The Origins and Purpose of Racial Diversity Training Programs. It’s Not What you Think

If there are structures that organize social relations by race, then it is morally incumbent upon those who benefit from this organization to work with those who are oppressed by it and work with them to change conditions for all those affected. If the oppressor group refuses to change, then a range of protest actions are justified. If protests are insufficient to bring about change, then violence may be warranted.

The American republic has demonstrated over many decades a remarkable ability to address the problem of the racism it inherited, albeit in one instance with catastrophic war. With the Act of 1807, passed in March, the US Congress gave all slave traders nine months to close down their operations in the United States. As the trade was in black Africans, the system was racist in character. After January 1, 1808, the Act declared it unlawful “to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.” Thus, within two decades of its founding, the United States forbade its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Little more than a half century later, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing chattel slavery in the United States was proclaimed. Unlike the abolition of the slave trade, this change came after a long-fought civil war that claimed the lives of more than a million Americans, hundreds of thousands of them soldiers. Within a century, segregation by race would be abolished. This time, relatively peacefully. The Civil Rights Movement was a powerful statement of the American creed of colorblindness, that all persons should stand equally before the law.

The United States is now experiencing what the media characterizes as a reckoning on the race question. A narrative of an American history bereft of progress on race relations is promulgated by academics and activists, now taken up by corporations and governments. In this account, all whites are portrayed as complicit in a stealth system of anti-black oppression. All whites enjoy white privilege, which includes a psychological wage by virtue of being born white. White supremacy is America’s original sin. It’s in our national DNA. It is the warp and woof of the American tapestry. Etcetera. The act of denying white oppression, privilege, and sin is tantamount to not merely an admission of racism but to recalcitrance. Whites are being asked to atone for this sin, to renounce oppression, and forfeit their privilege, thus affirming the existence of systemic anti-black racism.

Yet, unlike the history I began with, there are no structures enslaving, oppression, or segregating black Americans. As I detailed, these structures were long ago abolished. Indeed, it is now illegal in the United States to discriminate against black people. More than this, at all levels of government, programs of reparations have existed for decades in the form of affirmative action (positive discrimination). And federal funding for education, housing, etc., disproportionately benefit black Americans. Given this, how have so many Americans come to believe that systemic racism continues to shape American life? Why are so many Americans going along with rhetoric that makes whites out to be racist oppressors and trashes the culture that has made America the envy of the world?

In the place of actual structures of oppression and segregation, which are themselves of course, as with other structures in the world, conveyed conceptually and theoretically, ways of speaking about the world can also creates the perception that imaginary structures are actual and real. Concepts may refer to both real and imaginary things, but the ability of human beings to always determine which are which is variable across time and space, and across persons.

We can see the way this works in theological constructions. Theology creates a universe where imaginary entities and locations and forces—gods, angels, devils, heaven, hell, evil and sin—appear as real things. Via a process of reification, the supernatural is transformed into a perceived reality, where concepts substitute for actual things. Real events are then interpreted within an all-encompassing framework. The framework makes particular sense of the evidence. Constructing a false account of the world is given plausibility by being articulated by authorities. In religion, these authorities are the church, mosque, and synagog, with their ministers, imams, and rabbis respectively. There are prayers, rituals, and scriptures. For a religion to be successful, it must build a congregation, acquire converts to doctrine. This means mounting a successful program of inclusion and indoctrination. When the program is societal-wide, pushed by society’s major institutions, it becomes a powerful force. Those who refuse and resist stand as apostates and infidels. Those who criticize doctrine are heretics.

This description of theology applies to the doctrine of critical race theory, which is the ideology guiding not only Black Lives Matter in street-level action, but also in the anti-racism and diversity training that students, teachers, and workers are compelled to undergo in corporations, government, and universities. In many cases, one does not have a choice but to participate. Employment, grades, pay, and promotion are attached. Knowing what happens to refusers and resisters, many more go along to get along.

