The Three Degrees of Racism in America

We can ratchet up that cost in several ways, starting today. The first step is to clarify what constitutes racist behavior. Defining it makes denying it or calling it something else that much harder. There are few things that white Americans fear more than being exposed as racist, especially when their white peers can’t afford to come to their defense. To be outed as a racist is to be convicted of America’s highest moral crime. Once we align on what racist behavior looks like, we can make those behaviors costly.

The most well-understood dimension involves taking actions that people of color view as overtly prejudiced—policing black citizens much differently than whites, calling the police on a black bird-watcher in Central Park who is asking you to obey the law, calling somebody the N-word to show them who is boss. This is racism in the first degree. If officers anticipated that they would be held fully accountable for bad policing, they would do more good policing and we could begin healing the wounds they’ve inflicted on black people for centuries.

Then there is opposing or turning one’s back on anti-racism efforts, often justified by the demonization of the people courageously tackling racist behavior. I call this racism in the second degree, akin to aiding and abetting. George Floyd’s death under yet another police officer’s knee exposed the NFL’s four-year effort to avoid confronting racist policing by way of demonizing Colin Kaepernick. When the NFL’s sponsors could no longer stay silent and its star players (both black and white) spoke out, the costs were so high that the commissioner felt compelled to apologize—though notably not to Kaepernick himself.

The final, most pernicious category undergirds the everyday black experience. When employers, educational institutions, and governmental entities do not unwind practices that disadvantage people of color in the competition with whites for economic and career mobility, that is fundamentally racist—not to mention cancerous to our economy and inconsistent with the American dream. For example, the majority of white executives operate as if there is a tension between increasing racial diversity and maintaining the excellence-based “meritocracies” that have made their organizations successful. After all, who in their right mind would argue against the concept of meritocracy?

When these executives are challenged on hiring practices, their first excuse is always “The pipeline of qualified candidates is too small, so we can only do so much right now.” Over the past 20 years, I have not once heard an executive follow up the “pipeline is too small” defense with a quantitative analysis of that pipeline. This argument is lazy and inaccurate, and it attempts to shift the responsibility to fix an institution’s problem onto black people and the organizations working to advance people of color. When asked why they have so few minorities in senior leadership roles, executives’ most common response is “There are challenges with performance and retention.” To reinforce their meritocracy narrative, white leaders point to the few black people they know who have made it to the top, concluding inaccurately that they were smarter and worked harder than the rest.


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