Exploring Resistance to Teaching Critical Race Theory: Part 2

Executive Order 13950 — the start of anti-Anti-Bias training

The purpose of Executive Order 13950, “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping”, which was written by the Trump Administration and signed in September 2020, purpose is to remove “bias” from federal trainings on bias. Heather Cox Richardson, in her podcast with Joanne Freeman, Now and Then, explained that this executive order is the model for 21 laws which have been passed in states or are proposed related to teaching social studies and history in public schools. Thus, I started with that law to understand the framing of this fight. EO 13950 has since been rescinded. It focuses on race and sex, not simply race.

The executive order is well worth reading in its entirety, but I am going to focus on two aspects, the texts it uses to make its point and the nine principles it sets out for trainings and teaching to follow. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the conflict around teaching history appears to be whether we teach that the US has a history of racism that has been baked into our structures, or whether we are all equal and are each able to fulfill our dreams by our individual efforts. The conflict of the executive order is more about how federal employees are trained to combat bias in their workplace.

The order starts with this first paragraph:

Section 1. Purpose. From the battlefield of Gettysburg to the bus boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, heroic Americans have valiantly risked their lives to ensure that their children would grow up in a Nation living out its creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It was this belief in the inherent equality of every individual that inspired the Founding generation to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish a new Nation, unique among the countries of the world. President Abraham Lincoln understood that this belief is “the electric cord” that “links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving” people, no matter their race or country of origin. It is the belief that inspired the heroic black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to defend that same Union at great cost in the Civil War. And it is what inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dream that his children would one day “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I found this paragraph confusing, since the three texts mentioned are all clear that the vision of America was grounded in hierarchies of race and sex. “All men are created equal.” is self-evidently exclusive of one sex or gender (women). Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln’s speech says,

“We have besides these men — descended by blood from our ancestors — among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe — German, Irish, French and Scandinavian — men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration,” (emphasis mine).

Finally, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, makes the point that those words, “all men are created equal”, have not applied to the American Negro. He further clarifies, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” The current Black Lives Matter movement takes this statement seriously, as they continue the fight for equal justice under the law.

I share the desire to live in an America which lives up to the creed that all people are equal and that we are judged not be the color of our skin, the shape of our genitals, or other such attributes, but by the content of our character and the actions we choose. I do see that our history has moved us slowly closer to that ideal, not in a steady march forward, but still with some progress. While the quoted texts discuss ideals, they also demonstrate that these ideals were not true in the past and are not fully realized in the present moment.

The other aspect of the Executive Order I’d like to discuss are the nine “divisive concepts” that it states should not be included in any training. These nine concepts are also present in the Texas law HB 3979 (Section 2, 4 B i), and at least five other state laws that have or are being passed. These “divisive concepts” are, as written in EO 13950:

“(1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; (2) the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist; (3) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; (4) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex; (5) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; (6) an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; (7) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; (8) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or (9) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”

At first read, many of these do seem like divisive concepts that federal government trainings should not be teaching. The first (one race or sex is superior), fourth (an individual should be discriminated against baed on race or sex), and sixth (an individual’s moral character is determined by race or sex) are easy to find divisive and should not be taught in a training or school.

Let’s look at the others more closely. (2) The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. As discussed above, and in the words of Virginia Foxx from my previous post, “[the United States] are a collection of the failures and successes of past generations to create a nation grounded in the idea that all people are created equal.” Racism and sexism are part of our past, and we are striving to move beyond them to a more equal future. The statement may be divisive, and perhaps could be better phrased as Foxx did, but it also seems true.

(3) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. I understand the issue raised in this divisive concept. Stating that we all have racial and sexual biases, often unconsciously, can sound like all white people are inherently racist. A training on unconscious bias (such as those this Executive Order was written to outlaw) probably addresses this, though without careful conversation and attention to nuance, a training could leave the impression that white people are more racist than other races. Personally, I think that our societal structures and current social studies curricula do give people unconscious biases, and that people of color are more likely to notice and question those biases through life experience than some white people may. That’s complicated, and one reason that we need to teach and discuss these ideas in order to “create a nation grounded in the idea that all people are created equal” by naming and removing these unconscious biases and structures.

(5) Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex. I read this one a few times before I could understand what it was saying. First, each of these statements are about what should not be taught in a training, so we need to do the opposite of what this says, which would be members of one race or sex can and should attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex. This statement is the usual statement, treat others equally, and its corollary, treat everyone as an individual. This sentiment is good, if you believe that you have no unconscious bias. Some state, “I don’t see color”. Janice Gassam Asare explains the problem with this statement and sentiment in her Forbes’ article “Why The ‘I Don’t See Color’ Mantra Is Hurting Your Diversity And Inclusion Efforts”, which was written in February 2019, a year and a half before the EO 13950. She says, “If we want to deconstruct a system of power and privilege based on skin color, important discussions about the deep-seated racial bias that each of us holds must be addressed.”

(7) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. I grapple with this one all the time. My ancestors came to this country early, they probably killed people who were living on the land they took possession of, they owned slaves, they fought for the confederacy and the union, and they passed down their wealth to me. I’m still figuring out what my responsibility is and what my role should be to right the wrongs they committed. I am not sure that individually we need to bear responsibility, but I do think as a society we do, and we must recognize past and present inequities to overcome them.

(8) Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex. This one feels like the heart of the Executive Order to me. Can we create educational programs so that no one feels discomfort? How can you mandate that?

(9) Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race. But maybe this is the heart of it as it runs most directly counter to Foxx’s desire that school’s instill “in our youth, that no matter your background, there will always be room for you to succeed in America.”

Taken together, these nine divisive concepts and the order not to have them taught in any trainings, appears to be trying to lessen white guilt about past wrongs. That’s my reading of them, and I find it impossible to read the texts they reference without noticing these past wrongs.

As I said, EO 13950 has been rescinded and is no longer in effect. The nine “divisive concepts”, however, are in the Texas Law HB 3979 which was signed on July 15, 2021 to take effect September 1, 2021. My next blog post looks at what else is in that law.

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