The principle targets in this training are white people, who are told that they are racist even when they don’t know it. They suffer from “implicit (or unconsciousness) race bias.” They commit “little murders” against non-whites everyday with their words, with their “microaggressions.” See my last podcast or read my last blog entry (The Myth of White Culture) to learn about the many features of so-called “white culture.” During reeducation, white people will learn to see the structures of racism that have heretofore escaped their perception. They will learn to see the unseen by acquiring a new way to talk about the world—an argot, a jargon. They will be told to go into the world and promulgate this new gospel so that others may see it. They will be told to hold accountable those who refuse and resist the message.

Diversity Training | Online Training Modules
Image drawn from a diversity training website Ready Training Online

It is promising that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget notified agency heads on September 4 of this year that federal workplaces will no longer be allowed to conduct training that focuses on race theory and white privilege. “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,” OMB director Russell Vought wrote in a memo to agency leaders. In the memo Vought notes that “employees across the executive branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism’ or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism.’”

We can trace back contracts for diversity training at federal agencies to an initiative started through an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2011. The Governmentwide Inclusive Diversity Strategic Plan issued in 2016 as a result of that order focused on a “New Inclusion Quotient,” calling on agencies to “provide training and education on cultural competency, implicit bias awareness and inclusion learning for all employees.”

Antiracism poisons our workplaces by requiring white employees to align their values with a worldview in which the work ethic and all the rest of it are degraded. Listen to Anti-Racism Training Doesn’t Work with Karlyn Borysenko (from the podcast Triggernometry). According to Vought’s memo, workers are being told “that there is racism embedded in the belief that America is the land of opportunity or the belief that the most qualified person should receive a job.” This program of indoctrination is not just harmful to the whites compelled to participate. It is harmful to blacks, as well, as it treats them as members of a group that cannot measure up to the standards of the society in which they live. It says that, in order for blacks to succeed, the standards have to be lowered or whites have to refrain from working with these standards in mind. Anti-racism represents a massive project of social engineering imposed on the American population without their consent. It means to change American culture.

If you read my blog, you will be familiar with my criticisms of Robin DiAngelo and her concept of “white fragility” (The Psychological Wages of Antiracism; Dividing Americans by Race to Keep America From Democracy) as well Ibram X. Kendi and his instructions on how to be an anti-racist (Reparations and Blood Guilt). But readers should know that their rhetoric comes from corporate psychology. So here’s a bombshell: the chart used by the Smithsonian on whiteness that I took apart on my last podcast (The Myth of White Culture), was adapted from a 1978 book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training by Judy H. Katz. It’s not that the Smithsonian chart and her book share points of contact. The verbiage of the chart is lifted from a book that is more than forty years old. (Katz is also responsible for the 2002 book The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity.)

To save all of us time (Lord knows we already wasted enough time reading DiAngelo and Kendi), the book is usefully summarized by Social Work Research and Abstracts. In Katz’s book “a group training program is presented in which white people work together in a nonthreatening environment to alter deeply ingrained, often unconscious racist attitudes and then embark on a program of behavioral change. The program has been used with measurable success in many settings. It can be adapted to the specific setting and needs of the participants. After an introduction explaining the principles on which the program is based, a detailed step-by-step training format is presented. The six group experiences, called stages, center on the following themes: racism, definitions and inconsistencies; confronting the reality of racism; dealing with feelings; cultural differences; exploring cultural racism, the meaning of whiteness; individual racism; and developing action strategies. Instructions and suggestions for conducting each session are provided, along with recommended readings, lists of materials required, and sources of materials.”

Katz’s work has a deep intellectual background. White Awareness hails from applied and organizational psychology, a technology designed to align the consciousness of workers with corporate ideology. As such it is a hallmark of progressivism, the technocratic worldview of the white collar sector. Psychologist Kurt Lewin is the central figure in this. Along with Ron Lippitt, Ken Benne, and Lee Bradford, Lewin founded the National Training Laboratories (NLT) Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in 1947 which established the foundations of corporate training regimes, a methodology called T-groups (training groups, or encounter groups or sensitivity training groups), and founded The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. This direction is associated with the human relations movement, led by Douglas McGregor, Chris Argyris, and Warren Bennis, a movement that has profoundly shaped corporate management strategies. Because the structure of capitalist society compels a population to work for income, individuals are forced into structures that risk producing a subjectivity that is contrary to the material interests of their social class. Human relations and workplace training regimes are designed to proactively integrate workers with this subjectivity.

