The Trump administration is asking about racial justice training sessions held for Seattle city employees and about potential civil rights violations related to the trainings. Seattle officials say the training broke no laws. Instead, they see the detailed questions as an attempt to defend the status quo.

“This is a stunning illustration of the administration’s warped priorities,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement last week. “In the midst of a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and police violence, (the administration) is considering suing the City of Seattle for a training we provide that specifically seeks to combat racism and advance equity.”

In an Aug. 26 letter to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Employment Litigation Section asked about a June training session that was meant to interrupt “internalized racial superiority” and that was directed at white employees. The DOJ officials also asked about a parallel training that was meant to combat “internalized racial inferiority” and that was directed at employees of color.

It’s not just Seattle that the Trump administration is targeting. The president, through the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, has directed a crackdown on anti-racism trainings held for federal employees, with that office’s director referring to such trainings in a memo Friday as “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”

Seattle’s trainings “may be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race,” the DOJ officials wrote.

“We have not reached any conclusions,” they added. “However, there is certain information that we request in order to determine whether the City has violated Title VII by conducting separate training based on race that may affect the terms and conditions of employment for both white employees and employees who identify as black or ‘persons of color.’

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The letter includes questions about who conducted Seattle’s trainings, what was taught and any complaints made by employees. The DOJ didn’t make the Employment Litigation Section officials available for an interview.

The trainings the DOJ is asking about are among several courses regularly offered to city employees by Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). Led by the Office for Civil Rights, RSJI is an effort started in 2005 to “end institutionalized racism and racial disparities” in Seattle government.

Though the trainings on internalized superiority and inferiority were designed for employees based on race, the sessions were neither mandatory nor exclusionary, according to Seattle officials. Those and similar sessions have been conducted with city employees for many years.

“We provide City employees with learning opportunities,” Office for Civil Rights spokesperson Loren Othon said in an email. “Our work in this area is nationally recognized.”

Legal issues

There are two issues in play as the Seattle trainings come under scrutiny: Whether the courses are legal, and whether they are worthwhile.

“As we understand it from publicly available materials,” the DOJ officials wrote, “City employees were invited to these training sessions, based on their race, and … employees were not permitted to attend the training session outside of their identified racial group.”

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That’s not right, said Mariko Lockhart, Office for Civil Rights director. It’s true that the city’s June 12 training on internalized racial superiority was meant for white employees; the email invitation, sent to employees already involved with RSJI programs, described the course that way and invited white employees to register. At the same time, no employee would have been turned away from the training based on race, Lockhart said.

The invitation email to the June 12 session didn’t include a disclaimer that anyone could attend.

“These trainings are designed to look at specific concerns and experiences,” Lockhart said. “You could take a training that was not for your demographic group, but that might not be very helpful. The times when that might have happened, people have left midway through.”

The DOJ letter also asks, “Was attendance at any of the trainings … required or mandated?” According to Lockhart, the answer is simply “no.” Employees were invited to attend; they weren’t directed to participate, she said.

Patty Rose, a Seattle attorney who represents employees alleging discrimination, said that point could be key. “Whether or not something is being imposed on somebody, that would make a difference,” Rose said.

The water could be muddied were the DOJ to contend there was an unspoken expectation that employees should take the class, Rose said. Even then, she added, there likely would need to be some evidence that employees who took the class were treated differently than those who didn’t.

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A Seattle attorney who represents employers in discrimination cases, Perkins Coie partner Linda Walton, agreed with that assessment.

Title VII discrimination involves treating someone favorably or unfavorably because of their race, gender or national origin, she said.

“Assuming it’s not mandatory and assuming there’s no discipline if you don’t attend, it wouldn’t seem to implicate Title VII,” said Walton, who couldn’t recall seeing the DOJ embark on an inquiry quite like this before.

Racial justice trainings that separate employees by race have been conducted elsewhere, said Julie Nelson, who once led Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights and now works at the Oakland-based nonprofit Race Forward.

Holding a single training for a multiracial group with breakout sessions based on race is probably more common than what the city did, Nelson said.

