Tuesday night’s first presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was marked by chaos, with Trump interrupting and throwing jabs Biden and moderator Chris Wallace alike, cumulating in 90 minutes of crosstalk that likely failed to inform voters about much of anything. But it was ultimately Trump’s refusal to disavow white supremacists and his subsequent shout out that the Proud Boys—a white nationalist organization—“stand down and stand by” that became the soundbite heard around the world.
While deserved, equally galling and already forgotten are Trump’s comments on the evils of racial sensitivity training; namely, why he instructed federal agencies to ban training that focused on “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” and other frank topics about race or racism in the workplace and American culture.
Though he didn’t say it outright, Trump’s remarks made it clear that he regards such training as racist against white people:
Trump: I ended it because it’s racist. 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. And you know it, and so does everybody else.
Wallace: What is radical about racial sensitivity training?
Trump: If you were a certain person, you had no status in life. It was sort of a reversal. And if you look at the people—we were paying people hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas and frankly, very sick ideas. And really, they were teaching people to hate our country. And I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to allow that to happen. We have to go back to the core values of this country. They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place, and they were teaching people to hate our country. And I’m not going to allow that to happen.
It’s not difficult to imagine the horrific scenario Trump is describing: A white guy prompted to acknowledge the existence of racial biases in American society, his workplace, and himself and feeling attacked about it. In Trump’s mind these “certain persons” seem to be white men and he’s endowed them with the experience of marginalized people. To Trump, such an exercise prompts charges of “reverse racism” or socialist propaganda. Talking about racism as an ongoing illness and not a problem that Martin Luther King Jr put to bed 60 years ago—in other words, unlearning years of indoctrination about America’s inherent goodness—is a threat.
But this is Trump’s new pet project on full display, likely inspired by his white nationalist advisor Stephen Miller and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has recently railed against the very same topic. And it all matches the language of a memo sent from the Office of Management Director Russell Vought in early September, which notes, “It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” This anti-American propaganda apparently included training sessions in which employees are encouraged to acknowledge that white people benefit from racism; this is a simple fact, but it is characterized by the Trump administration as racist.
The letter went on to note that this training, “not only run[s] counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception, but they also engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce.” Therefore, Trump ordered federal agencies to end this training and any other training that “teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
Later in the month, Trump expanded the ban to federal contractors and promised to create a commission called the “1776 Commission” which would push “patriotic education” in classrooms to combat what he called a “twisted web of lies” about racism in America. These lies include small things, like the suggestion that America perhaps wasn’t so great when human beings were bought and sold as property and when more than half the country’s population wasn’t allowed to vote.
“Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words,” Trump said during a speech about his proposed reforms.
This isn’t to say that racial sensitivity training and similar seminars are always edifying: Many are lackluster at best, largely used as a legal buffer by corporations after employees or customers go public with accusations of racial discrimination. There is scant evidence that such training actually works in the long term, and simply educating white people about white privilege does little to solve racism. At worst, trainings can be counterproductive, prompting defensiveness and denial above all else. As reporter J.C. Pang noted in a recent piece for Jacobin, “Anti-racism trainings — particularly of the ‘white fragility’ sort — demand access to workers’ thoughts and feelings on highly charged topics, usually in the presence of their supervisors, and evaluate those workers’ responses, often with the explicit goal of generating discomfort.” If defensiveness isn’t the primary reaction, then it’s navel-gazing self-flagellation about whiteness and “privilege,” treating that acknowledgment as a job well done with little substantive drive or direction for fighting for broader societal reform.
In other words, a one-time implicit bias training hosted by White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo for $20,000 won’t do much.
But none of this justifies Trump’s ban. The problem with diversity training isn’t that it goes too far. As Pang wrote in The New Republic, diversity training seminars aren’t enough without radical anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics accompanying them. Yet, for Trump and other reactionaries, the very notion of this kind of limited consciousness-raising—the very idea of examining the United States as a safe haven for white supremacy in both workplace and government—is a threat.
“Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country,” Trump tweeted upon his announcement of the expansion of the ban. “And if you don’t, there’s nothing in it for you!” Trump—a racist—is just part of the great American racist project, and if you’re not along for the ride, you can find a new country to call home.