Archive for November, 2020

Truth v. Myth: Trump executive order on diversity training “merits” criticism

Posted on November 12, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. You can find the official White House version of this executive order here. Here we

The Order picks up from where it left off–claiming that acknowledging the existence of racism is racist (see part 2)–by describing this acknowledgement as coercion:

Executive departments and agencies (agencies), our Uniformed Services, Federal contractors, and Federal grant recipients should, of course, continue to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in race, sex, and other federally protected characteristics. Training employees to create an inclusive workplace is appropriate and beneficial. The Federal Government is, and must always be, committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals before the law.

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. Research also suggests that blame-focused diversity training reinforces biases and decreases opportunities for minorities.

–We can train people to create an inclusive workplace basic on fair and equal treatment of all individual before the law, but we cannot define any group as failing to be inclusive, fair and equal. We must leave that blank. It is racist to openly acknowledge that in the United States, the racism that is sanctioned by generations of institutional discrimination, including laws and mores that approve white racism against black people, Asian people, Latinx people, Native American people, or any other race group.

This would be akin to offering training to prevent homophobic discrimination that refused to say that heterosexual people are the ones allowed, even encouraged, to practice this discrimination, and therefore the source of the problem. We should, apparently, leave the door open to the idea that gay people discriminating against straight people is the longstanding problem.

And isn’t diversity training all about ensuring conformity of action, if not viewpoint? You may not reach everyone who is prejudiced, but you have to ensure that they walk out of the room knowing that prejudice will be punished. And you do hope that you will change minds eventually. Isn’t the goal of the U.S. Constitution to use subtle and not-so-subtle coercive pressure to get millions of people to commit to being one nation, indivisible? Coercive pressure can be exerted for good or for evil. We use coercive pressure to teach children not to touch the hot stove.

Another dog-whistle for conservatives: linking actual diversity training that names names to colleges and universities (“the academy”). Conservatives believe that higher ed is exclusively neo-liberal, so attaching real diversity training to them is effective for that audience.

Finally, there is research that finds that diversity training can be unfortunately counter-productive in that people who complete it feel that they are now racism-proof because of their new knowledge, and therefore anything they do can never be racist, and they never have to think about it again. This does not mean that we cancel diversity training, but that we improve it to address this conundrum.

Our Federal civil service system is based on merit principles. These principles, codified at 5 U.S.C. 2301, call for all employees to “receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to” race or sex “and with proper regard for their . . . constitutional rights.” Instructing Federal employees that treating individuals on the basis of individual merit is racist or sexist directly undermines our Merit System Principles and impairs the efficiency of the Federal service. Similarly, our Uniformed Services should not teach our heroic men and women in uniform the lie that the country for which they are willing to die is fundamentally racist. Such teachings could directly threaten the cohesion and effectiveness of our Uniformed Services.

–We must begin by asking, what about this Administration’s determined and open effort over the past four years to directly threaten every expression of and mechanism to maintain this nation’s democracy?

But aside from that, here we find once more the argument that the merit system is actually a level playing field. It is not. As we said in Part 2, “That’s why pushing “color blindness” and “meritocracy” are indeed tools of racism: they ask people to assume a level playing field that does not exist. Meritocracy means ‘we all start with the same opportunities, and those who take advantage of them and work hard will succeed.’ But we don’t all start with the same opportunities, the same equality of opportunity, as the Founders put it, and therefore meritocracy is not truly possible.”

And that’s why we must tell people that, unless we are working hard and deliberately and honestly to address racism and sexism, treating individuals on the basis of individual merit really is racist or sexist, because we take a system that ensures the success of whites and men and then say “Well, I guess blacks and women don’t succeed because they just aren’t as talented as white men. They had a fair chance, and they failed.”

Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors. The Federal Government has long prohibited Federal contractors from engaging in race or sex discrimination and required contractors to take affirmative action to ensure that such discrimination does not occur. The participation of contractors’ employees in training that promotes race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating similarly undermines efficiency in Federal contracting. Such requirements promote divisiveness in the workplace and distract from the pursuit of excellence and collaborative achievements in public administration.

