Trump effort to bar racial-sensitivity trainings in federal government leads to confusion for employees
September 30, 2020
“I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools all over the place,” Trump said. “And you know it. And so does everybody.”
Democratic nominee Joe Biden alleged, however, that Trump had a much different motive for banning the trainings: “He’s a racist.”
Their comments came one day after the White House issued its second set of guidelines on the attempted bans. The guidelines outlined how the government would retaliate against those who did not follow the new restrictions.
They have raised numerous questions inside government agencies about how to proceed. It also triggered a backlash within the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, with some career employees complaining policy is being set based on what the president sees on conservative cable networks — and OMB officials are happily going along with it.
Russell Vought, OMB’s director, updated the administration’s guidance after the National Park Service sent agency officials a memo last week suspending hundreds of training programs while it tried to understand how to comply with the order, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Washington Post. It would later narrow the list of suspended courses, but some employees said they still included ones on sexual harassment, tribal consultation and how to respond to people with disabilities.
The White House orders have led to scrambling throughout the government.
Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the government’s second-largest agency and among the most decentralized, abruptly canceled a diversity training program at the VA hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla. This decision was made by the agency’s Washington headquarters after a conservative activist flagged the event on Twitter.
The chain of events stems from a Sept. 4 memo Vought issued, which said Trump had asked him to stop federal agencies from giving employee trainings on “white privilege” and critical race theory. Vought cast this approach as “divisive” and “un-American.”
The White House issued the memo after Fox News ran a number of segments criticizing “diversity and inclusion” efforts in the federal government.
Trump saw one of the cable news programs and asked aides, “What is this crap?” an administration official said, describing his reaction, and he directed OMB to cancel the seminars. Trump saw the matter as a winning campaign issue. Within days, a guest on Fox News who raised the issue had been called, Vought had been summoned to the Oval Office, and the memo from OMB had been drafted. It was released late on a Friday night.
Trump followed up with an executive order last week barring federal contractors from using workplace training that includes what he called “race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” The president has also asked other aides what else can be done to make sure agencies are complying.
The White House directives attempt to create significant penalties for federal agencies that don’t comply, which is one reason that some agencies are scrambling to understand what to do. For example, the order and memo purport to allow agency officials to discipline employees who approve certain training sessions. And the OMB memo also encourages federal employees to report such training to agency inspector general offices.
On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform wrote to Vought requesting documents and information about the OMB memo and Trump’s order, saying they “exhibited a level of ignorance rarely seen at executive levels in government or the private sector.”
“Banning such trainings as the OMB memorandum and Executive Order do threatens to undermine decades of equal employment opportunity efforts and blindfold policymakers who should be working to eliminate racial disparities in health care, employment, and other critical sectors of society,” the lawmakers wrote.
Trump’s effort to block the training sessions fits into one of his campaign themes, which is that the country — and the federal government — is focusing too much attention on being politically correct and grappling with its history of racism. His abrupt effort to dismantle the training programs has created something of a mess, however.
Vought’s guidance from Monday attempts to clarify OMB’s earlier memo and Trump’s executive order, saying agencies not only need to scrutinize their own trainings but also should consider cutting off any outside vendors that conduct “divisive” ones outlined in any future federal contract.
“Contractors who are found to have provided training for agency employees that teaches, advocates, or promotes the divisive concepts specified in the E.O. in violation of the applicable contract will be considered for suspension and disbarment procedures,” he wrote in the memo, obtained by The Post.
It also states, “Federal contractors are to be required to represent that they will not conduct such trainings for their own employees, with potential sanctions for noncompliance.”
The new guidance says federal employees who do not comply with the order will face “consequences, which may include adverse action,” and suggests senior officials encourage their employees to report any trainings that appear to violate the director to their agency’s office of inspector general.
The memo directs agencies to review their diversity trainings to determine whether they teach that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist or that an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.” It suggests agencies search their procurement data for keywords including “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” “intersectionality,” “systemic racism,” “positionality,” “racial humility” and “unconscious bias.”
Several independent and government-funded analyses have found the federal government lacks representation of people of color in senior positions. In July, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service wrote that while 46 percent of full-time, entry-level employees in the federal civil service are people of color, they make up only 22 percent of the Senior Executive Service, the highest levels of the federal government’s leadership. Similarly, the Government Accountability Office found in two reports this year that in the State Department and USAID, racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to be promoted than their White colleagues, even with similar jobs or years of service.
