The city worker v. Seattle

March 28, 2023 | By LAURA D’AGOSTINO
Cartoon Diemert in court

When Joshua Diemert began his employment with the City of Seattle, he was looking forward to a fresh start. But as time passed, he began to dread going to work.

Tensions were running high in the office. At one point, a colleague told others they should “get a guy to swing by when Josh is in the restroom and beat him bloody.”

He watched coworkers reject white applicants to City programs because, as one colleague told him, those applicants benefited from “white privilege.”

The problems started when Joshua objected to mandatory training and handouts from the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, a program codesigned by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

As part of the initiative, city employees were required to attend multi-day workshops where facilitators taught that “racism is in white people’s DNA.” At meetings, employees had to identify themselves by their race. The City instructs all employees to view their work environment as a power struggle, where those with “privilege” and power must be held accountable to those the City has deemed “powerless.” The City also pressures employees to participate in affinity groups or “caucuses,” where membership is premised upon an employee’s race.

Joshua witnessed how the training was encouraging city employees to stereotype everyone, including themselves, by race. He watched coworkers reject white applicants to City programs because, as one colleague told him, those applicants benefited from “white privilege.”

So Joshua pushed back. He declined invitations to meet with the white caucus. He eventually told a senior officer in an email that race-segregated meetings were “blatantly racist.”

“Most people go with the flow,” Joshua says, “even if the flow is wrong. I’ve never done that.”

In response, Joshua’s coworkers called him a “white supremacist” and referred to him as the “reincarnation of the people that shot Native Americans from trains.”

Life as a Seattle City employee was becoming unbearable.

A rough upbringing

Joshua used to enjoy his job in human services. As a program intake specialist, he was part social worker and part data analyst. “I’m not necessarily normal,” he jokes. He likes to make graphs for fun. It probably runs in his family: His brother is a mechanical engineer and his grandfather built airplanes in his garage. The data part of the job appealed to Joshua’s nerdy side.

And the social work part—well, that appealed to a different side of him.

Joshua and his brother didn’t have a “Leave It to Beaver” childhood. Their father was an ex-biker who used drugs and hung with a rough crowd. Their mother and father were separated but still lived in the same house: Their mother lived upstairs and their father stayed downstairs. It was a dysfunctional environment, and Joshua struggled.

“I dropped out of school, ran the streets, and was incarcerated multiple times by the time I was 17,” Joshua admits. At the time, he felt like his behavior was out of his control—like his fate was predetermined.

But Joshua did not succumb to this sense of defeatism, as certain events in his life not only challenged him to reevaluate his initial assumptions but led him to set his sights on a new North Star. First, during one jail stint, he went on a reading spree: He read the Bible cover to cover and discovered the writings of Norman Vincent Peale, Booker T. Washington, and Thomas Sowell. He started reflecting on personal responsibility and free will.

It was on the heels of this ideological shift that Joshua experienced a personal tragedy. When he was out of jail, he lived with his girlfriend’s family, including her eight-year-old sister, Jessica. The girls’ mother was a drug addict who behaved erratically. One night, the mother stabbed Jessica to death. This unfathomable and senseless murder affected Joshua profoundly—especially after the mother called home from jail and spoke to Joshua.

“She blamed everyone but herself for Jessica’s death,” Joshua says. “She didn’t take any responsibility for her own actions.”

The awful incident brought weight to the ideas Joshua had studied in jail: Personal responsibility was no longer a mere concept, but held the gravity of life or death. Joshua knew he had to take responsibility for his life and affirmatively rejected what he calls “the victimhood mindset” that had shaped his youth and adult life. He started to work hard. He married his girlfriend, and they had a daughter—but when his wife followed in her mother’s footsteps and began abusing drugs, Joshua cut ties and became a single father. While raising his daughter, he enrolled in college and graduated cum laude, and later managed to buy a small home. He met a single mother, Christina, who shared his ambition for a better life. They started flipping houses together and became a family.

“The values I embraced led to success,” Joshua muses, “while the mentality I held as a juvenile delinquent was destructive.”

By working at Seattle’s Human Services Department—which has an annual budget of over $300 million—Joshua hoped to help struggling city residents get their lives back on track, just as he’d helped himself.

But then he and his coworkers got sucked into the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) training.

The influence of Robin DiAngelo

In chapter one of her mega-bestseller White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo says that “like most white people raised in the U.S.,” she was taught not to see herself in racial terms or behave as if her race mattered. But that’s wrong, she argues. We need to “sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does).”

To DiAngelo, “Western culture” is problematic because it values the individual over group identity. Individualism “reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships, such as race, class, or gender, are irrelevant,” she complains. We need to reject our society’s emphasis on individuality and instead “grapple with how and why racial groups matter.”

When the Seattle mayor’s office appointed DiAngelo to codesign the City’s RJSI training, DiAngelo embedded her race-based, anti-individualist ideology into the program.

In fact, DiAngelo says in her Author’s Note, “temporarily suspending individuality to focus on group identity is healthy for white people.”

