6 Common Views That Block Anti racism Strategies

Dr. Myosha McAfee

Founder | CEO of Racial+Equitecture®

In the last post, "What Will You Choose," I emphasized the reckoning of this moment as the tenacity of inequity continues to show itself. Systemic racism rears its head against Second Lt. Caron Nazario in Virginia.

A few days ago, we watched a rare acknowledgement of the unfair dynamics around the passage of George Floyd's spirit to the Land of the Ancestors. Less than 24 hours after we begin to exhale from hearing the Derek Chauvin verdict, another soul, Makhia Bryant's, is now in transition. A day later, Daunte Wright's family and community gather to lay him to rest.

And still, systemic racism persists:

  • In the 361 bills introduced in 47/50 states to restrict voting rights
  • In the series of hate crimes targeted at AAPI folks
  • In the immigration crisis and conditions at the border
  • In who were and are essential workers, and in who finds vaccinations as trustworthy & accessible

It is essential to expand the lens of analysis to include the way systemic racism functions in the everyday operations of other organizations in addition to the police force. I've reflected on how we continue to hold a systems analysis that includes interlocking and overlapping systems.  

As shown in the image, when we look at the inequitable outcomes of unjust policing, are we also looking at comparable inequitable outcomes produced in comparable systems in other fields, industries, & domains.

As I contemplate the leadership called for, the innovation required, and the choices we face, I wonder how many organizations assess the core beliefs that drive their culture and the HR processes for hiring, leveling, growing talent, promotion, evaluating performance, and retention?  

What are organizations compelled to do when the outcomes for experiences of the organizational culture are disparate at the intersections of race and gender? How do organizations respond when these disparities ricochet into systematic intersectional inequities in promotion, performance, and attrition?

You're invited to use this post to begin to excavate some core racial beliefs that implicitly move through the operations of your organization and inadvertently counter your strategies for antiracism, racial equity, and inclusion.

I contrast six popular beliefs about race with what some social science has to say about them. Social science empirics can serve as good medicine to common but dangerous racial beliefs, widespread racial myths, and taken-for-granted racial assumptions.

1. Why tackle race in the workplace? Nothing racial ever happens. Fiction.

As noted in the second point, contemporary racism can appear in forms that differ from what it has looked like traditionally. Race is ever-present. Americans are subjected, so much so, that soon after birth, every American child is classified in at least one racial category and are asked to offer up this racial assignment in most institutions she/he/they navigate(s) thereafter (i.e. schools, hospitals, voter registration, college and job applications etc.).

Given these characteristics, it is easy for some to believe that nothing racial ever happens in the contexts they navigate. Race is not merely a category, however. Race is also a process embedded in the “business as usual” of every organization (Essed, 2002; McAfee, 2014). Embedded racial meanings are invisible and atmospheric in nature (DuBois, 1991; McAfee, 2014).  If asked, most people disassociate racial mechanisms from the way the organization works (Bonilla-Silva, 2001; Omi & Winant, 1994). Policies and norms are likely void of direct racial terminology (Bonilla-Silva, 2001, 2003; Omi & Winant, 1994).  Even more, the practice, policies, and processes of organizations are likely understood as neutral, fair, and necessary, rather than racial (Bonilla-Silva, 2001).  The fact that the outcomes tell a different story may be justified, excused, and conveniently overlooked. These kinds of responses to inequity are a cultural norm, an organizational routine. Not somehow natural, inevitable, or fixed. Such responses to the gap between espoused neutrality and fairness and racialized-gendered outcomes is a signal.

Just because a process is void of direct racial terminology and thought of, by some, as neutral and necessary does not mean that it is somehow race-neutral, if such a thing could exist, or antiracism.

2. Malice is required for a toxic racial climate. Fiction.

If I have good intentions, it is better. I have positive racial attitudes towards all people. My positive attitude reduces racism.

The research literature suggests that whether a person is malicious or not is not the most pertinent information. On the one hand, people can have positive beliefs and it still be problematic (i.e. see paternalism (Jackman, 1994) and false generosity (Freire, 1993)).

On the other hand, a person’s beliefs are not a reliable predictor of their actions. It is not uncommon for there to be gaps between individuals’ espoused beliefs and their actions. Plenty of people believe in healthy nutrition but eat junk food, for example. When it comes to racial+ beliefs, it's not necessarily different (Bonilla-Silva, 2001; Kinder & Sears, 1981). For example, people will espouse a colorblind society yet live in homogenous neighborhoods and have friends of the same racial background (Bonilla-Silva, 2001).  People will say they support equal opportunity and integration, but will live in segregated communities and not support race-conscious policies in their voting choices (Kinder & Sears, 1981).  People will support equality/fairness, yet, deny contemporary discrimination and existing racial inequality (Bonilla-Silva, 2001).

Further, while the aforementioned assertion positions racial attitudes as either malicious or positive, research suggests individuals can hold co-existing, positive and negative beliefs or racial ambivalence. “Racial ambivalence suggests the co-occurrence of blaming anti-black feelings (the perceived irresponsibility of black families, leaders, and values underlies the continuing disadvantage of black Americans) with paternalistic pro-black feelings (emphasizing obstacles, discrimination, and unequal opportunities” (Katz & Hass, 1988; Kinder & Sears, 1981; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1989).

