How Trump’s D&I order shows the culture war is on

In case you missed it, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Sept. 22, “On Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” The rule is binding on all federal agencies, uniformed services, and—here’s the big one—all federal contractors, which includes most every big company in the United States.

One might look at this and assume the order seeks to block stereotypes based on race and gender—e.g., that women and minorities can’t do this or that—which sounds perfectly in tune with diversity and inclusion efforts.  It’s not about that. It prevents these organizations from conducting programs that make assertions about racism (it’s not really about gender) being embedded in U.S. society and the responsibility of white society for that.

See also: HR’s model to mandate diversity and inclusion

Wow, this is really something. The order highlights the Civil War and the civil rights movement, implying the latter pretty much got rid of systematic racism, or that’s the way we should talk about it. What is so profound about this document is that it shows just how different the apparent reality is for people at different ends of the U.S. political spectrum and the limits of what our personal experience can teach us about some of those realities.

If we grew up in a town that was all white, as I did, we are unlikely to think to ask, “What keeps it all white?” We are unlikely to see actions by individuals that look like racism because we do not see situations where it could happen.  What social science does is help us “see” the reality that our own life experience can’t show us.

Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, is causing a sensation because it identifies rules, some codified, some informal, that perpetuate racial discrimination. Many of these are things you can “see.” For example, why are whites and Blacks still so segregated in the United States? It was well into my adult life before I learned about “sundown towns” in the northern part of the nation, which not only prohibited Blacks from living there but forbade them from even being in the town after dark (they lasted through the 1960s), or restrictive covenants that prevented owners from selling their property to Blacks (before that to Jews, before that to Catholics). They lasted through the 1970s. The legacy of these practices persists in housing segregation.

Psychology helps us see how our individual decisions are affected by social norms even when there are no official rules telling us what to do.  We may never see a clear-cut situation in real life where an identical candidate is turned down for a job because of their gender or race, but we can see audit studies where simply giving a candidate a “Black-sounding” name on an otherwise identical resume sharply reduces the chance he or she will get an interview. Similarly, we’ve seen that the skin color of actors pretending to be house-hunters leads them to be shown different properties than an otherwise identical pair of actors with a different skin color.

Related: The disturbing new findings about discrimination at work

To the extent that the executive order is simply off the rails is that it prevents anyone from saying that racism is systemic; that is, built into these norms and practice. If that was not the case, how does it happen that Blacks have such different experiences and outcomes? One answer would be to deny that it does happen, and that flies in the face of generations of social science research. The other is to say that it must be because of “bad apples,” individuals with consciously racist motives.  That’s also implausible as an explanation for nationwide differences.

The order does highlight an important question about diversity teaching, and that is to what extent individuals participating in a society that produces biased social outcomes are ethically culpable. That is a complicated question in moral philosophy, but one way to begin to think about it is the distinction between racist intent—where individuals act with the intent to produce adverse outcomes for Blacks—and racist consequences, where individuals are part of a society that produces those consequences. It is easy to make a moral judgment about the former but extremely difficult to draw clear conclusions about the latter.

For organizations interested in diversity training, making points about the causes of racial differences and bias and how to change them does not require drawing conclusions about moral culpability. As with most things, the place to start thinking about what kind of training to offer is determining the goal you want to achieve.

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