“There are all sorts of configurations,” she said, noting how splitting up can raise questions for people who identify as having more than one race.

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Nelson said “mandatory, race-based meetings” would be problematic. Typically, employees understand such trainings are voluntary, she said.

Ilsa Govan, with Renton-based Cultures Connecting, has led trainings grouped by race, including with public employees. Certain employees are invited, but all employees are welcome at such sessions, she said.

“Making it voluntary is pretty key when you break out by race or gender or whatever,” said Teddy McGlynn-Wright, a facilitator with In The Works who’s led trainings. The message from the employer should be, he said, “Sometimes we have to separate before, to work better together.”

Lockhart is “not concerned” about Seattle’s legal position, and the city’s lawyers will respond to the DOJ soon, she said.

Political issues

Separate from legal questions, Seattle officials say they believe the city’s racial justice trainings have attracted attention because some people disagree with the city’s approach.

President Donald Trump and his supporters have repeatedly lobbed criticism at Seattle this summer. He threatened Wednesday to block federal funding the city and other “anarchist jurisdictions” that he claimed had “permitted violence and the destruction of property” amid mostly nonviolent protests for Black lives. Durkan called that an attempt by Trump to distract Americans during a time when the U.S. “desperately needs healing.” The president’s plan is unlawful, the mayor said.

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In his memo Friday, the Office of Management and Budget’s director told executive-branch agencies to seek avenues to cancel spending related to trainings on “critical race theory” and “white privilege,” and any that teach or suggest the U.S. or any race or ethnicity is “inherently racist or evil.”

Such trainings “run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception,” wrote the director, Russell Vought.

Vought’s memo cited “press reports” as contributing to Trump’s decision, apparently referring to segments on Fox News and other outlets. The DOJ letter to Seattle also mentioned “public reports.”

The city’s course on internalized racial superiority “explores U.S. history and the development of white supremacy,” according to Seattle’s civil rights office. Participants seek to “deepen their understanding of systemic racism and learn about the roles they can play in advancing racial equity.”

Participants are asked to reflect on how they, as white people, may benefit from white supremacy, remain silent about racism or act defensively about racism, according to a PowerPoint presentation from the training.

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Training materials list characteristics of internalized superiority, such as “perfectionism” and “control,” next to characteristics of internalized inferiority, such as “self-doubt” and “apathy.”

Holding separate sessions can be valuable because employees sometimes open up to people who share their experience, said Govan and colleague Caprice Hollins. In multiracial sessions, employees of color sometimes are burdened with unwanted educational work, the trainers added (The Seattle Times has contracted with Hollins and Cultures Connecting to provide staff development).

In separate groups, nobody has to “walk on eggshells,” Hollins said. White people just starting to talk about racism can worry less about “making mistakes,” and people of color “who’ve known our whole lives” about racism can “process our emotions and anger” under less pressure, she said.

“Then we can come together” and use those lessons to have better discussions, Hollins said.

Demand for the city’s trainings has surged, said Lockhart, the Office for Civil Rights director. The June 12 session set a record; held remotely due to COVID-19, more than 200 employees participated, she said.

“For me, the overarching question is, ‘Why?’ Why is the DOJ so concerned about Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative?” Lockhart asked. “This is nothing new.”

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Perhaps, Lockhart said, current momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement, “is just very threatening to people who have an interest in protecting the status quo, which is rooted in white supremacy.”

Govan agreed, recalling blowback more than a decade ago when her Seattle Public Schools unit sent students to a conference on white privilege.

“When we start to talk openly about whiteness and white supremacy culture, that tends to get the attention of people who don’t want these conversations to happen,” she said.

Durkan has recently spoken out against the Trump administration on national television while incurring criticism from many protesters in Seattle for her response to the Black Lives uprising.

“At this historic moment, it is alarming DOJ thinks this is a responsible use of resources,” said the mayor, a U.S. attorney under President Barack Obama. “We can reasonably assume this effort falls into the President’s ongoing campaign to stoke white nationalism and inspire fear and hatred across our country.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.