In the weeks after the Sept. 4 memo was issued, it wasn’t immediately clear to some agencies just how broad of an edict it was meant to be, and some of them quickly took broad steps to halt trainings even tangentially related to those targeted by Trump.
In an email on Sept. 22, Park Service official Marlon Taubenheim told other senior leaders that human resources and civil rights officials were assessing “learning objectives” for courses listed on a spreadsheet attached to the email. Until that assessment is complete, he wrote, managers were asked to “refrain from conducting/delivering any of the trainings on this list to prevent non-compliance with the OMB directive.” These include trainings related to diversity, sexual harassment and other workplace issues.
Taubenheim later sent a second email the same day with an amended, narrower list of suspended courses, though there was dispute even a week later on what exact list of programs remained suspended.
Several people familiar with the agency said courses on sexual harassment and other workplace concerns are no longer being held, but an agency spokeswoman insisted they are.
“Trainings on issues including harassment, disabilities and other trainings will proceed,” said the spokeswoman, Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles.
The courses Park Service employees said remain suspended included ones on racial sensitivity, which have been the main target of Trump’s ire, but also a broad swath of trainings that appear aimed at ensuring equal access to park facilities and a safe workplace, with titles like “Responding to Visitors Who Are Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, Blind or With Low Vision,” “Equal Opportunity for Supervisors and Managers,” “Interrupting Inappropriate and Offensive Language and Behavior,” and “Tribal Consultation and the NPS.”
Park Service employees are sensitive to these issues because of the way the agency has struggled to deal with them in the past. The Park Service reached a settlement agreement in 2014 with a nonprofit advocacy group over access for people with mobility and vision disabilities to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The agency has been plagued with sexual harassment allegations for nearly two decades, and Trump administration officials have pledged to take steps to tackle the problem. Roughly 40 percent of the Park Service’s workforce is female.
At Grand Canyon, for example, investigators found in 2016 that male employees pressured female colleagues for sex during long trips down the Colorado River and retaliated against them if they refused.
Several people familiar with the agency said they worried officials and employees will be afraid to take any efforts to solve endemic problems with how the Park Service workforce is treated, for fear of falling afoul of the White House.
“This will have a chilling effect on staff who are facing discrimination, sexual harassment, and racial bias among other difficult situations,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said of the decision to pause the courses.
As part of the effort to address the scandals, the Park Service’s then-deputy director, P. Daniel Smith, issued a 2018 order laying out employee and manager responsibilities in an effort to eliminate harassment.
But a course educating employees about that order, titled “Director’s Order (DO) #16E: National Park Service Anti-Harassment Policy,” is now on the list of suspended courses, an employee said.
“(Director’s Order) 16E is the bedrock of the Park Service’s requirement to address these major, major incidents and I don’t understand at all why it’s on the list,” said one Park Service employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the news media.
VA’s diversity training session, called the “Race Café,” was to include a discussion of ‘microaggressions,” and executives were to sign an “equity pledge” to treat all employees fairly. After one VA official defended the program as basic diversity training, senior executives apparently thought differently and canceled it outright.
“VA is fully adhering to President Trump’s directive, and the event at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center is no longer scheduled,” spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said in an email on Monday, adding, “VA treats all Veterans and employees equally and with the utmost respect.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, for its part, suspended a speaker series open to all of its staff focused on environmental justice just days after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler identified the issue as one of his top priorities. The hour-long seminar, which was slated to take place Sept. 15 as part of a broader “Structural Racism and Environmental Justice” series, planned to focus on how discriminatory bank lending practices decades ago continue to shape racial disparities and housing patterns today.
The decision to put the talk on hold, which was first reported by Politico, came a week and a half after Wheeler gave a talk at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., in which he said the EPA “needs to be more effective in addressing the environmental burdens that communities face. … Many of the sites EPA has responsibility for are in some of the most disadvantaged communities in this country.”
“We intend to comply with the executive order and its guidance,” said EPA spokesman James Hewitt in an email Tuesday.
A senior administration official said the White House had been “extraordinary clear” about how agencies should proceed in the memos and executive order.
“The directive specifically allows for diversity trainings — not critical race theory trainings,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal deliberations. “Further, the Administration has been in contact with agencies fielding any questions if there are any — if folks are confused, perhaps they should read the memo or reach out.”