant, said she did not know of any training that teaches that individuals’ moral character is determined by their race or sex, a prohibited concept in the executive order. But, she said, society will “bury its head in the sand on issues related to race and racism” if systemic oppression cannot even be discussed.
The response to the executive order has been swift. The Justice Department suspended all diversity and inclusion training last week, and the agency has indefinitely postponed implicit bias training for federal prosecutors that was planned for September.
The University of Iowa, fearing a loss of federal research grants, paused programs across the university, including training for university employees on race or sex stereotyping and scapegoating. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the university’s general counsel suspected that the executive order may apply to all employees, not simply those who receive money from the federal government.
Roberto Barrios, a professor at Southern Illinois University, had planned to give a talk at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill., on Monday in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. The program included discussions of Hispanic identity as well as Mr. Barrios’s own story as an immigrant from Guatemala. The talk was canceled for fear of the executive order, less than two weeks before it was scheduled, he said.
“To me, it is the absolute obligation of institutions of higher education to become ethical beacons for the nation,” Mr. Barrios said. “We should not kneel before executive orders that seek to politicize education.”
Ron House, the president of John A. Logan College, did not respond to a request for comment.
The reaction has been driven, in part, by the severity of the penalties. Violation of the executive order by contractors carries the risk of debarment or blacklisting from government contracts, which could put some companies out of business.
The Labor Department has already rolled out a hotline for tips about noncompliance. The department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will also require that federal contractors and subcontractors send in for review the content of diversity and inclusion training programs as well as their duration and expense.
Legal experts say they have never seen such demands. The executive order’s definition of “divisive concepts” is exceedingly broad, and the meaning of “scapegoating,” which is banned in the order, makes little sense, said Scott Hommer, the co-chairman of the government contracts group at the law firm Venable. He added that the requirements in the order may extend to other parts of a company beyond those divisions that contract with the federal government — or they may not.
Shirley Wilcher, who headed the contract compliance office during the Clinton administration, called the executive order a “headwind of regression.” Ms. Wilcher, now the executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, questioned whether the underfunded office she once led would even have the resources to enforce the executive order’s new requirements.
Regardless, she added, “this will really have a chilling effect on companies that may not be as powerful as the Microsofts or the Wells Fargos.”
Mr. Rufo, who said he provided his research to the White House for the executive order, defended the language and said the companies now altering their diversity training are “tacitly admitting to institutional discrimination and, if you will, institutional racism.” He called the programs “race-based harassment of employees.”
“The executive order is really the first shot in a long war against critical race theory,” he said.
That war has now begun. Civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are considering litigation, and Washington’s business lobbies are fighting back. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the drug industry’s top lobbying arm, said the assault on diversity training came as the president was relying on the pharmaceutical industry to deliver therapies and vaccines for a pandemic that has disproportionately affected minorities.
“The issue of health inequities is not a new problem,” said PhRMA’s chief executive, Stephen J. Ubl. “It is a longstanding symptom of the systemic racism experienced by Black and brown Americans throughout history. And it is why we must speak out against the president’s executive order restricting workplace diversity training programs and free speech.”
Glenn Spencer, the senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s employment policy division, likened the order to Obama-era requirements on federal contractors.
“We didn’t like the use of those kinds of executive orders back then, and we don’t like them any better now,” he said.
Smaller companies are not able to mount a defense. Christina Dawkins, a social justice consultant in New Jersey, said she had agreed to lead a workshop at a public university on social movements around racism after the summer’s protests. Just days before the first session was scheduled to begin, a dean informed her that it was canceled for now.
“Everything I do is in violation of the executive order,” Ms. Dawkins said. “What I saw was an order for revisionist history.”
The executive order quotes Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., asserting that the nation “has made significant progress toward realization of our national creed.” But it adds that the ideology that America is “irredeemably racist and sexist” is intended to inhibit national unity.
Carole Copeland Thomas, a diversity consultant in Lakeville, Mass., who had a client cancel after the executive order, called its descriptions “misrepresentations of the country’s history.” She worried about the consequences of erring on the side of caution at the expense of marginalized groups in the workplace.
“It puts a level of fear into the eyes and the ears of federal contractors, federal agencies who want to do the right thing,” Ms. Copeland Thomas said. “The cost will be not having opportunities offered to people of color.”