Iowa State professor explains issues, potential effects of new legislation limiting diversity training


In the new Iowa legislation, it is prohibited to teach that Iowa or the United States is systemically racist. 

Jack Nichols

House File 802 bans mandatory diversity training in state workplaces along with banning elements of critical race theory in the classroom. The legislation lists 10 “specifically defined concepts” that cannot be included in teaching lessons or mandated diversity training. 

Brian Behnken, an associate professor of history with a focus on Latinx and African/African American studies, said impacts were felt before the bill was signed. 

“We are already seeing this impact across the country with certain universities canceling courses that focus on race or racism, with university administrators asking faculty to disclose if they teach critical race theory, with the Provost’s recent decision not to sign off on the new Iowa State University diversity requirement, pending a review of how the new law would impact that requirement,” Behnken said.

Behnken said there are other impacts across the board as well.

“But these are just ways these bans impact faculty,” Behnken said. “They also, of course, impact students. We’ve had students demanding a more rigorous education on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion for decades. Students who don’t really know a lot about diversity issues often get an enormous amount of value out of the classes that they take that focus on these issues. I’ve certainly had this experience with students in my classes.”

While the legislation does not specifically mention critical race theory, the “specifically defined concepts” ban discussion of critical race theory, such as conscious and unconscious racism. 

“Critical race theory is not the boogeyman that it has been made out to be,” Behnken said. “What it really is is a framework for understanding how race and racism tend to work in this country. It actually has a very long history, going back to thinkers in the 19th century, although critical race theory itself grew directly out of critical legal theory in the 1960s and 70s.”

While the term and study of critical race theory is fairly new, it has provided modern ways of studying and understanding the subject. However, the ideas and core elements trace back to early Black Americans. 

“One of the things critical race theory teaches us is that race is a social construction,” Behnken said. “Black thinkers such as James W. C. Pennington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marion Thompson Wright and a host of others analyzed how race was socially constructed long before critical race theory came on the scene. Many of these pioneering scholars also understood that racism was both institutional and at the individual level, another important aspect of critical race theory today.”

Behnken also talked about the issues that arise with critical race theory and its elements that aren’t discussed.

“Critical race theory can be incredibly important in the classroom, whether an instructor is teaching it as a theory or whether they are using it to undergird their course content,” Behnken said. “For example, students often have a very narrow view of what racism is. They see racism as the use of the N word or as someone who tells ‘Black jokes.’ Certainly, those things are examples of racist behavior, but they are individual-level forms of prejudice that don’t impact people in a systematic way. But institutional racism does.”

In the legislation, one of the specifically defined topics prohibits teaching that Iowa or the United States is systemically racist.

“Thus, teaching students about the historical and contemporary manifestations of institutional racism — housing segregation, disparities in policing, the criminal justice system, health care, educational inequality, school funding disproportions, the list goes on — is really important to their understanding of how racism works and why it is still a real problem for many communities of color, and also for white people. That’s what critical race thoery does,” Behnken said. “ It doesn’t teach students to feel guilty about their identities, it doesn’t call the entire U.S. or the state of Iowa racist, it isn’t Marxist. What it does do is help people to have a more holistic and theoretically sophisticated mindset about these really complicated issues.” 

The bill also bans “racial scapegoating,” defined as “assigning fault, blame or bias to a race” to address arguments that members of a race can consciously or unconsciously be racist or inherently oppressive. The section also bans “racial stereotyping,” defined as “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status or beliefs to a race.”

While the legislation states that agencies hired by the state cannot teach the restricted content, such as agencies to teach diversity, equity and inclusion courses, those who are leading the sessions or educators of class are not prohibited from answering questions asked by participants in the sessions. 

“These types of training, when done right, offer employees and employers the opportunity to educate themselves about what diversity, equity and inclusion is and isn’t, what it can do and what it can’t do,” Behnken said. “Many people find great value in these types of training. Others, of course, go into these types of training thinking they have no value, but they often still find that they learn new, important things that help them be better workers and coworkers.”

Behnken said these types of training can have a great impact on certain institutions and workplaces.

“These trainings often have real value in institutions with a history of racism and those that have been impacted by institutional racism, such as law enforcement,” Behnken said. “Banning them, like burning books, serves no real purpose but will likely have the impact of hindering an individual’s growth and learning about how the world works and how the systems they work within can be improved with more equitable, inclusive viewpoints.”