Racial discrimination is not inherently racist

I grew up in a liberal city in the 90s. Color-blindness was the goal for every young white kid.

I wrote a letter to the editor in my high school newspaper speaking out against affirmative action. “You’ve told us our entire lives we’re supposed to treat each other like we’re all the same,” I wrote to the adults and teachers in my life, “and now you’re saying it’s fair to treat us as if we’re all different again?”

In college I read “Race Matters” by Cornel West and learned just enough about the issue to realize why affirmative action was of value. But I’ve spent the years since then hearing confused white people struggle to understand the ideas behind it.

For the longest time, the classic illustration of three children of different heights trying to see a baseball game was my greatest tool to begin the discussion, framed around “equality” vs. “equity”: it’s better to treat someone in a way that produces equitable outcomes than it is to treat everyone the same.

An author I read often in college would tell a story about a baseball game where one team cheated mercilessly for the first eight innings; finally, in the beginning of the ninth and final inning, new officiates are brought in, and they institute fair rules.

Does this seem fair? No, right? The cheating team has had eight innings to rack up an incredible amount of runs. Just making it even at the end doesn’t make it fair. Just like this, treating two people equally doesn’t mean we’re treating them in a way that produces equal outcomes.

So, to the point: In “How to Be An Anti-Racist,” Ibram X. Kendi writes (emphasis mine):

[I]f racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity.

When I first read these words, I set the book down. I had to process this for a bit.

Of course all racial discrimination is not racist! I’m sitting here telling people that we need to treat people equitably, which means responding to them in a way that considers their unique situation. And that means we have to recognize that the situation of certain racial groups—especially Black Americans—are distinctly worse.

So, that means that equitable treatment of a Black person and a white person would, with some individuals in some settings, require us to treat the Black person “better” purely for the sake of equity. That means we’re discriminating based on race. And this author just told me that’s not scary, but instead that our fear of racial discrimination is ill-founded.

Kendi goes on to make a point that you’d think I understood but somehow felt deeply new to me:

If discrimination is creating equity, then it is anti racist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.

That’s it. It doesn’t matter whether the action or policy is discriminatory. It doesn’t matter if it benefits all people or just some people. It doesn’t matter if it feels like “reverse racism” to white people. It doesn’t matter if it’s an imperfect solution.

All that matters is: does this action increase or decrease inequity? What a fantastic metric to gauge efforts by.

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