Why are we not talking about this?!

Oct 13, 2020
Black Lives Matter protest

On September 22nd, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” Known as Executive Order 13950, it basically says that diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings that discuss topics such as systemic racism—or that suggest that narratives focused on “color-blindness” are inadequate—are “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating," (1) and limits federal funding for such trainings.

When I first heard about this order, I was sure it would lead to significant backlash and would soon be rescinded. I also assumed institutions of higher education would be among those leading the way. I was reminded of when, just a few months ago, the United States Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that people in the country on student visas would not be allowed to remain here this fall if their courses were offered online. Many colleges and universities banded together, spoke up, and threatened to sue. As a result, the decision was quickly rescinded.

Obviously, institutions will be impacted differently by Executive Order 13950 depending on their reliance on federal funding, but this mandate, in my opinion, seems to go against much of what higher education in the United States stands for—celebrating diversity and promoting equity, creating communities where everyone feels a sense of inclusion and belonging, and helping students develop the skills and understanding needed to live and work effectively and appropriately with people who are different from them.

So I was surprised when, in the days and weeks that followed, I heard little response in higher education to the executive order.

I asked many of the educators I work with how their institutions were responding. Several said it was the first they’d heard of the executive order. Others said their institutions were proceeding as normal or even leaning in to diversity and inclusion initiatives. Still others have said that their institution is investigating how the executive order impacts them. A recent article in “Inside Higher Ed” suggests that “some institutions have begun to cancel diversity, equity and inclusion programs in response” to the executive order. (2)

When I went looking, I did find that last Thursday, the American Council on Education (ACE)—in collaboration with many other prominent higher education organizations and associations, such as AAC&U, NAFSA, and NACE—issued a response to the executive order. Their letter confirms higher education’s commitment to “promoting and enabling diversity and inclusion,” stating these are “essential to the long-term strength, economic competitiveness, and security of our nation.” (3)

The communication from these higher education associations illuminates the significant impact this executive order could have on the field. It states, “By requiring colleges and universities with government contracts and grants to send the government any and all documents related to training programs so that they can be scoured for forbidden ‘divisive concepts,’ Executive Order 13950 will create enormous and costly compliance work, particularly for larger universities, where there could be hundreds or more such training programs conducted at campuses all over the world.” (3)

The letter focuses on the need for “a mandate this sweeping and intrusive” to be “subject to a regulatory process under the Administrative Procedure Act, which would allow affected organizations to ask questions, seek clarifications, and recommend changes before the new requirement takes effect.” (3) It calls out the many ambiguities and gray areas in the executive order, and also argues that the mandate contradicts or undermines previous guidance from the government, such as a 2019 executive order regarding free speech at colleges and universities.

I understand the difficult position many institutions of higher education and their leaders are in right now, and also why ACE and fellow associations may be focusing their argument on the logistical and financial hardships posed by the executive order. However, it is important to me to go beyond that and deplore this executive order for what it is:  racist, sexist, and anti-American (ironic, I know).

In addition to supporting the argument made by ACE and the collaborating higher education associations, I would like to add a few of my own thoughts about why Executive Order 13950 is so problematic.

First of all, this mandate that claims to combat “race and sex stereotyping,” is itself a glowing example of systemic racism and oppression. It basically bans trainings that explore things such as white privilege or systemic racism, on the argument that we are all individuals and should be treated as such. This argument—as it is presented—is itself the epitome of systemic racism because it overlooks the fact that historically, all individuals have NOT been treated equally, and that the impacts of this are still deeply woven into the fabric of this country.

Second, it essentially positions Minimization—which in intercultural development terms is a transitionary orientation between more monocultural and intercultural ways of seeing and experiencing the world—as the gold standard for intercultural development (click here, here, and here for more information about Minimization and the Intercultural Development Continuum). The executive order promotes a “color-blind” narrative, declaring that any training that suggests not everyone has equal opportunity in this country is actually racist, sexist, and anti-America. But recognizing and appreciating difference is a critical step in developing one’s intercultural competence.

Another response that more explicitly condemns Executive Order 13950, comes from a group of 121 civil rights groups and allies, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the National Women’s Law Center. Together, they write:

“The Executive Order is a blatant effort to perpetuate and codify a deeply flawed and skewed version of American history. It promotes a particular vision of history that glorifies a past rooted in white supremacy while silencing the viewpoints and experiences of all who have been victimized by individual and structural inequalities – a kind of dangerous propaganda or thought-policing comparable only to authoritarian regimes. The Executive Order attempts to erase the very concept of racism and sexism as being real, historical and present-day phenomena and undermines important and necessary employer initiatives aimed at understanding and dismantling racist, sexist, and discriminatory structures. The American people will suffer real harm and unjust consequences when those charged with serving the public do not learn the facts necessary to do their jobs effectively and equitably.” (4)

I want to encourage colleges and universities to consider how their response—or lack of response—to this executive order may be received by students and others in the community. What’s the message we send when we quickly come to the defense of our international students (who often pay full, out-of-state tuition) when their ability to stay in the country is threatened, but we don’t as quickly—or as outrightly—defend the importance of measures that will make our institutions more inclusive and equitable for students of color and other marginalized groups?


References & Resources

Numbers in parentheses correspond with citations in text above.

(1) Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping

(2) Inside Higher Ed, “Diversity Work, Interrupted,” by Colleen Flaherty (October 7, 2020)

(3) Response from ACE & Other Higher Education Associations  

(4) Response from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund & Other Civil Rights Organizations

USA Today, “'It's already having a massive effect,' corporate America demands Trump rescind executive order on diversity,” by Jessica Guynn (October 12, 2020)


Photo credit: Julian Wan, Unsplash

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