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Editorial: Sandia Labs needs to shed light on its diversity training

President Donald Trump said he ordered it halted in federal agencies because it is inherently racist and “teaches people to hate our country.” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden described it during Tuesday’s debate as basic racial sensitivity training that simply helps make people aware of what’s demeaning to others.

The “it” in question here is diversity training in the workplace, and it has thrust Sandia National Laboratories into a national debate over how best to address issues of racism.

Sandia, which as a federal contractor is covered by the president’s executive order, took center stage in September after a series of forums left at least one lab employee miffed enough to send an email blast to the entire staff. Casey Petersen, an electrical engineer, said he was pushing back on the training narrative of modern systemic racisim and white privilege.

Petersen said he had tried to point out to lab officials the “blatant lies and deep immorality” in the presentations. While much of the training was moderate, he said, there were elements of critical race theory and “white-male bashing” he said should be scrubbed from future trainings. Critical race theory is, among other things, a view that laws and institutions are inherently discriminatory against people of color.

Sandia officials said his email was unauthorized and placed him on leave. He is now back at work, and Sandia has “paused” the trainings. But the controversy is far from over – as we saw in Tuesday’s debate.

Sandia, as it should, says it remains committed to working on the issues. “This is a pause, not an end to our I&D (inclusion and diversity) training,” director James Peery told lab employees. “We continue to believe that inclusion and diversity are critical to providing exceptional service in the national interest.” Fair enough. But it avoids some important questions.

The trainings at Sandia and other places have generated considerable heat, with claims that range from people being assigned “victim” and “oppressor” badges based on skin color to requirements white male employees do written apologies to women and people of color.

As you might expect, this has been a popular story on right-leaning sites and news outlets. But how many of these claims are true? Do these trainings reinforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender or national origin and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. that people should be judged not on the color of their skin but the content of their character? Or, as Trump and others claim, does the curriculum scapegoat people on the basis of race and sex? Or, is Biden accurate in describing it as sensitivity training that helps people understand what’s offensive to others – something we should all embrace?

There is a lot more heat than light around this issue. Which is why Sandia, a nuclear weapons complex that’s getting $2.8 billion in taxpayer dollars this year to solve some of the world’s most difficult engineering problems, could perhaps put this to rest by stepping up and speaking publicly about the curriculum and what it is designed to do.

We do need ongoing conversations on race, discrimination and diversity. But the key is to make those “informed” conversations. Sandia officials have declined repeated requests for comment on their diversity and inclusion efforts.

Sandia has done plenty of solar research, so its leaders should understand the power of sunlight to dispel misconceptions and conspiracy theories. The lab needs to make this a teachable moment and open up about the trainings and curriculum.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.