Alexandra Olson | Associated Press

 From the Editor: This story was first published on Oct. 29, 2020. It was updated on Nov. 12, 2020, to correct the name of the CEO of Awaken. She is Michelle Kim, not Michelle Lee. Update also includes Labor Department comments.

Three civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order that prohibits federal agencies, contractors, and grant recipients from offering certain diversity training that the president deems “anti-American.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed the complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C., along with the National Urban League and the National Fair Housing Alliance. The lawsuit argued that Trump’s order violates free speech rights and strangles workplace attempts to address systemic race and sex discrimination.

The National Urban League and the National Fair Housing Alliance both have federal contracts and plan to apply for future ones.

The executive order “unconstitutionally forces Plaintiffs to choose between censoring speech on these important issues or forfeiting any opportunity to enter into a federal contract,” the groups argued in the complaint.

Trump’s executive order, signed last month, called out workplace trainings that explore deep-seated racism and privilege that the administration says could make White workers feel “discomfort” or guilt. The president ordered the Labor Department to set up a hotline to investigate complaints about training sessions that Trump has called “anti-American” and “blame-focused.”

Trump has said he is targeting training based on “critical race theory,” the idea that racism has permeated American history and institutions. At the first presidential debate, Trump said such training is “teaching people to hate our country.”

The directive uses a 55-year-old presidential order spurred by the Civil Rights Movement that sought to ban discriminatory practices at companies that contract with the federal government. Critics say Trump’s order twists President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 initiative into a vehicleF for White grievances.

“The executive order smacks of a totalitarian endorsement of White supremacy,” Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League said at a virtual press conference.

Morial called the order a “direct attack on our mission.” According to the lawsuit, the National Urban League has a federal contract that includes developing diversity and inclusion training programs for the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship programs. 

The Department of Labor says the order does not ban “unconscious bias” training that discusses “pre-conceptions, opinions, or stereotypes” that people might have about others. But it prohibits training that that implies anyone is racist or sexist “by virtue of his or her race, sex, and/or national origin.”

In a statement, the Labor Department said it “is confident it will prevail in this lawsuit.”

“The elimination of race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating in employment is a key civil rights priority of the Trump Administration,” the department said.

The lawsuit, however, said the wording of the order is overly broad and is already having a chilling effect on diversity training. Some organizations have asked that words including “systemic racism” and “White privilege” be banned from training, the complaint said. It also cited the University of Iowa’s decision to suspend its diversity efforts for fear of losing government funding.

Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO of Awaken, which provides diversity and inclusion workshops, said one of her clients — a private company with a government contract — reached out shortly after the order was issued to ask if she could omit “White privilege” from a speech she planned to give to its employees. Kim said she pushed back, saying she did not believe that language would violate the order, and the company relented.

“I did give the speech and I was extra spicy. Not only did talk about White privilege but I extended that further to talk about White supremacy culture,” Kim said.

She said another client, a non-profit that relies on government grants, has asked if Awaken planned to reformulate its training. But Kim said no professional diversity trainer would imply that any group has unconscious bias without proper context.

“Of course, we are not going to stand up and say, ‘you people are inherently racist,'” Kim said.

Within the government, the Justice Department has suspended all diversity and inclusion training. The government has also canceled training programs at the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Veteran Affairs.

The National Fair Housing Association, which currently has a contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in the lawsuit that it routinely conducts internal training and discussions to address “systemic racism, unconscious bias, and racial inequities.” Those include a recent “informal conversation” with employees concerning “perceptions of White people and other demographic groups in connection with the killing of George Floyd.”

The Labor Department is also using the 1965 presidential order to target companies, including Microsoft and Wells Fargo, over public commitments to expand or bolster Black and Hispanic representation in leadership roles. The government opened inquiries into both companies, warning them against using “discriminatory practices” to meet their goals.