Biden rolls back Trump’s clampdown on diversity training

By on 21/01/2021 | Updated on 22/01/2021
New US president Joe Biden has signed an executive order on advancing equity through the federal government. Credit: Adam Schultz / Biden for President / Flickr

Within hours of becoming US president yesterday, Joe Biden signed an executive order to rescind his predecessor Donald Trump’s ban on government contractors providing some forms of diversity training.

Biden’s new order promotes equality throughout federal departments and programmes. Government should “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality,” the order notes.

Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, Biden writes, and diversity is one of the country’s greatest strengths. “But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach.”  

The order says: “Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities. Our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism.” 

A look in the mirror

Biden’s administration will deploy a “whole-of-government equity agenda,” the order says. “Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.”

As part of this, departments are required to assess how much their current programmes and policies further barriers to opportunity for marginalised communities. This will be a broad examination considering equity “with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.”

The director of the Office of Management and Budget – a position for which Neera Tandem is Biden’s nominee – will work with agency leaders on this. Within six months, the director will report to the president on “the best practices” and recommend approaches that could be expanded across government.

Out with the old

In October 2020, then-president Trump issued an executive order banning government contractors from providing employees with certain forms of diversity training. The order forbade “divisive concepts”, such as training sessions based on “race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating”. 

The order prohibited training that implies that the US is a racist or sexist nation; that individuals bear responsibility for acts committed by members of their own race or sex; or that meritocracy in the US was created to favour members of certain races or sexes. 

It also established a complaint procedure for employees made to take such training, including a hotline set up by the Labor Department. Contractors found to have violated the order’s terms could have their contracts “cancelled, terminated, or suspended in whole or in part” and the vendor could be made “ineligible for further government contracts”. 

The order was part of an initiative aimed at countering what the administration characterised as “offensive and anti-American” ideology, which it said was “appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country”. 

Such “destructive ideology… is designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country” and “threatens to infect core institutions”, the order claimed. 

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020, many US companies issued statements of solidarity with the black community, promising to increase diversity among employees and provide inclusivity training. Scores of organisations voiced concern that Trump’s executive order would damage the progress that has been made. 

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