Watch out Seattle.
Yes, the latest target in the Trump administration’s culture war is attacking previously obscure academic disciplines like critical race theory and trainings designed to unpack and dismantle our country’s legacy of racism.
The topic even came up at the debate, with the president saying anti-racist trainings lead people to “hate our country.”
It may sound like just another rhetorical volley to rally the base, but it’s become much more than that. In late August, the U.S. Department of Justice took aim at the “anarchist jurisdiction” of Seattle’s racial justice training led by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, questioning whether it violated civil rights.
Then in early September, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent out a memo to instruct federal agencies to stop any trainings that they considered “divisive” and “un-American.”
Last week, the administration went further and issued guidance to clarify the implementation of the earlier memo and a subsequent executive order by the president. Under the guidance, not only do federal agencies need to examine their own trainings to eliminate what the White House deems divisive content, but agencies are instructed, within 90 days, to report to OMB all training by contractors on diversity and inclusion and review the training to ensure forbidden concepts are not discussed by contractors or anyone receiving grant money, under penalty of possible “suspension or disbarment.”
The guidance also suggests agencies search for terms such as “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” “intersectionality” and “systemic racism” in procurement information to root out violators.
Much of the ire from the White House centers on the concept of critical race theory. So I asked Edwin Guillermo Lindo, a Seattle community organizer, critical race theory scholar and educator who teaches at the UW School of Medicine, to help break down the concept.
At its core, Lindo said, “[critical race theory is] a framework to help us articulate, interrogate and dismantle systems of oppression.”
Using a medical analogy, he said racism is a pathology – something abnormal that gives rise to a disease.
Critical race theory says that like a disease, racism perpetuates itself. If you don’t actively treat it — or do something to interrupt it and deconstruct it — it will go on forever, “because it’s systemic,” Lindo said.
These administration directives echo an earlier time, Lindo said. “If you read the executive order, [Trump is] effectively taking us back to the 1940s and ’50s with the Red Scare. He’s repackaging it and effectively saying people who do critical race theory are un-American. He then says, we want to know who is teaching these things. So now they want a list — the same thing they did in the 1950s. They’re going to make a list of people who teach critical race theory, and I believe they will use that list to bully … and cause some serious harm.”
That chilling effect is already happening. The Veteran’s Administration canceled a diversity training in Florida. The Environmental Protection Agency delayed a speaker series on environmental racism. The Education Department is reviewing employee activities for signs of “anti-American propaganda.” Other agencies are scrambling to understand the ramifications of the order and how it will affect them.
Locally, institutions that receive federal funding like the University of Washington are concerned about the order and are evaluating their next steps.
This action by the Trump administration might alarm many people who think the time to educate people about race and racism is long overdue, but Ralina Joseph, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity (CCDE) and a professor in the Department of Communication, said in some ways, this action by the Trump administration is a sign that the recent movement for racial justice is making progress.
After the killing of George Floyd, Joseph said, “our world actually started to understand the realities of anti-Black violence, and it was not just [Black, Indigenous and people of color] folks. There were lots of white people who were gutted by this murder and by actually seeing this murder on their screens over and over again. And that’s when all of the requests for the trainings came.”
Joseph said to see so many white people engaged in the racial justice movement was terrifying to those who wanted to preserve the status quo. “They’re understanding that actually the world is shifting.”
“[Critical race theory] is not indoctrination, it’s the truth,” Joseph said. “That truth is actually getting out to people and the truth is powerful. The truth is what is going to shift folks into action, and not just interpersonal action, but actual structural institutional action. Organizational action.”