There is a rabbinic parable about a ship sailing across the waters. In the ship there are many cabins and passengers. One of the occupants on the bottom level takes a shovel and begins digging a hole in the middle of the cabin floor. Sure enough, the ship begins to fill up with water and sink. When the other passengers realize what is happening, they ask the man who dug the hole, “What are you doing?!” The man looks at them and says, “It’s my cabin, I paid for it!” The point: When we lose sight of the collective whole, aware of only our own needs, the entire ship goes down.
As a white person it is difficult to understand racism’s edifices and how our decisions impact all of us. After all, most of us are not bigots. We do not condone hate or march for white supremacy. Yet, whether intentional or unintentional, the white masses continue to anchor racism into our systems and laws. We have dug this whole, in part, by not understanding what racism truly is and how it impacts the entire ship.
So let’s set some definitions. According to Abram X. Kendi’s new book How to Be An Antiracist, he defines a racist as, “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” Conversely, the opposite of a racist is an “antiracist” who is, “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Notice there is no in between. One either supports racist policies through action or inaction, thus creating inequity in African American communities, or we support antiracist policies that create equity through our actions.
It is Kendi’s position that since the 1960s, most of us have believed that not being racist has meant treating people of color non-discriminatorily, when it actually means striving for policies that bring equity into our communities. As Kendi asserts, “We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on ‘racial discrimination’ takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers.” Under our new definition, it is our policies and the policymakers we support that defines whether or not we are acting out a racist agenda, not primarily how we act toward individuals themselves.
Over the last couple of years leaders in our own community and beyond have been held accountable for being in pictures where black face was worn or Confederate flags were proudly displayed. Local leaders have resigned due to making insensitive racist remarks; and then there has been the inflammatory issue over the name of the fair. These are examples, according to Kendi, of a “race conscious” that suggests one racial group is inferior (or superior) to another group. This racial consciousness has been shaped by centuries of racist policies that have led to racial inequities and continue to be substantiated by racist ideas. Notice, however, that racism grounds itself in racist policies and relies on racist ideas to fertilize it, and not the other way around. This is why we must begin to define racism according to policy if we are ever going to move forward together.
Since climate policy impacts primarily communities of color, a do-nothing policy around climate change is a racist policy. Since voter-ID laws primarily target people of color, making it more difficult to vote out legislators who are crafting these policies, they are racist policies. Since African Americans are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer, the infant mortality rate is twice as high than white infants, and African American adults live an average of three and a half years less than their white neighbors (or lose more than a decade if living under the poverty line) any policy which makes health care less accessible is, by definition, a racist policy.
The good news is that by defining racism this way, none of us are always “racist” or “antiracist.” Whether one sits in the racist or antiracist camp depends on what we are or are not doing at any given moment. As Kendi affirms, “No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist.” My hope is we strive for the latter, for the sake of the collective whole, before we lose the entire ship.