The man behind Trump’s campaign against 'critical race theory'
On Friday, Sept. 4, just hours before the start of Labor Day weekend, Russell Vought, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, issued a memo ordering all federal agencies “to cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund” diversity and inclusion programs for employees.
The memo referred specifically to “critical race theory,” a previously obscure academic framework that analyzes how the legal system and social institutions perpetuate racism. On Thursday, President Trump continued the attack on critical race theory while speaking at the National Archives Museum in Washington, calling it a “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.”
He asserted it was being “forced into our children’s schools, imposed into workplace trainings and deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”
In the memo issued earlier this month, Vought wrote that “It has come to the President's attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” He cited unspecified press reports that “employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism’ or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism.’”
The memo stated that OMB would soon issue “more detailed guidance on implementing the President's directive” but in the meantime directed all federal agencies to start identifying all contracts for trainings related to topics such as “critical race theory” or “white privilege” as well as anything suggesting that either the United States or any race is “inherently racist or evil” and to look for “all available avenues within the law” to cancel such contracts.
A spokesperson for OMB has since declined multiple requests from Yahoo News for more information on both the implementation of this directive and what prompted it. However, it didn’t take long for some paying attention over the holiday weekend to connect the dots between the vague yet alarmist language in the memo and and recent reports on Fox News and other conservative outlets warning of the dangers of such trainings, all of which appeared to be based on the claims of a conservative activist named Christopher Rufo.
Just three days before Vought issued the memo, Rufo, who’d previously declared “a one-man war against 'critical race theory' in the federal government,” appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to make a direct appeal to the most powerful member of Carlson’s massive TV audience.
“I call on the president … to immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government,” said Rufo, declaring that such programs posed “an existential threat to the United States.”
The message appears to have gotten through. Fox News reported the following day that, “in response to Rufo's claims, a senior administration official told Fox News that the administration was doing everything they could to stop those types of trainings for federal employees.”
The programs Rufo targeted are intended to improve communication, defuse tensions and promote equal opportunities among co-workers of different races and ethnicities, and are analogous or identical to, similar programs that have been a staple of corporate human relations departments for decades.
The memo from Vought emerged roughly 24 hours later. Trump spent Saturday morning retweeting and responding to a deluge of tweets from conservative media and other supporters praising the move, including one that featured a clip from Rufo’s Tucker Carlson appearance with the message: “Critical race theory is the greatest threat to western civilization and it’s made its way into the US federal government, the military, and the justice system.”
“Not any more!” Trump replied.
It’s unclear whether Rufo has had any direct communication with the White House or other administration officials — though this was among a number of questions asked by Yahoo News for this story, which both Rufo and a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget declined to answer. Publicly, though, neither has made much of an effort to deny that Rufo provided the inspiration for the president’s decision.
Rufo has proudly claimed credit for the President’s decision, as well as a number of other government actions which he attributes to his “investigations” of racial sensitivity training for federal employees. He’s also apparently taken it upon himself to make sure Trump’s directive is enforced, tweeting on Monday “I want to issue a warning to every federal department in the United States: if you violate the president's order on critical race theory, I will find you, expose you, and shut you down.”
Rufo’s “warning” followed a series of leaked documents he posted Monday which appeared to show an itinerary for a 13-week course that a department within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had planned to hold starting on Sept. 10 and concluding on Dec. 10, 2020.
According to the documents, which Rufo said he obtained from a whistleblower, the course — titled "Naming, Measuring, and Addressing the Impacts of Racism on the Health and Well-Being of the Nation and the World” — was open to all full-time employees at the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDHP) which, per its website, “works to reduce the risk factors for chronic diseases, especially for groups affected by health disparities which are differences in health across different geographic, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.” The agenda obtained by Rufo does not indicate that the course was mandatory, but states that participation in the sessions is “strongly encouraged” and notes that “those working in areas of science or policy will find the content immediately applicable to their day to day work.”
The documents themselves are not dated and include no reference to the recent White House memo or anything else to indicate when they were distributed. Yet Rufo tweeted a quote from his “outraged” whistleblower saying “we got a message this morning confirming” the sessions, leading him to declare, “BOMBSHELL: The @CDCgov is moving forward with a critical race theory training program — in violation of @POTUS’ executive action.”
On Tuesday morning, Vought responded directly to Rufo’s accusations against the CDC, tweeting, “Glad to report, per @POTUS’s directive, this training is being cancelled immediately.” Later that night, in response to an earlier tweet from Fox News host Lou Dobbs about the alleged CDC training, Trump wrote: “It is STOPPED!”
Yahoo News sent Rufo a detailed list of questions and requests for comment on specific details of this story, to which he responded via email: “I am shocked to discover that Yahoo News is still a website.”
