DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Three civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a recent Trump administration executive order. The order bans certain types of diversity training in the workplace, which the president has railed against, calling it anti-American propaganda. He brought this up at the first presidential debate.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.
GREENE: So with the order, government agencies and contractors are scrambling to figure out how to comply. Here's NPR's Melissa Block.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: When Michelle Kim heard about the president's executive order titled Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping...
MICHELLE KIM: My first immediate thought was, here we go.
BLOCK: Kim is co-founder of the company Awaken, which provides workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion to businesses. And it didn't take long before she heard from a client.
KIM: I got an email. Let me pull it up. And it said, we request you review your materials and talking points to ensure they do not imply any of the following concepts.
BLOCK: Concepts including the term white privilege, which the Trump administration has singled out as potentially problematic, along with systemic racism, unconscious bias, intersectionality and critical race theory. The executive order states they are all part of a, quote, "destructive ideology that threatens to infect core institutions of our country."
KIM: Somehow, we've gotten to a place where we believe fighting against racism is anti-patriotic. That's where we are as a society, and that's a really scary place to be.
BLOCK: Michelle Kim managed to assuage her clients' concerns, but Joelle Emerson wasn't so lucky. Her company Paradigm lost a client, a government contractor that put all of its diversity training on hold. Under the executive order, contracts can be canceled and funding pulled if companies don't comply. Emerson says, when that order first came out...
JOELLE EMERSON: I didn't believe that any of our clients would be fazed by this. I was like, this is clearly propaganda. It's fascist propaganda. It's a dog whistle to Trump's base. And organizations that care about diversity, equity and inclusion are going to be just as offended by this order as we are. And I was wrong.
BLOCK: The new policy has had widespread and immediate effects. Government agencies, including the departments of State, Justice and Veterans Affairs, have all suspended their diversity training programs to review their content. Universities that receive federal funding have done the same out of fear they could jeopardize their government grants.
CHRIS GOKTURK: It's been a rough few weeks (laughter). There's not enough hours in the day.
BLOCK: Chris Gokturk has been fielding a flood of calls from companies with government contracts. She's with the employment law firm Littler Mendelson, helping businesses with affirmative action and diversity programs. And they've had a lot of questions.
GOKTURK: The most common thing is, should we stop all of our diversity training? Should we just stop? And at first, I said, no, you vetted your training; you always review it and everything else. And then the hotline went up.
BLOCK: A government hotline - phone and email - where people are encouraged to send complaints about diversity training they find offensive for possible investigation. The hotline has received more than 140 responses in the five weeks it's been up. Stanford sociology professor Shelley Correll is appalled.
SHELLEY CORRELL: This is asking Americans to be surveilling other Americans. And this is - you know, this is - it's chilling. It's absolutely chilling.
BLOCK: Correll studies gender and organizational diversity. She fears that chilling effect could extend beyond what's laid out in the executive order and threaten free speech in academia.
CORRELL: There is a lot of worry that this is just step one and that this is going to lead to restrictions in terms of what we teach in the classroom.
BLOCK: The executive order specifies that divisive concepts can be discussed in an academic setting if it's done objectively and without endorsement. Of course, if Joe Biden were to take office in January, he could undo the order with the stroke of a pen. His campaign declined to answer if Biden would rescind this order but said he intends to tackle all forms of systemic racism. Melissa Block, NPR News.
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