In recent executive orders, Trump prohibited concepts such as “critical race theory” and “white privilege” from even being discussed in federal instructional programs. The Sept. 22 executive order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping bans diversity training that is “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” The order applies not only to federal employees but also to corporations doing business with the government.
Actions speak louder than words — even when words border on hate speech. This is how Trump operationalizes white supremacy, wielding the vast resources of the U.S. government in service of lies about history and culture.
At the debate, Trump claimed that racial-sensitivity training taught people to “hate our country” and that he’s “not going to allow that.” He said “a lot of people were complaining,” by which he may have meant commentators on Fox News.
It’s possible that Trump had not heard of critical race theory before conservative media harped on it. This effort is of a piece with his unusually transparent exploitation of racial grievance as he campaigns. He recently retweeted a post that said, “Sorry liberals! How to be Anti-White 101 is permanently cancelled!”
Federal agencies have their marching orders. Last month, the Education Department opened an investigation of Princeton University for civil rights violations. The university’s sin? Its president, Christopher Eisgruber, has lately acknowledged that the university for “most of its history, intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews, and other minorities.” According to the Education Department, these “admissions” are “serious, even shocking” and could result in Princeton being ordered to pay back $75 million in research grants and other federal funds it has received since Eisgruber became president.
On Sept. 28, the director of the Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to the heads of federal offices ordering them to scour training materials for phrases such as “systemic racism” and “unconscious bias” because “these terms may help to identify the type of training prohibited.”
In the bizarro world of White resentment — where Trump is certainly commander in chief — acknowledging racism is itself racist. In this view, the problem isn’t just sensitivity training that veers into political correctness. The letter to Princeton flagged the university’s openness “to a new range of students from communities disproportionately affected by systemic racism and related forms of disadvantage.” To Trump, that’s a problem.
The Proud Boys could not have better engineered this takeover of federal training. Yes, the group claims not to be racist. This is like when Trump tweets, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” As the joke goes, they may not actually be white supremacists, but white supremacists sure think they are. What does it mean when even former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke — another ardent fan whom Trump had trouble disavowing — resists being labeled racist?
Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that started on law campuses and spread to history, education and sociology departments, among others. It began as an effort to understand why, decades after civil rights had been granted to African Americans, things had not much improved. Laws had been passed barring discrimination, but Black Americans continued to experience discrimination in every market we enter — whether trying to get a taxi or trying to get a mortgage.
Theorists argue that law had been effective in stigmatizing racism — hence even Duke doesn’t want to be called the “r” word — but that civil rights had not succeeded in ending racial subordination because anti-Blackness is embedded in systems, such as law enforcement, real estate or school districting, that might seem colorblind but in practice are not. The route to real racial justice requires understanding, and rooting out, this dynamic. Such insights have transformed practices as varied as law enforcement training and how corporations think about diversity and inclusion.
To Trump, however, critical race theory is a “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.” It represents “deceptions, falsehoods and lies” by “left-wing mobs.” And he’s not having it.
Elections, of course, have consequences. One consequence of the 2016 election is that Trump has authority over what more than 2 million federal employees are officially taught — and not taught — about race. Sit with that for a minute. These workers provide the services of the federal government to all Americans. Trump’s cultural revolution also infects job training for the millions more employed by government contractors. While the Proud Boys “stand by,” the Trump administration has been working steadily away.