New White House directive on training in the federal government
I nearly choked while driving Saturday morning when I heard on the radio about the new presidential directive stating that the government will no longer pay for anti-racism training for federal workers because it is “anti-American.”
In his directive, the president particularly eschewed training that includes critical race theory and concepts of white privilege. In a tweet, he called diversity and equity training a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. He said that these trainings engender “division and resentment.” (I wonder from whom he learned about critical race theory, and why he finds it so threatening.)
I could not disagree more. While we have many federal laws that have sought to overcome the insidious effects of racism, racism persists in this country. The only way to overcome racism in America, finally, is to add to the enforcement of laws the recognition that we, particularly those of us who are white, have contributed to the perpetuation of racism by explicit and implicit support of racist systems. Anti-racism training will not, by itself, upend those systems, but in making us aware of them, it can contribute to progress on this critical issue.
I am pro-America and support anti-racism training
I am the daughter of a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Lithuania to the U.S., making a multi-day sea voyage with almost no money and no possessions except for hope and a belief in the United States of America as a land of opportunity and fairness – like millions of others in the early part of the 20th century. My father was bullied because of his religion, his immigrant roots and his parents’ English illiteracy. Somehow, he found mentors who believed in him, and he transcended some of the barriers and discrimination he had faced. There were colleges and clubs to which he could not be admitted, but he found others. While he experienced discrimination, his whiteness, like his children’s whiteness, was a privilege that allowed him to overcome the disadvantages of his roots. Had he been a person of color, many barriers would have blocked his advancement.
Upon returning from WWII, where he had been awarded a Purple Heart for bravery as a medic, my father graduated from college under the GI Bill and bought a house with almost no money down because he was a veteran. Those benefits allowed him to transcend his meager roots and become part of the middle class. What I now know is that while my father and our family benefited from his veteran status, Black veterans did not have the same opportunities to use veterans’ benefits for education and housing. Redlining and neighborhood covenants kept Blacks out of neighborhoods all over the U.S., even though the Supreme Court had found such covenants to be illegal in 1946.
Home ownership is an important path to the accumulation of wealth in this country. Black families too often were kept off the path to becoming middle class because of the ways our laws permitted the denial of loans and landownership to them. I knew these things, but I did not viscerally understand how much they influenced the trajectory of Black lives until I took Racial Equity Institute training this past summer. We looked at data about inequities in health care, housing, education, justice, lending and many other pillars of our society and saw how the inequities that had persisted from the time the first Africans were brought to this country as slaves in 1619 set the stage for ill health, lack of wealth and lack of advancement for too many in this country. (See Nikole Hannah-Jones, in The 1619 Project, NYT.) Similar inequities hold in the U.S. for other non-white racial/ethnic groups. We also came to understand that, because of our race, not because we were smarter, more ambitious or more deserving, those of us who are white had benefited in ways that had been denied to Black Americans for generations. My skin color should not give me benefits that are denied to other people just because they are Black or brown.
I watched as hundreds of people around me in the training awakened to the deep unfairness that had kept the benefits of American upward mobility from millions in our country over many generations only because of their skin color. Our country now is being split by deep anger set in motion by centuries of mistreatment and denial of basic rights, exacerbated by the tragic consequences of a pandemic that is not color-blind. Indeed, people of color have borne the bad outcomes of COVID-19 disproportionately (see KFF). Anti-racism training will not solve all the problems of inequity, but it is one step of many. I view this training as a good investment in this democracy that I love.
It is anti-American to deny rights and liberties to some Americans because of race, color, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability
Educating people about the consequences of racism is not anti-American; it is pro-American. Understanding why Black Americans have suffered disproportionately and recognizing how our individual and collective actions can change the path of history for the better are aligned with our nation’s history and our laws. Many laws are aimed at making this country the America described in the Constitution but not enabled by that Constitution. Below is a short summary (see Civil Rights Movement).
- In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave Black people equal protection under the law. The 14th Amendment says that no state shall make or enforce any law that will “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” These provisions require the government to treat persons equally and impartially.
- In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted Black Americans the right to vote. But making it law did not keep the rights of Black and other voters from being infringed upon, and the struggle for civil rights, including voting rights, continues even today.
- By the early 1940s, war-related work was booming, but most Blacks weren’t given the better paying jobs and were discouraged from joining the military. After thousands threatened to march on Washington to demand equal employment rights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, opening national defense jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.
- Although the GI Bill helped white Americans prosper and accumulate wealth in the post-WWII years, it didn’t deliver on that promise for veterans of color. In fact, the wide disparity in the bill’s implementation ended up helping to drive growing gaps in wealth, education and civil rights between white and Black Americans.
- As the Cold War began, President Harry Truman initiated a civil rights agenda, and in 1948 issued Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military. These events helped set the stage for grass-roots initiatives to enact racial equality legislation and gave new strength to the civil rights movement.
- On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law, the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting.
- President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964—legislation initiated by President John F. Kennedy before his assassination—into law on July 2 of that year. The law guaranteed equal employment for all, limited the use of voter literacy tests and allowed federal authorities to ensure public facilities were integrated.
- The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968, just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion. It was also the last legislation enacted during the civil rights era.
Last August, when The 1619 Project was published, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, in a PBS Newshour interview, spoke to the questions, “Why do we have to keep talking about the past?” and “Why is it important for all Americans to understand the present in the context of our country’s history of enslaving and discriminating against Black people?”
…if we truly understand that black people are fully American and so the struggle of black people to make our union actually reflect its values is not a negative thing against the country, because we are citizens who are working to make this country better for all Americans. That is something that white Americans, if they really believe as they say that race doesn’t matter, we’re all Americans, should also be proud of and embrace that story. We cannot deny our past. And if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t. They all are important. And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it’s painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward. I think what, if people read for instance a story on why we don’t have universal health care, what it shows is that racism doesn’t just hurt black people but there are a lot — there are millions of white people in this country who are dying, who are sick, who are unable to pay their medical bills because we can’t get past the legacy of slavery. This affects all Americans no matter if you just got here yesterday, if your family’s been here 200 years, no matter what your race. Our inability to deal with this original sin is hurting all of us and this entire country is not the country that it could be because of it.
–Nikole Hannah-Jones, PBS Newshour, Aug. 18, 2019
Anti-racism training is pro-American because it will help us achieve the America that is, finally, for all
To achieve the vision of our democracy, we must confront a past that includes slavery and racism. Racism persists today, and it will not end until we finally say, “no more” and translate those words into actions. Denying anti-racism training and theories that examine the role of race in society will set us back, not advance us to a better, stronger, more united America. Banning educational use of The 1619 Project because some people would rather not be confronted with the messy, violent, racist part of our history will not make that history go away. We should resist White House directives to censor education about the history and legacy of slavery and racism in the United States if we are to achieve the America that our laws aim to protect, that our values uphold, that people before us fought and died for, that we dream still is possible and that decency demands. Anti-racism education and training are not a cure-all for racism, but are among many interventions that can help achieve the American dream for all Americans, the America Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and others have sung about, even when they did not receive equal benefits of living in the USA; the majestic America that Kate Smith sanctified in God Bless America, the sadder one Woody Guthrie told of, and the one Langston Hughes wrote of:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
–Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
We know what is right. It is to accept the past, learn from it and build a better future for all Americans. On Labor Day, as we recognize all labor, including that of people who bear the burdens of COVID-19 unfairly, it is time to go forward with resolve toward a better and fairer America for all.