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Trump administration sued by civil rights groups over executive order restricting diversity training

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/30/2020 Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY
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Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting government contractors and federal agencies from offering diversity training that the president says is "divisive" and "un-American."

The complaint filed Thursday by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League and the National Fair Housing Alliance in federal court in Washington, D.C., argues the executive order violates free speech rights in an "extraordinary and unprecedented act by the Trump administration to undermine efforts to foster diversity and inclusion in the workplace."

The Trump administration is "trying to keep individuals from even expressing their thoughts,"  Ajmel Quereshi, senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense fund, told USA TODAY. "What this case does is challenge this executive order on both First Amendment grounds as well as Equal Protection grounds specifically because it tries to keep any federal contractor, federal employee or federal grantee from speaking about the history of systemic discrimination in the United States and its continuing effects."

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump walks to speak to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump is traveling to North Carolina and Florida. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) © Patrick Semansky, AP President Donald Trump walks to speak to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump is traveling to North Carolina and Florida. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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The Labor Department said the elimination of "race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating in employment" is "a key civil rights priority of the Trump Administration." 

"The Department of Labor is confident it will prevail in this lawsuit and that President Trump’s Executive Order will be found lawful," the Labor Department said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Trump executive order's 'chilling effect'

Trump’s executive order comes as corporate America steps up efforts to address racial disparities following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of white officer in Minneapolis in May.

Critics say the executive order is a broadside against diversity and inclusion programs that will impair efforts by business and government to reverse decades-long patterns of discrimination and exclusion. A USA TODAY investigation found that more than 55 years after the Civil Rights Act, less than 2% of the top executives at the nation’s largest companies are Black.

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The ripple effects from the executive order have also reached educational institutions, nonprofits and others who have federal contracts or plan to apply for them.

By forcing government agencies or contractors to choose between censoring speech or forfeiting government contracts, "the order strikes at the heart of those critical efforts by government and nongovernment actors – including trainings and other forms of private speech in the workplace – to eradicate race and sex stereotyping and other continuing manifestations of entrenched discrimination and bias against people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals," the complaint alleges. 

Trump administration challenges critical race theory

A White House memo in late September suggested rooting out "ideologies that label entire groups of Americans as inherently racist or evil" in diversity training materials by searching for keywords such as "white privilege," "systemic racism," "intersectionality" and "unconscious bias."

The executive order's stated goal is "to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating."

Asked about his executive order during the first presidential debate, Trump said: "They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place. And they were teaching people to hate our country. And I’m not gonna allow that to happen."

The target of the executive order is critical race theory and stems from appearances by conservative activist Christopher Rufo on Fox News' "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

Critical race theory teaches that racism pervades government and other American institutions, giving white people an advantage.

"What I've discovered is that critical race theory has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people," Rufo, director of the Discovery Institute's Center on Wealth & Poverty in Seattle said on Carlson's show. 

Rufo celebrated achieving his goal – "...persuading the President of the United States to abolish critical race theory in the federal government" – posting on Facebook moments after Trump issued the order. 

Corporate diversity efforts in line of Trump fire

The Trump administration is not just pushing back against the belief that American society is inherently racist. It's also challenging corporate efforts to rebalance the scales by elevating more Black executives and executives of color into leadership ranks.

In recent weeks, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which oversees federal contractors for the Labor Department, has questioned whether diversity initiatives at Microsoft and Wells Fargo to double the ranks of Black managers and executives over the next five years violate federal laws barring discrimination based on race. Both corporations say they believe their initiatives comply with those laws.

Guidance issued by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs outlines strict but vague requirements for complying with Trump's executive order on diversity and inclusion training that seem to cover essential and foundational concepts, Turner said.

The agency has set up a hotline so that any individual or group can file a complaint against a government agency or federal contractor for perceived violations by phone or email. Third parties can also file a complaint on behalf of an individual or a group, the guidance says.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration sued by civil rights groups over executive order restricting diversity training

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