As a retired federal employee, I wasn’t surprised to hear about Critical Racial Theory (CRT). Social Justice Warrior theories have long been embedded in federal training. Over my 30-year federal career, I participated in numerous training initiatives whose goal was to improve performance and organizational relationships and dynamics. Social justice theories were woven into the core concepts of the curriculum as it was believed that highlighting notions of equity, fairness, and anti-discrimination could foster better understanding of how implicit biases would engender more equitable management decisions and improved working conditions. I only wish the lofty goals and reality on the ground matched up.
An example of how social justice became a part of federal training was mandatory AIDS training during the Clinton Administration. The order came down that all employees, whether they were at risk or not, should undergo a briefing on AIDS. Why was the federal government mandating AIDS training? Why should such training be provided in a workplace where no risky behavior was occurring and where the vast majority of the audience were not at risk. Unlike SARS or COVID-19, this disease could not be spread through the air. What was the motivation? An implicit theme was the potential for a negative stigma to be attached to employees who might be at risk. Thus, the interjection of social justice – at risk employees should not be discriminated against or treated unkindly or unfairly.
The social justice mantra fully matured in the Diversity and Inclusion curriculum that permeated Federal training initiatives beginning in the 1990’s. As noted in a recent article by Paul Bradford, “Diversity and inclusion training is just a mild form of critical race theory.” My experience certainly confirms this assertion. While Diversity and Inclusion was supposed to be about “empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin,” that was not the reality. Too often, “diversity” meant Black or African American and the training participants would regularly criticize this absurdly narrow-minded focus to the instructors. We all knew and understood what was happening but as good employees, we would go along with the exercises but I am not sure we took away positive lessons.
I remember one session with a role-playing exercise whose purpose was to illustrate how organizational positions can impact behavior. Each person in the exercise was assigned a role but they weren’t told what that role was. Rather, they were instructed to place a banner around their heads with their role identified. Then the participants would have to figure out what role they had been assigned by the way they were treated. One of the participants, a naturally assertive and competent young African American woman was assigned the role of a shy and self-effacing employee that we were all told to ignore. As the exercise proceeded, the young woman could not understand why she was being ignored. While this might seem like a good exercise, the organizational dynamics manifested were most uncomfortable, not only because the behavior was mean but, because of her race, there was an undertone of racism that didn’t exist in the normal day to day operations. Did such an exercise create ill feelings, was the discomfort manufactured? Yes. Did this exercise serve to improve organizational dynamics? Not appreciably. What this exercise did was create a suspicion that implicit bias and systemic racism might indeed exist within the organization.
Another example was an on-boarding session I was required to attend. In addition to covering organizational policies, the training underscored the racial make-up of the Department with an implicit message that employees needed to be sensitive to potential discrimination. What was noteworthy about this was that the subliminal messaging appeared to be directed at the white employees – who were actually the minority at this Federal Department.
Critical Racial Theory is the natural evolution of the social justice mantra in which the oppressed seek justice from oppressors. Paradoxically, where Diversity and Inclusion purported to seek greater harmony, it actually segregated people according to superficial differences rather than stressing common values or interests. Under CRT, there is no pretense about seeking harmony. Under CRT, the oppressors must be defeated and in CRT the oppressors are all white and they victimize all people of color. CRT reduces all normal human dynamics to a racially charged power struggle in which no redemption is possible. Where the initial social justice initiatives were focused on improving management and organizational dynamics, CRT is about vanquishing the oppressors.
I am happy that the Office of Management and Budget issued the Directive to cease this divisive, unhealthy, toxic training. We all want the Federal government to operate effectively, efficiently and productively. We expect a lot, maybe too much, but we need them to deliver on their responsibilities. The government employs people of all races, creeds, colors, sexual orientation, ethnicities, abilities, etc. Management consultants will tell you that achieving harmony and productivity with this diverse workforce is challenging. An orthodoxy that singles out one race for approbation and condemnation will poison working relationships and make success far more difficult. It is a thoroughly destructive philosophy and completely contrary to the praiseworthy goals the Federal government espoused years ago to “create a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness to enable individuals to participate to their full potential” in President Obama’s 2011 Executive Order.