DENVER — Joshua F. Young had a promising career as a state corrections officer, but the White guard quit last year after undergoing diversity training that he says branded him a racist because of his skin color.
He followed up last week with a federal lawsuit accusing the Colorado Department of Corrections of creating a hostile work environment, arguing that the training grounded in concepts such as “Whiteness,” “White exceptionalism” and “White supremacy” made a difficult, racially charged job even more so.
“We already deal with that from the inmates. We walk in, and we’re automatically a racist because of our skin color, and now the state of Colorado is saying, ‘Oh, yes, that’s absolutely true. You’re automatically a racist because of the way you were born,’” Mr. Young said in a remote press conference held by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
The lawsuit, filed Jan. 19, seeks an order preventing the state from using “racially discriminatory training materials” while reinstating Mr. Young and awarding him back pay.
“State-sponsored racism is never appropriate,” foundation general counsel William E. Trachman said in a statement. “Josh was forced to listen to bigoted official training telling him that he was a racist and White supremacist because of the color of his skin, and that his daily actions contributed to White supremacy. Colorado’s prisons are worse off, and the state is worse off, because of this training.”
The complaint is believed to be among the first in the nation to challenge workplace diversity, equity and inclusion exercises accused of hewing too closely to the White-people-are-bad narrative, but legal experts are confident it won’t be the last.
“With regard to the diversity, inclusion and equity [DIE] issues and the training, you’re just seeing the beginning of the pushback,” said Gregory J. Kamer, a leading labor and employment lawyer and founding partner of Kamer Zucker Abbott in Las Vegas. “You’re going to see a wave of these lawsuits unless people back down.”
Diversity training dates to at least the 1970s, but the field has exploded in recent years with the success of books such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” (2018) and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be an Anti-Racist” (2019), as well as the 2020 Black Lives Matter mass protests.
As ideas associated with critical race theory take root, however, critics say the tone of some training has shifted from combating discrimination to promoting it. Critical race theory teaches that U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and that Whites still oppress Blacks and other people of color.
“There might be some wonderful DIE training that would not be offensive to anybody,” Mr. Kamer said. “And then there’s the DIE training which says, ‘Go sit down on the floor in a circle and tell everybody why you’re a horrible human being because you’re a White woman who went to Vassar. Tell them why you’re an oppressor.’ That’s offensive to some of us. It would be offensive to me.”
At the same time, he said, “I’ve been a part of some great DIE training, talking about implicit bias, how we rise above it, what it’s all about. That’s DIE training, too. So it all depends.”
Such programs typically use the acronyms DIE, DEI and EDI, depending on the order of the terms equity, diversity and inclusion.
Kimberly M. Richey, senior fellow for education at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, agreed that the devil is in the details. She said she has seen firsthand how diversity training has improved communication and trust among co-workers.
“That being said, the purpose and focus of DEI-related programs has evolved to the point where they undermine our most fundamental tenets and notions of equality, anti-discrimination and civil rights discourse in general,” Ms. Richey said. “Instead of diversity, divisiveness. Instead of acceptance, isolation. Instead of equality, racial distinctions. Instead of inclusion, separation.”
The result is that the goal of a colorblind work environment has been replaced by “prejudice, where preconceived notions about people are perpetuated — solely because of the color of their skin,” she said.
Mr. Young said such messages are particularly harmful in fields such as corrections, where colleagues must depend on one another in perilous, even life-threatening situations.
“Dangerous circumstances happen pretty regularly there, and if you’re worried about what your co-worker thinks of you because the color of your skin is different, is that going to make you hesitate at the wrong time?” he said. “Is it going to make you worry that they’re not going to be there for you when you need them? Does that change with how you interact in difficult, trying situations?”
Mr. Young worked for four years at the Limon Correctional Facility. He advanced quickly from housing sergeant, where he ran “one of the toughest housing units in the state for six months,” to visiting sergeant.
The workplace environment there was “very good in terms of staff relationships,” he said, but he worried that the state’s racially charged and “insulting” training would permeate the culture. He filed a complaint with the department, which was rejected.
“The fact that his non-White colleagues were viewing the same content, and absorbing the idea that he — as a White individual — was contributing toward racism and their oppression, was too much for him,” the lawsuit said. “The trainings created a culture of suspicion and distrust in the Department of Corrections.”
The attorney general’s office and state corrections department did not respond to requests for comment.
Colorado’s equity, diversity and inclusion policy says the state “believes that an equitable, diverse and inclusive workplace is one where all employees and community partners … feel valued and respected.”
“As an employer, the state is committed to nondiscriminatory practices and providing equitable opportunities for employment and advancement in all of our departments, programs, services, and worksites,” the website states.
The state’s “training and career development resources” page recommends the Kendi and DiAngelo books. Mr. Kendi’s book includes the line that the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
“It is shocking that Colorado state employees would be trained to read and absorb material of this nature, and to be encouraged to support race discrimination,” the lawsuit said.
The complaint also pointed to the Colorado Office of Health Equity’s definition of race, which says it was “created and used to justify social and economic oppression of people of color by White people.”
Ms. Richey said she believes such lawsuits have merit based on Title VII, which protects “all employees from discrimination, including different treatment, and prohibits employers from creating hostile work environments based on race.”
“Employers will not eliminate racism or stop discrimination by perpetuating it, and as long as employers continue to draw distinctions between employees, judge individuals, or assign characteristics based solely on the color of their skin, they are at risk of being sued for race discrimination,” she said.
Mr. Young said he took action because “it’s a difficult job as it is.”
“I know so many good people, men and women, that work there, and they have this being taught to them as if they’re some sort of problem,” he said. “It’s not fair, I don’t think.”