Several of the organizations and individuals Rufo targeted told Yahoo News they were not contacted before the White House moved to pull the plug on their programs, and believe the decision was based on claims that were, at best, unsubstantiated, and at worst, deliberately false and misleading.
Among them is Howard Ross, a longtime social justice advocate and author who is considered a leading expert on the topic of addressing unconscious bias. Ross is the founder of the Maryland-based consulting firm Cook Ross, which has been conducting training and other services related to diversity, equity and inclusion for tech companies, health care institutions, universities and nonprofits for over 30 years.
“I’ve worked with just about every industry you can think of,” said Ross.
Federal contracts for agencies including the Department of Justice, the U.S. Air Force and the intelligence community made up “about 10 percent of our work” at Cook Ross, Ross said, adding, “We’ve been doing this work through Democratic and Republican administrations for 20 years,” helping employees recognize and overcome unconscious bias.
“And the federal government has been doing this work for long before I was doing it.” Ross sold Cook Ross in 2018, and has continued his diversity and inclusion work through a new firm that he co-founded called Udarta Consulting.
This summer, Ross became one of the first targets of Christopher Rufo’s campaign against diversity training. In a July 16 op-ed published in the New York Post, Rufo purported to reveal how Ross and others within the so-called “diversity-industrial complex” have been quietly perpetuating an “Obscene federal ‘diversity training’ scam” even within the Trump administration.
Rufo pointed specifically to a recent “training” created by Ross which, Rufo alleged, was based on the premise that “virtually all white people contribute to racism” and “called on white employees at the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Credit Union Administration and the Office of the Comptroller to pledge “allyship [sic] amid the George Floyd Tragedy.”
Citing “a trove of whistleblower documents,” Rufo wrote that, as part of this alleged training, “White staffers are instructed to keep silent and to ‘sit in the discomfort’ of their racism” and “If any conflicts arise, the trainers insist that whites ‘don’t get to decide when someone is being too emotional, too rash [or] too mean.’”
Rufo highlighted Ross’s history of work with the federal government, claiming that “Since 2006, he has billed the feds more than $5 million for trainings” — a figure that appears to conflate Ross’s personal work with that of his former company. Ross is white, which Rufo said was evidence he “has used his own privilege to enrich himself at taxpayer expense,” accusing him of having “monetized collective black pain to create individual white profit.”
The same day the New York Post op-ed was published, Rufo appeared on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” where host Laura Ingraham decried the training session described in Rufo’s New York Post op-ed as a “shocking waste of taxpayer dollars” and declared “it’s an outrage.”
Rufo repeated his claims about Ross’s training for Treasury Department employees during his Sept. 1 appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show, during which he declared that “critical race theory has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people” and called on President Trump to take action.
“You’re the first reporter who’s reached out to me in all this time,” Ross said during an interview with Yahoo News. “Carlson's show never reached out to me, Laura Ingraham's show never reached out to me, the New York Post never reached out to me.”
Ross said that Rufo never tried to contact him either. Had he (or anyone else), they would’ve likely encountered a drastically different version of events from the one described by Rufo — starting with the fact that the”divisive diversity training” Rufo has attributed to Ross “was neither mandatory nor a training.”
Rather, Ross told Yahoo News that the virtual event, which took place on June 24, was an optional, town hall-style interview featuring Ross as well as Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the national chair of the National Council for Negro Women, and moderated by Rodney Hood, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration and the first African-American ever appointed to head a federal banking agency.
Ross said that, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, officials with the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at the Treasury Department contacted him and Dr. Cole about facilitating a conversation about current dynamics related to race in society “and what people could do to develop greater allyship and to work together to resolve some of these issues.” Other fiscal agencies that participated in the event included the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve Board, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A flier for the webinar, titled “Beyond Words: Race Work and Allyship amid the George Floyd Tragedy” clearly outlines the details of the event and its objectives.
Nearly 9,000 employees of the agencies involved accepted the invitation to participate, according to Lorraine Cole, director of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion for the Treasury Department, who mentioned the event in her testimony at a hearing last week before the House Financial Services Committee Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion.
“That’s a lot of people, and I think it just shows how much interest people have right now,” said Ross, emphasizing that “it was a voluntary session, nobody was required to be there.”
The “trove of whistleblower documents” which Rufo posted on his website, are not, as he claims, the syllabus of a “divisive ‘diversity training’ at the Treasury Department,” but rather a handbook of optional recommendations and resources that Ross said he and Cole developed as a companion piece to the webinar. The document, titled “Navigation Guide for Difficult Conversations about Race in Troubling Times,” which was made available online for employees of the federal financial agencies and apparently leaked to Rufo, includes a variety of tips for facilitating conversations about race as well as a list of books, articles, YouTube videos and other recommended materials for better understanding things like civil rights history, systemic racism and white privilege.
