When the city of Seattle hired Joshua Diemert in 2013, his title was "program intake representative" and his job was to connect city residents with public resources. He quit after nine years, convinced he could no longer continue working at an office that he says subjected him to pervasive racial harassment and discrimination.
"It's the culture of the workplace, how people talk to you," Diemert tells Reason. "You can't get away from it." In November 2022 he filed suit, alleging that the city's racially hostile work environment harmed his mental and physical health.
What makes his situation unusual among racial discrimination cases is that Diemert is a white man. His tormenters, he argues, were motivated by so-called antiracism training under the auspices of the city government's Racial and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI).
"The city of Seattle believes that race representation is paramount, and they believe that people should not be judged by their individuality or their individual actions, but should be judged by their collective race," says Diemert. "In fact, they say that if you judge people by individuality, that was actually a tool of white supremacy used to oppress people of color."
The environment Diemert describes is almost too toxic and oppressive to be believed; in his account, Seattle's RSJI program sounds like a conservative's nightmare about a progressive workplace—something that would be brutally parodied on South Park or Portlandia. But his complaint is well-supported by hard evidence: actual copies of documents from the bizarre antiracism training that the city uses. Indeed, these documents can still be found on the city's RSJI website.
The training is based on the extremely controversial and much-criticized work of Tema Okun, a consultant who identifies perfectionism, timeliness, a sense of urgency, and writing things down as aspects of "white supremacy culture." (Okun is a white woman.) Okun has had a significant influence on the diversity and equity industry, and these ideas frequently come up in training materials for educational seminars. Similar work by the author Judith Katz—also a white woman—previously appeared on the website for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Okun was recently interviewed by The Intercept's Ryan Grim, who has reported at length on the dysfunction within progressive organizations. She expressed profound misgivings about the weaponization of her work and asked Grim to publicize an updated version in which she qualifies many of her original claims.
"It became clear to me that quite a few people were misusing it," she said.
The city of Seattle may provide a case study in such misuse.
According to Diemert, a supervisor berated him for refusing to step down and yield his job to a person of color. He says he was asked, "What could a straight white male possibly offer our department?" And he says he was frequently made to participate in RSJI training, which involved insulting games and activities designed to address his alleged complicity in white supremacy.
"On multiple occasions in the trainings, I was forced to do things like play privilege bingo or stand up in front of everyone and rank myself within a racist continuum," he says.
Declining to participate was hardly an option: This was labeled "white silence," a significant transgression. Opposing the agenda was even worse, of course.
"If I disagreed or offered another opinion, I was told I had cognitive dissonance, and my defensiveness was evidence of being a racist white supremacist," he says.
RSJI's explicit mission statement was to inject race-based considerations into government work. One document summarizing the initiative's priorities listed colorblindness, not as a positive thing, but as a hindrance to be overcome. Another described colorblindness as "centering whiteness."
"Institutionalizing the Racial Equity Toolkit has become our most pressing priority because we know that the impacts of racial inequities cannot be assessed or addressed without interrupting the color blind ways departments make decisions."
Diemert says that his former colleagues took this mission very seriously. In fact, he discovered that one coworker had rejected a qualified white applicant from a public assistance program specifically because of the applicant's race.
"I asked her, well, this doesn't make sense to me," he recalled. "Why did you deny this person? And she said, well, because they have white privilege."
Diemert says he reported the matter to his supervisor—it was, in his view, obvious racial discrimination—but nothing was done about it.
A similar philosophy guided the city's hiring practices. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and layoffs became necessary, supervisors openly discussed strategies for starting with white employees, and using RSJI as a pretext.
Training sessions felt more like struggle sessions. At one workshop, "Undoing Institutional Racism," white people were described as devils and cannibals with racism in their DNA, according to Diemert. Another session, "Internalized Racial Superiority," was targeted specifically at white and white-identifying employees.
On December 23, 2020, Diemert filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that said RSJI principles were creating a racially hostile and discriminatory workplace. The city's human resources department investigated the complaint. Diemert was not particularly surprised when the lead investigator cleared the city of any wrongdoing, since the investigator was himself part of an entity operating under the RSJI banner.
Diemert's lawsuit, which was amended last month to include additional claims that Seattle violated local and state law, alleges that the city pervasively violated his constitutional rights. The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a libertarian public interest law firm, is representing him.
"The freedom to be treated with dignity and be treated as an individual regardless of your skin color is something that Pacific Legal Foundation absolutely protects and advocates," says PLF attorney Andrew Quinio. "And that's why we took on Joshua's case."
The city of Seattle did not respond to a request for comment.
"Diversity, equity, and inclusion" is the mantra of a kind of training module ostensibly focused on eliminating racism in the schools, businesses, and government. Related concerns about "critical race theory"—a not-always-well-defined concept that is often lumped in with the work done by consultants like Okun—have become central to the Republican Party's campaigns against alleged political indoctrination in K-12 education, government contracts, and corporate America.
Some liberals claim that these concerns are exaggerated, and they correctly point out that GOP efforts to purge critical race theory are often as mixed-up as the concept itself. Even the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, renowned for his invectives against wokeness, has advised against trying to ban the teaching of concepts from critical race theory in schools.
But it should be uncontroversial to state that the government should not practice racial discrimination, especially in the name of promoting antiracism. And whatever the initial intention, Okun's work on white supremacy culture has clearly harmed many workplaces—something that's not lost on her.
Her work, she insisted, has "been well-used by lots and lots of people." But she concedes that this hasn't always been the case. "I've heard a story about a young white man here locally, who went after a black woman who was his supervisor with the list," she told The Intercept. "I've heard about young white people going after both white bosses and people of color bosses. I've heard about Black, Indigenous, and people of color employees going against white bosses. So [the work] has been misused by lots and lots of people."
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