Deploying various social behavioral and cognitive strategies (small group interaction, role playing, that sort of thing), assimilation is obtained via various brainwashing techniques that leverage the behavioral and cognitive sciences to transform people into compliant corporate citizens. There is an analogy to all this that should, if people grasp the horrifying reality of all this, shake people out of their daze. In the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the “struggle session,” where a victim was forced to admit to wrongdoing, to confess to some crime, was often conducted at the target’s workplace surrounded by his fellow workers. The encounter session in the corporatist West is essentially a type of struggle session where a “facilitator” conscripts employees into coercing other employees into accepting the functional subjectivity. The parallel should frighten any one who cares about human freedom. It’s not an analogy. Bureaucratic collectivism and corporate bureaucratic organization share an affinity for externally-imposed rationalization—efficiency, predictability, uniformity, and control. The Chinese communist system dovetails easily with the transnational corporatist order. This is not theoretically supposed. We are seeing this convergence occurring before our eyes.

The establishment media is mainstreaming and normalizing the cultural revolution. “In this moment of historical reckoning, many Americans are being introduced to such concepts as intersectionality, white fragility, and anti-racism,” writes David Remnick in introducing his podcast with Isabel Wilkerson for The New Yorker. (See my podcast The Problem of Good White People). But this is not a moment of historical reckoning. Academic jargon shaped by the corrupting ideas of critical theory and postmodernism are constructing a reality that isn’t really real.

The very notion of a “historical reckoning” is mystification. The real reality is that we’re in a struggle between those who believe in republicanism versus those who believe in globalism, those for democracy versus those for technocracy. The question is whether we want to live in a society that protects individual liberty and defends civil rights in the context of a nation state that is answerable to the people and an international legal framework that defends human rights as a universal standard of regard, or live under the tyranny of transnational corporatist rule, a rule that works hand in hand with the Chinese Community Party. That’s the historical moment we’re living in. Black Lives Matter is street-level action in what is a corporatist revolution-from-above. That is the real fascistic threat facing humanity.

What we have been seeing over the last several decades is a shift from Old Left politics, or what we might call, following C. Wright Mills, plain Marxism, what I call classical Marxism, which I have been representing now for years (which seems to have really confused people who thought they knew how to represent my politics in their minds), to New Left politics, or neo-Marxism, which works against the humanism, liberalism, and secularism intrinsic to classical Marxist thought (i.e. the materialist conception of history). This derangement represents the corrupting influence of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other regressive and authoritarian spirits, particularly those ideas refracted through the prism of French thought. The New Left countermovement against democracy, nationalism, and republicanism dovetails with the bureaucratic corporatist project of globalization, or transnationalization, as well as the bureaucratic collectivism of the Chinese Communist Party, in a common desire to denationalize the West and establish a global neofeudalist order.

Critical race theory, and critical theory in general, is part of the landscape in social science. As a social scientist tenured in the university, I teach critical race theory alongside feminist theories, historical materialism, structural-functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and other theoretical systems. However, even when I was sympathetic to elements of critical race theory, I never taught it uncritically in a classroom. I now recognize critical race theory as a toxic ideology, but even when I didn’t, my belief that higher education is no place for demanding conformity to a particular line of political thought always guided my classroom ethics. I would never teach students that there are bad people for refusing to accept, say, structural-functionalism as a grand theory for explaining their lives. Doing something like that on the basis of race would add an extra layer of horror to such a practice. Nor should critical race theory be represented as a definitive or settled view in training sessions in academy, corporations, or government agencies. Not only is critical race theory toxic, but the practice of compelling speech from administrators, students, teachers, and workers is tyrannical. It is entirely antithetical to the educational enterprise.

The latest OMB memo instructs federal agencies to identify all contracts for diversity training that covers “‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort 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.” That’s a start. But we need to reckon the moment we are in. Anti-racism training is part of a much larger problem for the working class, and that is the problem of transnational corporate power. Anti-racism is a project to align popular consciousness with an ideology that elites find beneficial to some ends. That corporate power is backing anti-racist training based on critical race theory tells us that those ends are not in the interests of working people.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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