Ross said that Rufo appears to have selected “a handful of sentences” from that handbook “and posted them as the content of the training.” Rufo declined to comment or respond to questions presented by Yahoo News regarding the apparent inaccuracies in his description of this event, including why he chose to highlight Ross’s race.
Beyond Rufo’s mischaracterization of this particular event, which Ross said resulted in “quite a bit of hate mail” (most of it anti-Semitic), Ross insisted that the “bigger issue” is the way Rufo, and now the White House, have generally mischaracterized diversity training, “which is a huge body of work that's been going on for 40 years,” as “somehow about tearing down white men or tearing down America.”
“If anything, it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s about lifting us to the ideals that this nation was built on and giving everyone the opportunity to be successful in life by working hard and working well and being given a fair shot.”
Rufo treats critical race theory as an extremist ideology but also uses the term as a catch-all for anything related to diversity and inclusion programs, which Ross says is misleading.
“Critical race theory is a particular academic body of work … that’s based on the way race has impacted American history,” Ross said. “The idea is that in order to understand who we are, and in order to get better at being who we say we want to be as a country, that we should understand where we came from.”
Ross said that while he’s studied critical race theory, he’s not “an orthodox proponent of that particular way of thinking” and the programs he developed are not built around it.
The notion put forth by Rufo, that all diversity training work is based on critical race theory, “is just not accurate.”
In fact, Bill Proudman, who has been working in the field of diversity and inclusion for about 25 years, said he’d never even heard of critical race theory until a few weeks ago, when a training program conducted by his consulting firm, White Men as Full Diversity Partners, also wound up in Rufo’s crosshairs.
“Obviously our work is not built off of that, because I’m one of the founders of the firm, I’ve never heard of it before. I don’t really know anything about it,” said Proudman.
In a phone interview with Yahoo News, Proudman explained that his firm, which focuses specifically on engaging white male business leaders in diversity and inclusion efforts, was borne out of the realization that, in many organizations, issues relating to gender and race are often outsourced to women and people of color when, in reality, “These are people issues that affect all employees. Not to the same degree, but to different degrees.”
“Our work is helping white men ... understand at a personal level, their unique role, both as individuals and also as a member of this white male group, as potential leaders and partners in [creating] a more inclusive culture,” Proudman said. “If someone wants to call that critical race theory, that’s interesting and I’m all open to hear about that, but that’s news to me.”
Though WMFDP primarily works with corporate clients, Proudman said a “very, very small percentage” of the firm’s business comes from the federal government. Over the past several years, that has included conducting training for Sandia National Laboratories, a federally funded research and development lab run by the National Nuclear Security Administration, tasked with testing and maintaining the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons systems.
Last month, Chris Rufo posted another set of leaked documents from a training seminar which WMFDP conducted for Sandia Labs called “White Men’s Caucus on Eliminating Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Organizations.” On Twitter and his website, Rufo described the program as “a 3-day reeducation camp for ‘white males,’ with the goal of exposing their ‘white privilege’ and deconstructing ‘white male culture.’”
One day after Rufo posted the documents, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sent a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Under Secretary for Nuclear Security at the National Nuclear Security Administration, calling the reported content of the Sandia National Labs trainings “deeply disturbing” and urging the Energy Department to “immediately undertake a comprehensive review of its procedures and practices to ensure that taxpayers are no longer required to fund such divisive and ineffective trainings.”
Less than a week later, Brouillette sent a letter in response to Hawley’s stating that, “If the allegations outlined in your letter are accurate, this would indeed be troubling. I have launched an investigation to determine the facts surrounding this matter. In addition, I have requested that the Department's Inspector General initiate an independent investigation.” In a Facebook post dated Aug. 20, Rufo shared a screenshot of Brouillette’s letter on Facebook, calling it “a major victory in my one-man war against critical race theory in the federal government.”
Rufo mentioned his “investigation” of the Sandia National Labs training during his Tucker Carlson appearance — adding to what Proudman referred to as “a self-propagating circle of misinformation” that has resulted in the White House’s conclusion that “doing work on white privilege is un-American.”
Rufo’s assertions reflect what Proudman said is a common fear, particularly among straight white men, of being “personally blamed and shamed” for systemic racism and other societal inequities that have benefited them in ways they often don’t even recognize.
“It’s actually one of the reasons why we do this specific piece of work for white men, is to counter and contradict the notion that white men are somehow personally responsible for this,” said Proudman. “We say to white men: No, this isn’t your fault. But to not understand that this systemic inequality is operating is really impacting in a negative way your effectiveness as a leader and partner with other people at work, including other white men.”
“This work is not political,” Proudman said. “This work is about humans and connections, but it's become political.”
Proudman said he has not been contacted by anyone at the Department of Energy regarding an investigation of the Sandia Labs training.