–Yes, there are rules on the books to prevent federal contracts from being granted to contractors that don’t have a fair and equitable workforce or policies. But many studies over many years show that those rules are regularly flouted. Even if they weren’t, and every federal contractor was fully anti-racist and anti-sexist, wouldn’t that be the likely result of decades of diversity training, which is now illegal? How can federal contractors continue that imagined stellar record if they can no longer conduct honest diversity training?

We assume that most people reading this blog–like most people in the world–work in a company or organization. All of these companies experience divisiveness in the workplace. Is the main or only source of this divisiveness diversity training? Probably not. We’d even say definitely not. If we had to make a hypothesis about which causes more divisiveness in the workplace–prejudice or diversity training–we’d say it’s the former.

Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.

–Here the perverse equation is made baldly clear: honest diversity training that identifies white racism and male sexism is “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating”. Therefore, there is no more federal funding for any diversity training that identifies white racism or male sexism. Again, while we could see a bad-intentioned person arguing that white people are not the only racists (thus ignoring the specific U.S. context of institutional racism that promotes white people over others), it’s hard to see how they would argue that women are as guilty of sexism as men. Or not; we suppose any group as dedicated to ignoring history and reality as this administration could do it.

Next time: “divisive concepts”…

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Truth v Myth: Trump Executive Order defines fighting racism as racist

Posted on November 6, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. You can find the official White House version of this executive order here. Today, we move on to the Order’s misrepresentation of anti-racism as a “destructive ideology.”

This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights. They are designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.

–The duplicity here makes one want to cry out. Here is the pretzel: acknowledging racism at work in America today is actually racist. To bring up race is, somehow, to have a “racialized view” of America, and, beyond that, to bring up racism is to be an apologist for slavery.

Where to begin? Well, perhaps with the common knowledge that fighting racism and working for civil rights is hardly represented as new, revolutionary, or cutting-edge. We’ve been doing this work in this country since 1787, at least, and the association of “civil rights” with “fighting racism against black Americans” has been very much a part of our life as a nation since 1865. Perhaps the author(s) of this order remember the NAACP, SNCC, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, the NACW, and, greatest of them all, Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Maybe they can recall the desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. The March on Washington. Brown v. Board of Education. The Great Society. All of these movements, organizations, events, and people of the past 160 years that we all read about at every grade level in our textbooks.

Fighting racism and working for civil rights is also not racist. To claim that fighting racism forces people to think about race, and only race, and therefore is racist, can only be the product of a deep stupidity or a deep evil. It’s very hard to say which would be worse.

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. For example, the Department of the Treasury recently held a seminar that promoted arguments that “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism,” and that instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid “narratives” that Americans should “be more color-blind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

–This is more of the same idea that acknowledging race and racism is racist. We should all be allowed to be “color-blind”. This phrase, as used in this Order, represents a false assumption, which is that America, or at least most Americans, are not racist and do not ever made judgments about people based on their race. Therefore, being told to think about race is ruining this paradise by introducing race-based thinking, and therefore, racism.

It’s hard to imagine that many Americans would claim that they are “color-blind.” They might say they themselves are not racist, or that they try not to be. But they wouldn’t claim that they never think about race unless forced to do so by a workplace diversity training. In reality, all people–whatever their race–have racist thoughts and feelings. Most of them know that, and work to fight that human tendency. Some of them know that and don’t care, and some of them know that and deny it. While one might find fault with a diversity training program that singles out white people as racist, when we know that it’s a part of human nature the world over, we are talking about the U.S., where centuries of institutional racism have worked to promote the interests and well-being of white Americans at the expense of black, Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans. So in a U.S. diversity training, the focus will indeed be on how white people can renounce the privileges racism offers them. If white Americans don’t do that, they cannot “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

Training materials from Argonne National Laboratories, a Federal entity, stated that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” and described statements like “color blindness” and the “meritocracy” as “actions of bias.”

–Again, the first statement is very familiar to Americans. We spent the last 70 years learning again and again how racism distorts housing, employment, incarceration, health care, and education. You either oppose or support this, but you can’t prove a case for denying it. That’s why pushing “color blindness” and “meritocracy” are indeed tools of racism: they ask people to assume a level playing field that does not exist. Meritocracy means “we all start with the same opportunities, and those who take advantage of them and work hard will succeed.” But we don’t all start with the same opportunities, the same equality of opportunity, as the Founders put it, and therefore meritocracy is not truly possible.

