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What is an Anti-Racist Organization?

ESTHER has adopted the goal of becoming an anti-racist organization, but we have never defined very clearly what that means. This post is intended to start a discussion on that topic, and for that purpose, I suggest that we should explore the implications of the definitions proposed by Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to be an Antiracist.[i]

Racism Grows from Racist Policies

Kendi begins with the idea that racist policies are adopted out of financial self-interest and not because of racist ideas and prejudices. The racist ideas and prejudices are created later to justify the policies (p. 42). For example, the Atlantic Slave Trade did not develop because Europeans hated Africans or believed them to be inferior. The trade developed because plantation owners in the American colonies were willing to pay for slaves to work in their sugar cane, rice and tobacco plantations. The racist claims that Africans were inferior to Europeans grew up later as justifications for the slave trade and for the practice of slavery in the colonies. The sequence also works in reverse. Reductions in racist ideas and prejudices follow policy changes rather than preceding them. For example, the integration of the schools in the South was followed by a reduction in racist prejudices in that region.

Thus, for Kendi, the focus in fighting racism must be on changing racist policies, not racist attitudes. Changes in attitudes will follow when the policies are changed. This is the basis of his definitions of “racist” and “antiracist,” which are (p. 13):

  • Racist: one who is supporting a racist policy through their [sic] actions or inaction or expressing racist ideas.
  • Antiracist: one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing antiracist ideas.

If racist policies are the core of the problem of racism, we must understand what they are. Kendi defines a racist policy (p. 18) as “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups, and he defines an antiracist policy as “any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” He defines a racist idea (p. 20) as “any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” He defines an antiracist idea (p. 20) as “any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences – that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.”

Focus on Effects, Not Motives

According to Kendi’s definition, a policy or an idea is racist or antiracist because of its effects, not because of its motivations or its obvious content.  For example, in an interview, Kendi says that the Affordable Care Act is an antiracist policy because its effect is to reduce the difference between the percentage of non-White people who have health insurance and the percentage of White people who have it. 

Focus on Effects, Not Sources

In addition, the racism of an idea does not depend on who expresses it. Black or other nonwhite people can be racists when they express racist ideas. In fact, Kendi devotes an entire chapter (pp. 136-150) to racist ideas expressed by Black people. He is particularly sharp in his criticism of the “powerlessness defense,” which he defines (p.136) as “The illusory, concealing, disempowering, and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.”

How Can ESTHER be an Antiracist Organization?

What does all of this mean for ESTHER? How, according to Kendi, can we be an antiracist organization? We can do it by supporting antiracist policies and by expressing antiracist ideas. In doing so, we should remember that policies may be antiracist even when they do not explicitly mention race.

Some of our existing task forces are already engaged in antiracist work:

  • The work of the Prison Reform Task Force is antiracist.
  • The work of the Immigration Reform Task Force is antiracist.
  • The work of the Transit Task Force is antiracist because a good public transit system would reduce the importance of the wealth and income gaps among the races.
  • The work of the Environmental Justice Task Force is antiracist.
  • The work of the Mental Health Task Force is antiracist.

What other policies might we support in order to become a more intensely antiracist organization?

[i] References to page numbers refer to pages in Kendi, Ibram X, How to be an Antiracist, New York, Random House, 2019.


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