Trump executive order on diversity training roils corporate America

President Donald Trump’s decision this week to expand a ban on “divisive” and “un-American” anti-racism training to federal contractors is fueling fears the White House order will deal a crippling setback to corporate efforts to increase workplace equality and address race and gender disparities.

“The biggest challenge right now is the confusion, chaos and the uncertainty of not knowing what this means,” said M.E. Hart, an attorney and diversity, equity and inclusion expert who runs training sessions for businesses and federal agencies. “My concern is that it will stop these efforts for months and may have a chilling effect on the momentum in businesses and organizations.”

The announcement just weeks before the November election runs counter to the policies of many American companies as well as state and local government agencies that mandate diversity, inclusion and equity training sessions for employees. Corporations in every sector from technology to financial services are reviewing training materials, diversity consultants say. Some are pausing training sessions to make sure they comply with the executive order before it takes effect in November. Particularly worried are businesses such as defense contractors that are heavily dependent on government contracts. Behind the scenes, individual companies and industry groups are supporting efforts to mount a legal challenge to the executive order, similar to industry opposition to the president’s Muslim travel ban.

“This is an incredible opportunity for the business and financial communities to push back against these obvious plays at white supremacy,” said Aubrey Blanche, global head of equitable design and impact at high-tech firm Culture Amp.

Trump’s appeal to his mostly white base puts corporate America in a bind. Research shows that fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces boosts financial performance and increases innovation. Corporate anti-racism initiatives have surged as racial justice and police brutality emerged as pressing issues following the death in police custody of George Floyd.

The nation’s largest companies issued statements in support of the Black community and made fresh commitments to racial justice, an unprecedented outpouring after decades of corporate silence.

The Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping targets workplace training that is “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” It instructs corporations to halt any training “that inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating” or risk having their government contracts canceled.

The executive order cited a recent seminar at the Treasury Department that argued “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism” and training materials from Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago, which said racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America.”

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