3. “If  I am liberal, there is nothing I could ever do that perpetuates a toxic racial climate.” Fiction.

Political preference on the liberal-conservative spectrum is not a predictor of racial responsibility. Race studies suggest people at different places on the political continuum engage in racialization – sometimes in symbolic ways (i.e. voting against school busing or affirmative action initiatives), other times in aversive ways (i.e. moving to an all-white suburb or gentrifying neighborhoods of color and calling the police on “suspicious behaviors'' and “loud” cultural expressions (i.e. drumming in public parks, black church praise and worship).  One can be liberal, social-justice oriented, and experience empathy for people of color and still engage in actions that perpetuate racial+ inequality (Quillion, 2008).

4. Whether or not a person is racist matters most in antiracism efforts. Semi-Fictional.

In Racism (2000), Memmi writes, “there is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Contrary to popular belief, many scholars argue that racism does not require racist people in order to occur (Bonilla-Silva, 2001). Omi & Winant (1994) offer, “…racial inequality and injustice [a]re not simply the product of prejudice, nor [i]s discrimination only a matter of intentionally informed action.  Rather, prejudice [i]s an unavoidable outcome of patterns of socialization…” (p. 69). Similarly, Essed (2002) suggests, “The term individual racism is a contradiction in itself because racism is by definition the expression or activation of group power” (p. 179).  Unlike popular opinion, these social scientists place a minimal emphasis on an individual’s (good) intentions, (un)prejudiced beliefs, and egalitarian values.  Instead, the unit of analysis shifts from what is thought to be intentional and inside an individual’s head to what is the unavoidable outcome  of structural and organizational processes.

5. “Racism is a thing of the past. We had a black president and now a multiracial vice president.” Fiction.

Sure, in some ways, racism does not look the way that it has in the past. However, it does not mean racism does not exist anymore. It means its form has changed. In sociological literature, race isn’t necessarily centrally written about in temporal ways. It's different forms is referred to as overt, traditional racism versus covert, contemporary racism. That is, racism can function in ways that are symbolic, aversive, implicit, and unconscious. While there is little empirical attention paid toward delineating the difference between prejudice, discrimination, or racist, there is a significant academic discourse about the social science meanings of overt, traditional racism versus covert, contemporary racism (Quillion, 2006).  Researchers have employed many theoretical conceptions and methodologies for documentation and measurement. Bonilla-Silva (2001) argues, “[R]acial practices that reproduce racial inequality in contemporary America are (1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) void of direct  racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most whites...” (p. 48).

6. Systemic racism is too big and outside of my locus of control. Semi-Fictional.

Racial systems are malleable and transform over time (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). For example, the mechanisms used to exclude people from the political process has shifted from literacy tests to gerrymandering and later to faulty vote counting. More recently, 361 bills have been proposed in 47/50 states to restrict voting again.The malleability of exclusion mechanisms catalyzes persistent racial patterns, oftentimes in-house, in plain sight (Bonilla-Silva, 2001; Essed, 2002, McAfee, 2014).   However, there is no need to lose hope. We also know that persistent racial patterns are responsive to human agency (Dovidio and Gaetner, 1981; Hill Collins, 1990; McDermott, 1997; Mehan, 1996).

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Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo.  (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the united states. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2001).  White supremacy and racism in the post-civil rights era. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (1998). On the nature of contemporary prejudice: The causes, consequences, and challenges of aversive racism. In J. L. Eberhardt, & S.T Fiske (Eds.),  Confronting Racism: The problem and the response. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, pp. 3-32.

DuBois, W.E.B. (1984). Dusk of dawn: an essay toward an autobiography of a race concept. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction books.

Essed, P.  (2002).  Everyday racism.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage.

Freire, Paulo. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. (1991). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Jackman, Mary R. (1996).  The velvet glove: Paternalism and conflict in gender, class, and race relations. CA: University of California Press.

Katz I., & Hass R.G. (1988). Racial ambivalence and American value conflict: Correlational and priming studies of dual cognitive structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 893- 905.

Kinder, Donald R. and David O. Sears.  (1981).  Prejudice and Politics: Symbolic Racism Versus Racial Threats to the Good Life.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  40:  414-431.

McAfee, Myosha. (2014). “The kinesiology of race.” Harvard Educational Review. 84(4). pp. 468-491.

McDermott, Ray. (1997). Achieving School Failure 1972-1997. In Education and Cultural Process: Anthropological Approaches, Third Edition, ed. George D. Spindler. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.

Mehan, Hugh. (1996). Between the Skin and beneath the Ears: A Case Study in the Politics of Representation. In Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. Seth Chaiklin and Jean Lave, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Omi, Michael and Winant, Howard. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

Quillian, Lincoln. (2006). New approaches to understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. In Annual review of sociology. 32. P. 299 – 328. Doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.32.061604.123132.

Quillian, Lincoln. (2008). “Does unconscious racism exist?” in Social Psychology Quarterly. 71(1). P. 6 – 11.

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