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Increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are adopting “antiracist policies and practices” in response to societal moves to redress historical injustices. From retail businesses to academic institutions to professional scientific bodies, expressions of antiracism are the emergent zeitgeist in relation to institutional statements on equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Despite these moves, there has been relatively little empirical attention paid to the topic of antiracism, with most of what is popularly known about the concept emerging from Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist. That is until recently, when a team of psychologists from Bates College and Florida State University explored how antiracism expresses itself from a psychological perspective.

What Is “Antiracism”?

The term “antiracism” was not commonly heard in social discussions about racial injustice outside of academia until Kendi published his bestseller in 2019. In the book, Kendi—a historian by background with a doctoral degree in African American Studies—sets out his thesis, which in essence divides society into two groups: racists and antiracists.

In this dichotomy, antiracism is the process of taking active steps to counter current and historical racial inequities. It is activist behavior that distinguishes antiracism from racism. That is, if somebody does not work to dismantle or disrupt processes that are said to uphold or perpetuate inequities between white people and people of color, that individual would be classified as racist in the absence of any explicitly discriminatory views, and even when they expressly find racial discrimination repugnant. The importance of activism is central to the claim that “white silence is violence,” which also became a mainstay of discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Kendi’s doctrine has received criticism for itself endorsing racist ideas, including a call for reversing historical discrimination by engaging in present-day discrimination against white people. Specifically, in How To Be an Antiracist he says:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

Despite the nature of these ideas, Kendian antiracism has become the language of contemporary policies related to equity, diversity, and inclusion within most organizations.

Does Nonracism Actually Exist?

Central to the antiracism doctrine is Kendi’s “racist/antiracist” dichotomy and the claim that it is not possible to simply be “nonracist.” However, new research led by Jennifer LaCrosse of Bates College (Lewiston, ME) and coauthors has cast doubt on this.

LaCrosse and colleagues developed a measure of antiracism that explicitly found two dimensions:

Looking at their data, the researchers found that this two-factor model was present in their initial development sample of 80 Americans and fit better than a single “antiracism” model in a separate sample of 716 Americans. All participants were white undergraduates.

Exploring the validity of their newly developed measure, LaCrosse and colleagues found that antiracism (but not nonracism) predicted a self-reported likelihood for volunteering for a campus organization engaged in anti-inequality marches and protests, a perception among participants that white people need to be involved in advancing civil rights initiatives, and support for tax breaks for organizations who actively support racial diversity.

Antiracism (but not nonracism) was also associated with lower victim blame in relation to a fictitious case of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black criminal suspect, higher levels of officer blame, and much clearer preferences for harsh punishments.

Nonracism was not associated with opposite trends and cannot, therefore, be meaningfully considered “racist,” unless one is to adopt the Kendian dichotomy. Instead, nonracism was unrelated (statistically) to any of these outcomes. That is, explicit racist attitudes were unrelated to victim and officer blame, or to punishment preferences.

Despite seeming to provide data that transcend Kendi’s dichotomy, LaCrosse and colleagues appear to endorse the antiracist doctrine in their conclusion, stating:

…the current work indicates that, in order to maximize the likelihood of meaningful social change, in addition to being nonracist, White Americans should be antiracist. If White Americans do not recognize the pervasiveness of racial inequality and the need for them to get involved in the battle to end it, then they are unlikely to become proactive allies in the fight against such inequities.

Despite this, further work might be done to explore whether it is possible on this new scale to be nonracist but not antiracist and to compare the decision-making processes, attitudes, and behaviors of these individuals to explicitly antiracist people. In doing so, a more direct test of the Kendian dichotomy of “racist or antiracist” might be possible.

This content was originally published here.

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