DiAngelo has built a cottage industry out of this nonsense: She charges $14,000 per speech and reportedly nets over $700,000 per year. Her clients include universities, Fortune 500 companies, public school systems, and—of course—cities.

The City of Seattle was essentially DiAngelo’s first client: Her 2004-2007 partnership with the City predates the publication of White Fragility and the massive fame that came with it. Back then, DiAngelo was a lecturer at the University of Washington with a just-earned Ph.D. in multicultural education; but she was already promoting ideas that would later form the basis of White Fragility. When the Seattle mayor’s office appointed DiAngelo to codesign the City’s RJSI training, DiAngelo embedded her race-based, anti-individualist ideology into the program.

And when Joshua started working for the city in 2013, he and other employees were required to participate in the training.

Speaking up

Joshua found some of the training materials downright baffling.

One handout referred to a “focus on individualism” as a “common pattern of whites.” Another listed “believ[ing] that there is such a thing as objectivity” as a “manifestation of white supremacy culture.” (Also listed: an “emphasis on being polite,” a “focus on timelines,” and “valu[ing] written communications.”)

“I really dug into their material,” Joshua says. “They actually believe that meritocracy is a system of white supremacy.”

The race-segregated meetings also bugged him—why was he receiving invitations to gather with other white people to discuss “whiteness”? If the goal was to defeat racism, wasn’t grouping people by race counterproductive? Instead of encouraging City employees to treat people as individuals, Seattle was teaching that race was what mattered most.

Joshua could have kept his nose down, completed his mandatory workshops, and allowed the RJSI training to go unchallenged. He had every incentive to keep quiet: His annual review included an evaluation of his participation in the training. And RSJI materials made it clear that failing to adequately respect “anti-racist institutions and policies” was a form of “anti-blackness,” as one PowerPoint put it. If he objected to the training, Joshua would be painting a target on his back.

But nodding along with something wrong wasn’t in Joshua’s nature—and the RSJI training went against everything he’d learned in his own life.

“The choices I made [as a youth] led to my hardships,” Joshua says. “Recognizing my role in it all is empowering because it means, as an individual, I also have the power to choose success. The City of Seattle wants to deprive people of this power and make them focus on factors they can’t control. They’re telling people they don’t have a choice—it’s all predetermined by your identity. This is hopeless and false.”

He decided to speak up against the training.

“Good Morning,” Joshua wrote in an email to a union representative.

I have issues with some of the mandatory training we have to attend as an employee of Seattle. Is there a way we can have a meeting? Some of it has to do with the material being taught, which I have found to be extremely racist as it blankets entire groups of people with stereotypes based solely on the quantifier of skin color… In my RSJI classes, a few of the things that the instructors have taught are:

  • The 13th Amendment is racist and a tool of enslavement
  • Wealth redistribution is the only mechanism to fix the issues at hand
  • Individuality or the want to always better yourself are tenets of white supremacy
  • Looking at the content of character and being colorblind is a tenet of white supremacy

The union representative didn’t prove helpful. So Joshua tried other avenues. In an email to a senior officer, Joshua wrote that “all of the Race and Social Justice training, including the affinity caucuses, are blatantly racist, stereotype people based on superficial characteristics and apply negative attributes to entire groups of people based off the color of their skin.” He asked for permission to create his own non-race-based group. The City denied his request.

In another email, to a colleague, Joshua defended his decision to speak out. “I have been taught in my mandated anti-discrimination classes to stand up to racism when I see it, so that is what I am doing,” he wrote. “I am standing up to racism.”

His colleagues did not react well. There were threats, accusations, and whispers. At one point a colleague chest-bumped Joshua, got in his face, and told him he had white privilege.

In an email exchange about Joshua, one of Joshua’s coworkers told another: “I look at this stuff like a war. Some people may think that education and talking people through this stuff will do it, but I don’t.”

Eventually, Joshua felt he had no choice but to quit his job. It was hard for him; he cared about his work. But the situation had become untenable. He stopped working for Seattle, then left the city altogether. He now lives in a small town in East Texas.

But he hasn’t given up.

Pacific Legal Foundation is now representing Joshua in a lawsuit against the City of Seattle for imposing hostile workplace conditions based on race. His lawsuit could change the mandatory training for Seattle’s 10,000 city employees, ensuring others aren’t subjected to race-segregated meetings.

In the 15 years since Robin DiAngelo completed her contract work for Seattle, she’s become a dazzlingly successful author and lecturer. Her work has been read by—and assigned to—millions.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, violent crime has gone up since 2007. So has homelessness. If the Race and Social Justice Initiative training is meant to help city employees better serve the city, its effectiveness is not clearly reflected in city trends.

After watching White Fragility skyrocket up The New York Times’ bestseller list in 2020, journalist Matt Taibbi puzzled at DiAngelo’s success. Her work is “urging us to put race even more at the center of our identities,” Taibbi wrote, “and fetishize the unbridgeable nature of our differences… It’s almost like someone thinks there’s a benefit to keeping people divided.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Sword & Scales.