By Sean Perryman:
Following the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party at both the local and national level continues to grapple with race and the role it should or shouldn’t play in its platform and organizing.
In that vein, on September 12th, the Fairfax County Democratic Committee (FCDC) will hold a Racial Equity Workshop for its membership. The workshop is designed to give members a greater understanding of structural racism and its impact on day-to-day interactions.
Essential to any understanding of race is an examination of racism. The construct of race after all was conceived to justify maltreatment of people of color. But it does not end there.
So, what is racism?
With Nazis, Klansman, and white supremacists running for office, taking center stage in our media, and organizing marches on the nation’s capital in a sequel to their violent gathering in Charlottesville, it’s easy to point and say “that’s racism.”
This overly simplistic definition of racism absolves us of deeper self-reflection because “at least, we’re not them,” but it fails to capture the insidious and pervasive nature of systemic racism. To point to examples of explicit racism as the only form of racism make us accountable for only our intentions and not the consequences of our actions or inactions. This simplified understanding that racism is explicit, intentional, and stems from ignorance, however, fits within the popular conception of the term.
Let me offer a more thoughtful definition: In his award-winning book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” scholar Ibram X. Kendi flips that ahistorical definition on its head. “[S]elf-serving efforts by powerful factions to define their racist rhetoric as nonracist has left Americans thoroughly divided over, and ignorant of, what racist ideas truly are,” he writes.
Instead, Kendi posits that racism is better understood this way:
“Racial discrimination -> racist ideas -> ignorance/hate”
That is, we discriminate based on self-interest, we create racist ideas to justify that discrimination, and people internalize those racist ideas. In this understanding of racism, it is critical that we tackle how we all have internalized racist ideas, even people from traditionally marginalized communities.
If we want to be serious about being anti-racist, we cannot pat ourselves on the back for merely not ascribing to the ideology or not adopting the language of the lowest among us. We should strive for better in both policy and practice.
Can we say we have done that?
The simplified understanding of racism permits non-racist justification of these disparities. Kendi’s definition, however, states that “[w]hen you truly believe that racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” This means that the existing disparities require an examination of our policies for racism, whether intentional or unintentional.
In the context of schools, for example, this sort of understanding of racism moves us from talking about “achievement gaps,” which suggests students of color are simply not performing to analyzing “opportunity gaps,” which examines the features of a system that led to the disparity.
In a county controlled by our party, we need to be critical and understand our role in the creation and maintenance of existing disparities.
Kendi’s definition of racism is inherently difficult because it requires frequent self-analysis.
What do we see if we apply that critical lens to FCDC?
Even a momentary reflection on the demographics of FCDC shows it is not representative of the diversity of the county and maybe that fact alone deserves further examination.
How does it feel to be a person of color in this organization? How do we view people of color? How do we view Black people?
Sure, the party see values in Blackness. Black bodies vote, Black wrists knock, Black feet canvass, and dollars from Black families spend just as well, but do we treat Black people as individuals with unique voices, views, and the ability to be leaders? Do we value their input? Do we view Black people as a group to be assisted or to assist us? (Both are wrong, by the way.)
Ask Black members of FCDC have they been treated as interchangeable with another Black member.
In “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, he presents a liberal white family—the Armitages—as the face of systemic racism.
Without delving into the plot, the Armitages viewed Black bodies as a commodity to be used. Their will and consciousness are both disposable. The movie demonstrates how quickly the lines between admiration, fetishization, and exploitation can be obliterated.
Do we resemble the Armitages? Does it matter if we, like Dean Armitage, would have voted for Obama for a third-term?
I invite you to question your understanding of racism, explore the questions presented here, and participate in the Racial Equity Workshop.
Sean Perryman is Recording Secretary for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. He works as Director of Diversity and Inclusion Policy and Counsel at the Internet Association. A former litigator, he enjoys writing about issues of equity and race.