Minnesota's two U.S. senators are calling for the federal government to stop enforcing a Trump administration executive order banning certain words and concepts from diversity training for federal workers and contractors.
Democrats Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar are among the most recent to publicly challenge the order, signing onto a letter from 21 senators, all Democrats, that calls the Republican president's Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping "propagandist and deeply harmful."
The order, signed in September, came at a time when demand for diversity training had skyrocketed as the country undertook a racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. It created uncertainty about what the Trump administration views as appropriate, leading some entities to cancel training, fearful they might lose federal funding.
The order said it aimed to combat training that promoted "divisive concepts" including "the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors."
The Office of Management and Budget put out a subsequent memo instructing how agencies should review training materials and suggested keyword searches for terms including "critical race theory," "white privilege," "systemic racism," "unconscious bias" and others. A hotline has been set up to report violations.
The Senate letter, signed late last week, follows several other calls to rescind or nullify the order, including a letter from 19 state attorneys general, including Minnesota's Keith Ellison, and a bill in the U.S. House, co-sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and dozens of others.
While diversity training leaders widely believe that Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will quickly overturn the executive order, they have been struggling with how to handle it in the meantime.
Nationally, news reports have cited some colleges and universities, contracting companies and nonprofits that have paused or canceled diversity and inclusion training and events. Spokespeople for Klobuchar and Smith did not cite incidents in Minnesota, however.
Some entities are quietly postponing training for now, said Marilynn Schuyler, public information chairwoman for the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. Her organization's members include diversity professionals who orchestrate or give training seminars to federal agencies, contracted companies and grantees.
Many affected agencies and contractors are hesitant to speak about it publicly, because they see a no-win situation, Schuyler said.
"If they do a training and somebody complains about it, they get in trouble," she said. But discrimination training is considered a necessary component of an effective affirmative action plan, so if they don't provide training, they also put themselves at risk of getting in trouble with the federal government, she said.
"In this period when we need diversity training more than ever, it's scaling back," Schuyler said.
While the Office of Management and Budget has said it wants diversity training to continue to "foster a workplace that is respectful of all employees," the directive set out is confusing and didn't go through public hearings or other proper protocols, Schuyler said.
In a statement, her association said the executive order quells free speech and puts federal workers unskilled in diversity and inclusion management in the position of acting as content police.
Gordon Goodwin, St. Paul-based director of the national Government Alliance on Race and Equity, an organization that works with mostly local governments such as cities and counties and court systems, said the order was designed to have a chilling effect — and it's working among many entities receiving federal money.
But trainers are still very busy in other workplaces, including local governments, Gordon said. And the alliance is continuing to use some of the words called out in the order, with appropriate context, as they always have, he said.
"We feel it's important to use those words so that we can have the conversation," Goodwin said. "Those are terms that we use with explanations so that we're on the same page about what they mean and why we are using them. ... They are not indictments. They are terms we use to help people understand the different dynamics of racism."
Diversity training groups are pushing the Biden administration to not only strike down the executive order but also to strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts everywhere, he said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102