According to a memo issued by the Department of Energy’s general counsel on Sept. 4 and obtained by Yahoo News, the secretary of energy officially created a task force on Aug. 25 to investigate “all aspects related to certain allegations and reports concerning diversity, equity and inclusion sessions provided to personnel at Department of Energy Laboratories.” The memo instructed the heads of the national labs to “please suspend the training sessions” pending the investigation.
Over the weekend, Rufo tweeted that Sandia Labs canceled an upcoming training session and “has suspended their critical race theory programs. WE. SHUT. THEM. DOWN.” The tweet, like many of those posted by Rufo about this particular subject, concluded with an emoji of two crossed swords.
Christopher Rufo’s war on critical race theory appears to be a relatively recent endeavor for the 36-year-old self-described “dissident intellectual,” whose résumé includes a handful of documentary films, a short-lived campaign for the Seattle City Council and a growing list of titles at conservative think tanks.
A 2017 Lincoln fellow at the Claremont Institute (along with conservative provocateur James O’Keefe), Rufo now serves as the director of the Center on Wealth, Poverty & Morality at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit known for promoting the pseudoscientific concept of “intelligent design” as an alternative explanation for the evolution of life. He’s also a contributing editor at City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, and, as of last month, a visiting fellow in domestic policy studies at the influential Heritage Foundation.
Much of Rufo’s work over the last few years has focused on issues of crime, poverty and, in particular, homelessness in Seattle and other West Coast cities, which Rufo argues is not a “a housing problem” but “a human problem that involves addiction, mental illness and the collapse of the family.” In 2018, he attempted to bring his ideas on how to solve Seattle’s homelessness crisis in a run for city council, going after the city’s “activist class” and elected “ideologues” in a slickly produced campaign ad. However, he dropped out of the race after less than two months citing online harassment and threats against him and his family which he blamed on “activists.”
During a virtual interview on Wednesday with Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute, Rufo explained that he “stumbled into” his recent fight against diversity training after receiving a tip from a municipal worker in Seattle about a training session titled “Internalized Racial Superiority” that the city’s Office of Civil Rights had held in June for white city employees. Rufo said he filed a public records request for the training materials from the session, which he published online, accusing the city of Seattle of conducting segregated “whites-only” trainings.
After that, Rufo said, he “started getting leaks from other institutions” about similar programs for federal employees.
“I think diversity is great, I think inclusion is awesome, I think equality is paramount, but these trainings are not these things,” Rufo said. “These trainings are really insidious and toxic and likely illegal, frankly, because they constitute racial harassment.”
Late last month, the Seattle Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice Employment Litigation Section has since launched in inquiry into the June training for white Seattle municipal employees, as well as a parallel session that had been held for the city’s employees of color, suggesting that the separate trainings may “may be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race.”
According to the Seattle Times, city officials have denied that trainings broke any laws, stating that the sessions “were neither mandatory nor exclusionary,” and were among a variety of courses that have been regularly offered to city employees since 2005 as part of the Office of Civil Rights Race and Social Justice Initiatives. Mayor Jenny Durkan called the probe “a stunning illustration of the administration’s warped priorities.”
It's unclear whether and to what degree Rufo’s work is being sponsored or driven by any of the conservative think tanks with which he’s affiliated. In addition to his Twitter feed and personal website, a number of his reports have also been posted on City Journal and the Diversity Institute websites. However, he recently directed followers interested in supporting this effort to a page on his personal website soliciting monthly and one-time financial contributions.
Matthew Kincaid, founder and CEO of Overcoming Racism, a New Orleans-based organization that leads antiracism and equity trainings, compared the White House’s effort to ban diversity trainings to “a modern-day book burning.”
Vought’s memo, he said, is “so riddled with inaccuracies and fear mongering” that it’s almost “a distraction from the fact that Trump’s action is the latest in a long history of government efforts to “silence individuals and entities that have tried to fight systemic racism.”
Ultimately, Kincaid said, such efforts are “a symbol of the progress we’re making.”
In addition to creating more equal opportunities and improving morale within organizations, research has shown that businesses with more diverse executive teams, both in terms of gender as well as race and ethnicity, are more competitive and profitable. Since at least 2018, nearly every Fortune 500 company has offered some sort of diversity training.
In light of nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ross said that, at least “in corporate America, the call for this work is accelerating.”
“I think most people, leaders of most organizations, realize that it makes sense for people to know how to treat each other with respect, and how to treat each other equitably so that you can get the best people and keep the best people, and you can have environments in which everyone can work together well,” said Ross. Still, he said he was more disappointed than surprised to learn of the White House’s order barring federally funded diversity training.
“Any time you’re doing something that is trying to change societal norms, you know that there are going to be some people who don’t like it,” he said. “When people have gotten an advantage for a long time … and you try to equalize things, it feels to people like they’re being discriminated against.”
After all, Ross said, “societal norms don’t exist because nobody likes them, they exist because they’re serving certain people.”
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