By: Jacqui Higgins-Dailey
There’s a saying that when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression. It’s difficult to attribute but fitting for a recent Executive Order issued by the White House in an attempt to “promote equality.” The order is a criticism of Critical Race Theory, in which scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw “confront the beliefs and practices that enable racism to persist while also challenging these practices in order to seek liberation from systemic racism,” according to the Owl at Purdue.
“Agency employees and contractors are not to engage in divisive training of Federal workers. Noncompliance by continuing with prohibited training will result in consequences, which may include adverse action for Federal employees who violate the Order. Federal contractors are to be required to represent that they will not conduct such trainings for their own employees, with potential sanctions for noncompliance…”
“…Review these trainings to determine whether they teach, advocate, or promote the divisive concepts specified in the Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping ( e.g., that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist or that an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive). Reviews of specific training curriculum materials can be supplemented by a broader keyword search of agency financial data and procurements for terms including, but not limited to: “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” “intersectionality,” “systemic racism,” “positionality,” “racial humility,” and “unconscious bias.” When used in the context of diversity training, these terms may help to identify the type of training prohibited by the E.O. Searching for these key words without additional review does not satisfy the review requirements of the E.O.”
This is not only censorship but extortion too. The Federal Government is censoring intellectual ideas and curriculum to continue its endemic ignorance of racism in this country. It is intimidating organizations addressing racism by withholding funds by threatening sanctions and debarment.
Hundreds of years of blatant racism in the form of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, policing, etc. have a lasting effect on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Shirking the notion of unconscious bias is inherently racist. Ignoring the repercussions of America’s deeply-rooted racism is far more damaging than helping people understand their bias. It is promoting white supremacy. What else can we call, for example, the celebration of racist “founding fathers” while guffawing at the creation of Indigenous People’s Day?
Two institutions of higher education, University of Iowa and John A. Logan College in Illinois, have already removed their equity, diversity and inclusion efforts in order to comply with the Order. John A. Logan College went so far as to cancel it’s Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s difficult to see how one can argue that removing Hispanic heritage celebrations is an acceptable solution to promoting equality. The White House, and more specifically the president, bemoans the idea of “cancel culture” but in turn cancels diversity, equity inclusion programs for federal organizations or those who receive federal funds to maintain a false sense of “patriotism.” The irony is startling.
Free speech hasn’t always looked the same. The government used to play a much larger role in policing what it saw “fit” for public consumption. According to Emily Bazelon in a recent article in New York Times Magazine, “From 1798 to 1801, more than two dozen people, including several newspaper editors, were prosecuted by the administration of President John Adams under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made ‘malicious writing’ a crime. Protesters were also jailed for criticizing the government during World War I.”
In that same article, however, Bazelon pointed out the unfettered right to free speech has a dark side — one we are witnessing today in the age of disinformation. How do we reckon with the idea that our current president promotes conspiracy theories, propaganda and hateful rhetoric while at the same time ascribe to the idea of free speech absolutism?
Bazelon says, “A crude authoritarian censors free speech. A clever one invokes it to play a trick, twisting facts to turn a mob on a subordinated group and, in the end, silence as well as endanger its members. Looking back at the rise of fascism and the Holocaust in her 1951 book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ the political philosopher Hannah Arendt focused on the use of propaganda to ‘make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism.’”
To restrict portions of trainings and curricula to comply with an Executive Order is the type of censorship that smells vaguely of impending fascism. If the only way to love your country is to never criticize its past or present, one wonders what else will be silenced by our federal government. However, the danger of the spread of unmitigated propaganda, conspiracy and misinformation also has serious repercussions. Where do we draw the line? If we are no longer agreeing on a set base of facts and science, we cannot have democratic discourse.
There are many issues with the latest Executive Order, too many to cover in one post, but the main issue is government censorship. Censoring actual history is not unpatriotic. It is quite the opposite.
The vague language of the E.O. also creates a level of ambiguity that more than 160 businesses signed an open letter requesting the administration withdraw the E.O. The open letter notes that the hotline for employees to report employers who violate the Order is an avenue for disgruntled workers to, in effect, “tattle” on their employer. They also note that the discussions that occur surrounding compliant diversity trainings may include topics, such as unconscious bias, intersectionality or white privilege, that were not included in the training itself but misconstrued as a violation by some employees.
Businesses and colleges aren’t the only organizations that have taken issue with the E.O. ALA posted its denunciation of the Order on October 29 stating,
“This executive order is already having a chilling effect, with some colleges and universities suspending all diversity trainings and canceling cultural celebrations for fear of losing federal funds. A hotline has been established to encourage informants to report those whose words and deeds do not comply with the order or the dictates of its accompanying memoranda. We are reminded of another time and another era when the Council of the American Library Association adopted the Freedom to Read statement in response to growing concerns about censorship in the McCarthy era.”
I once heard someone say it is not their job to fix racism since they “didn’t start it.” But we are all citizens and cohabitants of this country and I imagine we would like to live together peacefully. How does censoring hundreds of years of trauma on groups of our own citizens help us do that? It’s an exercise in delusion to continue the lie that we can forget the past and move forward in peace.
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey worked as a public librarian for 10 years before becoming full-time residential library faculty at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.