In a recent EHS Platform presentation on Anti-racism, the speaker made two central claims. First, she asserted that American society is systematically racist, with every institution having been shaped by racism; and that, therefore, the attitudes, values, and behavior of every person in our society, having been shaped by this racism, is therefore racist, whether he or she is aware of it or not.
Second, each of us has only two possibilities. Either we are active anti-racists – purifying our attitudes and values, making amends for our past behavior, and actively challenging existing institutions; or we are racists, however well-intentioned we believe or claim to be. Our actions and interactions will be marked by racism, even at its best pervaded by racial insensitivity and micro-aggressions. It is, therefore, not morally acceptable to simply mind one’s own business, to devote one’s self to one’s career or business, attending to one’s friends and family, even if we conduct ourself in an apparently moral and normal manner. Because by so doing we are still engaging in, and thus reinforcing and reproducing structural racism, whatever our intentions or the personal quality of our daily actions.
This worldview is the perspective that undergirds the wider social movement that has also found expression in such popular best sellers as How To Be An Anti-Racist, and White Fragility. It insists that every person must make the personal choice to become an active Anti-Racist, or they are, whether by intent or avoidance, engaging in and perpetuating racism, and are there racists. Being born in this culture of pervasive structural racism, according to this view, there is no alternative. It’s an Either/Or. You can’t escape being either a racist or an anti-racist. It’s an overriding moral imperative.
That is why I posed the question for the recent April public forum: “Anti-Racism: Moral Imperative or Partisan Political Program?” Stimulated by this discussion, Arthur Dobrin developed the following general theoretical observations, followed by a series of questions as to what might actually be meant by racism, anti-racism, institutional racism and moral responsibility. Hopefully, these comments and questions will contribute to our thinking about these complex issues.
Introduction by David Sprintzen.
Arthur Dobrin’s reflections.
The human species is highly social but individually weak thereby creating in-groups who cooperate for survival and out-groups, which are perceived as threats. The boundaries separating groups constantly shift as new alliances are formed and old ones dissolved.
Everyone is born into an existing culture with its own history, values, assumptions and psychological pre-dispositions. Cultures define who is part of the in-group and who is not. History causes cultures to redefine themselves, as well as who is on the outside and who is now on the inside.
America is complex because it began by largely exterminating the indigenous people, then occupying the cleared land with people from different cultures either voluntarily as immigrants or with people who arrived against their will either in part or in whole, as indentured or enslaved people.
Unlike more stable and homogeneous societies, from its very beginning America has been unstable and heterogeneous. Both major strands of America’s beginning, as a commercial enterprise in Jamestown, or as a religious retreat in New England, have both reinforced and challenged existing prejudicial norms. New York was founded as both a commercial venture and religious haven and historically it has been in the forefront of expanding the boundaries of social and religious tolerance and exhibiting some of the worst of its prejudices.
With these background sketches in mind, here are some of the things I’ve thought about after last night’s Meet Up.
1. Does systemic racism exist?
a. how do you define it?
b. is racism defined only as it relates to Black people?
c. can one group of people of color exhibit racism towards another group of people of color?
2. If it does exist, in what way does it implicate those who are a person not of color?
a. are all non-people of color guilty to the same degree, in the same way?
3. What is a non-people of color to do to overcome systemic racism?
a. is awareness sufficient?
b. is calling it out sufficient?
d. is acknowledging it in one’s own behavior sufficient?
4. If action is required, what should be done?
a. where you live?
b. where you send you children to school?
c. where you shop?
d. where you worship?
e. where you recreate?
f. where you work?
g. who you associate with?
h. political support?
1. is voting sufficient?
2. is letter writing/petition signing sufficient?
3. is lobbying sufficient?
5. how does racism rank relative to other social biases?
6. questions similar to #2-4 can be asked in relation to #5
Questions for further reflection.
1. A white medical researcher dedicates him or her entire career to medical research thus producing a vaccine for Covid that will be used by our medical system which is said to be pervaded by systematic racial bias. Is he or she racist? Are his or her actions racist?
2. A intentionally acclaimed cellist — such as Yo-Yo Ma — has devoted his or her life to the mastery of that instrument in order perform classical music that for the most part is performed before classical audiences that are primarily white and of more than average income. Is that cellist racist? Is his or her actions racist? Is he or she contributing to institutional racism?
3. A white student attends a college with very few Black students but joins the Black Student Union. Is he being anti-racist?
4. A person donates 10 percent of her income to charitable causes, for example, National Public Radio, Green Peace, the local food pantry, her church, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign. Should she divert some of her contributions to an organization devoted exclusively to a Black cause?
5. If a white person volunteers for Latino justice, does this qualify as anti-racist?
6. If a person patronizes Chinese, Mexican, and Mediterranean restaurants, where there is rarely a Black customer, should she consider eating elsewhere?
7. A person is committed to buying locally but none of the shops are Black-owned. Should she consider traveling elsewhere to shop?
8. Is it anti-racist to read books that examine racism if the books are written by white people?
9. If a white person attends folk music concerts but not concerts by Black performers, is she being racist?
10. Is a white person who acknowledges systemic racism but believes that racism is best addressed by changing individuals’ attitudes and behavior racist?
11. If a white person’s hair is naturally curly, is it racist to wear it as an Afro or in dreads?
12. If a Black and a white candidate are running against each other and the Black candidate admires Clarence Thomas and other Black conservatives while the white candidate is a liberal (and there are no other choices), what should a white person do in this election?
13. If a white person chooses to move to a Black neighborhood knowing that this could be the beginning of gentrification, is this racist?
14. Is it racist if a white person seeks out a Black person to befriend?
15. A physician rarely sees a person of color or has professional affiliations with persons of color because she specializes in Tay-Sachs disease, which affects mainly people of Jewish ancestry. Is her practice racist?
16. In the classroom of a white teacher who supports BLM and also believes in open discussions, two white students get into a debate about Black Lives Matter vs. all lives matter. Is she racist if she doesn’t state her opinion?
17. A white student rejects her local high school, which has many Black students, to attend a public school that is dedicated to his interest in science that has very few Blacks but many Asians. Is he racist?
18. If a wealthy Black person makes indisputably demeaning and disparaging remarks to a white delivery man who responds in kind, is it racist for a white person to sympathize with the worker?
19. Is it racist or anti-racist for a lawyer to quote verbatim before the jury and public the racist language used by a defendant?
20. A woman walking alone on a deserted street sees a group of young Black men on the sidewalk and continues after crossing to the other side of the street. Does her race determine whether the action is racist?
21. Is it racist for a white returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who lived three years in Africa, to wear Kente cloth dress?
22. A podcast series is dropped because the white host once opposed the formation of a union that was widely supported by Black workers. Several of the writers and directors of the podcast are people of color who have also lost their jobs as ‘collateral damage.’ Were those who canceled the podcast anti-racist or racist?
23. After hearing Mavis Staples and other Black singers’ rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” a white entertainer covered the song. Was she racist for doing so because much of Foster’s 19th music was written for and performed in minstrel shows, although this particular song was not?
24. Is it racist for a white person to laugh at the jokes of a Black comedian whose performance, which is before a Black audience, centers around poking fun at the foibles of Black people?
25. A series of meetings “intended to give white people a space to learn about and process their awareness of, and complicity in, unjust systems without harming their friends of color” is for white people only. Is the program racist?
26. A white person lives in a community that is more than 50% African American. Is this non-racist if the average cost of a house is $1 million-plus?
27. A white student attends an elite HBCU where tuition is about $50,000 per year. Is the student anti-racist?