Materials from Sandia National Laboratories, also a Federal entity, for non-minority males stated that an emphasis on “rationality over emotionality” was a characteristic of “white male[s],” and asked those present to “acknowledge” their “privilege” to each other.

–Here the author(s) play into people’s willingness to roll their eyes at “political correctness”. They pull very small quotes from some larger document to prove that Sandia is denigrating white men, representing them in a negative way and, therefore, engaging in what white racists traditionally call “reverse discrimination.” See? they say; Sandia is encouraging racism against white men! Shouldn’t every individual be judged on their actions, not their race? This is pretty unforgivably deceitful. If one group have worked to institutionalize racism, then yes, they participate in racism and benefit from it, even if they’re not fully aware of the full extent of that participation and benefit. It become so normalized that it’s just the fabric of life. Sexism works the same way. Making people aware of the benefit, or privilege, they experience is a first step in teaching the basic lesson that discrimination must be actively opposed, and that can’t happen until it is personally acknowledged. The work doesn’t stop there. Acknowledging one’s own participation in discrimination is just the first step to fighting it, and being part of the solution.

A Smithsonian Institution museum graphic recently claimed that concepts like “[o]bjective, rational linear thinking,” “[h]ard 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 museum also stated that “[f]acing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear.”

–One of the concepts we learn as we move into adulthood is that words can have many meanings. We learn about codes, and code-switching. We find through personal experience that potentially explosive messages cannot be bluntly stated, but have to be filtered. It’s what we call a “dog whistle” – most people hear nothing, but those who are in the know hear the message.

Well-known examples include “the right kind of people” and “our kind of people”. In the U.S., the words and phrases “patriot,” “real Americans,” “honest, hardworking Americans,” and “middle-class” have been turned into dog-whistles for racism since the 1970s, when the conservative backlash against the civil rights movement and gains of the 1950s and 60s began, and were fully gelled by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. All of these have become code expressions for “white”, and it was a horribly effective mis-use of meritocracy: start with the false assumption that everyone had the same starting point and resources, and then when racism ensures that people who aren’t white don’t succeed, the only way to explain it is by blaming the non-white people for being lazy, dishonest, and treacherous. If only white Americans succeed, it must be because only whites are hard-working, honest, and patriotic.

And so when the Order complains that the Smithsonian claimed that the phrases “[h]ard 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,” it is pretending that these have not become thoroughly encoded dog-whistles.

We would criticize the Smithsonian–if it is being quoted correctly–for saying that only white people value the nuclear family. Black American families in particular have been targeted for destruction by policies that keep black Americans poor, physically unhealthy, exposed to drug use, and more likely to be sent to prison, all of which prevent nuclear families from forming and/or persisting.

All of this is contrary to the fundamental premises underpinning our Republic: that all individuals are created equal and should be allowed an equal opportunity under the law to pursue happiness and prosper based on individual merit.

–The horrible irony of this statement is clear: acknowledging and fighting the racism that prevents equal opportunity under the law is racist. All anti-racism is anti-American and is itself what is preventing equality for all Americans. And, before we close, let’s all remember that the Declaration of Independence that the Order purports to quote here by using the phrase “pursue happiness” says NOTHING about individual merit:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

How does America achieve happiness for all? Is it through assuming a meritocracy? No: Americans achieve this by forming a government that supports happiness for all (“these ends”). And if that government “becomes destructive of these ends,” we the People must alter or abolish it to create a new government built on “such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.

That’s how we create and maintain and safeguard happiness in this country. Through the hard work of creating a system of government that does not allow systemic, institutionalized discrimination, and through the hard work of monitoring that government and correcting it if it goes wrong. The Founders knew how hard it would be to keep the government fair and to keep it dedicated to preserving our natural rights. They did not recommend or describe a fantasy about everyone having all the resources and opportunities they needed, like magic, and just taking advantage of them, easy as pie. It’s about rights, not magic.

Next time: define merit

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The Great American Experiment, 2020

Posted on November 3, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve seen a number of people looking at this post lately, so we’re rerunning it. It seems appropriate to do on Election Day; we originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it in 2016 when Trump was elected, and then said “perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.” So here we are back again.

Vote today, if you haven’t already.

America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, it seems to boil down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small rural town with lots of guns built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they themselves don’t entirely fit the description they cling to.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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