By Jasmine Benjamin
Associate Editor, Vol. 26
On September 22, 2020, President Trump issued an executive order entitled, “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.”[i] The order prohibits government contractors from conducting workplace anti-bias training that is based on Critical Race Theory (CRT).[ii][iii]
The executive order takes aim at the use of CRT-based anti-discrimination training as a “malign ideology” that has “infect[ed] core institutions of our country.”[iv] Tellingly, a close analysis of the exploitative and imperialistic language of the “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” reveals some of the very same endemic racism CRT recognizes as inherent to American life. The Order puts forward a vision of racism in America that universalizes the white male experience and delegitimizes minority perspectives.
The Order begins by explaining “from the battlefield of Gettysburg to the bus boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, heroic Americans have valiantly risked their lives to ensure that their children would grow up in a Nation living out its creed … ‘that all men are created equal.’”[v] This description exploits black activism by erasing the violent opposition black activists faced and reframing the goal of that activism in race-neutral terms. The description of “heroic Americans” employs a level of generality that masks how the boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches were organized and led by black activists in the face of violent white opposition. The people leading the Civil Rights Movement were indeed Americans. But to describe them with this layer of generality glosses over an equally important fact: millions of other Americans fought vehemently against this movement.[vi] By presenting the struggle as a united mission against an unnamed enemy, in which all Americans can imagine they played (or would have played) a helping hand, the Order is able to co-opt the struggle brave activists like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. faced, without acknowledging the oppressive systems – slavery, Jim Crow laws and Segregation – that necessitated the movements.
The erasure of the central role of race in reference to the Civil Rights Movements allows the Order to claim that the country’s foundation was a colorblind meritocracy in which “all men [were] created equal.”[vii] The Order asserts that the belief that all men are created equal was “ … what inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dream that his children would one day ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”[viii] Again, the executive order exploits the labor of a Black activist by taking credit for his triumph while ignoring the racial injustices that spurred such activism. Black activism is reframed as evidence of the country’s foundational meritocracy and triumph over racism without acknowledging the widespread division and opposition that the Movements faced.
The Order then proceeds to condemn a continuation of the activism it takes credit for.
Today … people are pushing a different vision of America … Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who … maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War.[ix]
The founding documents were created by white men. Given the word “woman” never appears in the Constitution,[x] it is no stretch to conclude the document was written for men as well. As writings of the founding fathers, Supreme Court decisions, and the Congressional legislation on citizenship make clear, America’s government was indeed made “on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.”[xi] The executive order asserts that the founding documents were race-neutral but immediately contradicts itself by explaining that bloodiest war in American history[xii] was fought over ending racialized views. Paradoxically, the Order claims both that the country was founded upon principles of color-blindness and that racialized views were defeated in the Civil War. The Order erases the racial animus underpinning the great battles and victories it espouses, advancing those triumphs as evidence both that the country has overcome its racism and that it has always been a colorblind meritocracy. The two competing ideas are weaponized in a way that exploits black activism and reinforces the implicit understanding that white and American are synonymous.
“To promote unity … and to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating,” the Order prohibits anti-bias training that promotes divisive topics, such as the idea that “(2) the United states is fundamentally racist or sexist.”[xiii] In addition to asserting the country’s simultaneous omnipresent race neutrality and triumph over racism, the executive order makes questioning that apparent contradiction “offensive” and “anti-American.” American citizenship, and the right to identify as American, has historically been denied and used a means of control against minorities in the United States.[xiv] Describing a viewpoint as “anti-American” then is a reminder that citizenship for minorities is not a guarantee and can be taken away for failure to conform to a specific narrative. Couching the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist as divisive and “anti-American” mandates a race-neutral understanding of the Nation’s founding that not even the executive order can fully adopt. Furthermore, it stands as a racial gaslighting, completely ignoring the country’s over 200-year history of racial genocide, imperialism, and terrorism. Equating the acknowledgement of the United States’ racism (past and present) with anti-American ideas delegitimizes minority perspectives.
The exploitation of Black labor coupled with the refusal to acknowledge past and ongoing racism in the country in this Order is an example of the institutional and endemic racism CRT recognizes. The choice to reframe the United States’ racial history by asserting an omnipresent race-neutral meritocracy and a complete triumph over racism universalizes the white male experience at the expense of minority perspectives.
[i] Exec. Order No. 13950, 85 Fed. Reg. 60683, 60683 (Sept. 22, 2020).
[ii] “[Recognizing] how racism is ‘endemic’ to American life,”critical Race Theory scholars are “interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.” “It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.” Fabiola Cineas, Critical Race Theory and Trump’s War on it, Explained, Vox (Sep. 24, 2020, 2:20 PM), https://www.vox.com/2020/9/24/21451220/critical-race-theory-diversity-training-trump; Cady Lang, President Trump Has Attacked Critical Race Theory. Here’s What to Know About the Intellectual Movement, Time (Sep. 29, 2020, 10:53 PM), https://time.com/5891138/critical-race-theory-explained/.
[iv] 85 Fed. Reg. 60683 at 60683.
[vi] Segregation in America, Equal Justice Initiative (2018), https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/ (“Opposition to civil rights and racial equality was a mass movement. Most white Americans, especially in the South, supported segregation.”).
[vii] 85 Fed. Reg. 60683 at 60683.
[x] White women, unlike most minorities have been considered citizens of the United States since its inception. Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874). However, women were never contemplated to enjoy equal rights as their male counterparts. For example, the Constitution, while furnishing male citizens the right to vote, did not furnish the same to women until the passage of the 19th Amendment. Furthermore, while the Constitution preserved men’s rights to life, liberty and property, women did not enjoy the same property rights as the common law concept of coverture result in legal subordination of a woman to her husband. Married Women’s Property Acts, Encyclopedia Britannica (last updated Nov 24, 1999), https://www.britannica.com/event/Married-Womens-Property-Acts-United-States-1839/additional-info#history.
[xi] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, reprinted in Race and Races Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 98, 99 (Juan F. Perea, Richard Delgado, Angela P. Harris, Jean Stefancic & Stephanie M. Wildman eds., 3rd ed. 2015) (“Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in American, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?”); Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV, reprinted in Race and Races Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 98, 99 (Juan F. Perea, Richard Delgado, Angela P. Harris, Jean Stefancic & Stephanie M. Wildman eds., 3rd ed. 2015) (“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”); Dred Scott v. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1856) (Holding that black people in America “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”); Juan F. Perea, Richard Delgado, Angela P. Harris, Jean Stefancic & Stephanie M. Wildman, Race and Races Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 461 (3rd ed. 2015)(“For nearly a century, the 1790 Naturalization Act expressly limited acquisition of U.S. citizenship to persons of the white race…”).
[xii] Guy Gugliotta, New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll, N.Y. Times (Apr. 2, 2012), https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html.
[xiii] 85 Fed. Reg. 60683 at 60685.
[xiv] American citizenship was limited to “free white persons” in the 1790 Naturalization Act before it was expanded to include “persons of African nativity… or descent” in 1870. Perea et al., supra note 12. Puerto Ricans were denied American citizenship when the island became a US territory. Downes v. Bidwell 182 U.S. 244 (1901) (“it is doubtful if Congress would ever assent to the annexation of territory upon the condition that its inhabitants, however foreign they may be to our habits, traditions, and modes of life, shall become at once citizens of the United States.”). Chinese immigrants were prohibited from moving to the United States and denied citizenship. An Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States, 27 Stat. §25 (1892).