How Not to Be an Antiracist

The focus should be on invidious discrimination, not statistical disparities and social change
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Leaders in business, academia and government are increasingly adopting “antiracist” training and policies in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In some cases, this reflects genuine interest in decreasing racial discrimination. In others, it is a salve for what Shelby Steele calls “white guilt.” Elsewhere, it arises from fear that even liberal institutions may otherwise become vulnerable to cancel culture. When properly conceived, antiracist programs can provide a powerful response to hate and bias incidents. The problem with much of today’s antiracism is that it doesn’t really oppose invidious discrimination and may even foment it.

The new antiracism is not, as its etymology suggests, opposition to racial discrimination. Ibram X. Kendi demonstrates this in his 2019 bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist.” He defines “racism” as a combination of policies and ideas that “produces and normalizes racial inequities.” This racism has nothing to do with individual discrimination. Rather, it is support for institutions that yield disparities. Lest there be confusion, Mr. Kendi emphasizes that “focusing on ‘racial discrimination’ takes our eyes off” the policy goals he and other self-proclaimed antiracists support.

In other words, the new antiracism requires that we take our eyes off what antidiscrimination work is all about—combating invidious discrimination—and focus instead on social outcomes that arise in the absence of racial preferences. The results can be seen in the report I sent Congress last month on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Over the past three fiscal years, OCR resolved 4,656 complaints against institutions, requiring them to redress discriminatory practices. This is 1,507 more than OCR achieved during the preceding three years under an administration generally aligned with antiracist thinking. In other words, OCR is now requiring far more schools to change discriminatory policies and practices. We closed twice as many school-discipline cases and six times as many sexual-violence cases than the prior administration.

Why is that? It turns out there is a price to be paid when we take our eyes off racial (or sex) discrimination. The price, which victims of discrimination paid during earlier years, is that enforcement agencies were unable to resolve discrimination cases because they were too focused on statistical disparities and social change. Civil-rights enforcers should address systemic problems where appropriate, as in major sexual-violence investigations that I oversaw at Michigan State University and in the Chicago Public Schools. When we resolve such systemic failures, however, we are addressing a large number of individual claims, rather than looking at statistical disparities and presuming structural problems. The primary focus of antidiscrimination, however, must be on mistreatment of individuals.

The new antiracism’s failures run deeper. Consider University of Southern California student Rose Ritch, who recently resigned as vice president of her undergraduate student government. Ms. Ritch was harassed by “antiracist” students because she is a self-proclaimed Zionist. She was told that her support for Israel made her complicit in racism, and that by association she is racist. Students launched an aggressive social-media campaign to “impeach her Zionist a—.” This harassment revived anti-Semitic stereotypes and created precisely the sort of harm that antiracism should fight.

Last week, USC’s Black Student Assembly condemned university president Carol Folt for supporting Ms. Ritch. The BSA argued that it was antiblack to denounce anti-Zionism, ignore Ms. Ritch’s “white privilege” and “disregard” the black students who had opposed her.

It is encouraging that many Americans are now conscious of the prejudice that African-Americans and other minorities often face. Sadly, the new antiracism provides all the wrong answers. Rather than turn our focus away from invidious discrimination, we must confront it directly. To defeat racism, we must turn away from the new antiracism.

Mr. Marcus is founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. He served as assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights, 2018-20.

How Not to Be an Antiracist

The focus should be on invidious discrimination, not statistical disparities and social change
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Kenneth L. Marcus

Kenneth L. Marcus is Founder and Chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and author of The Definition of Anti-Semitism (Oxford University Press: 2015) and Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press: 2010).  On the occasion of his recent transition from public service, the Jewish News Syndicate commented that, “In two short years, Marcus did as much, if not more, to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses as anyone in government has ever done.”

Marcus founded the Brandeis Center in 2011 to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in American higher education.  At that time, the Jewish Daily Forward described him as one of “the new faces of Jewish power,” predicting that “if Marcus has any say in it, we may witness a new era of Jewish advocacy.”

During his public service career, Marcus has also served as Staff Director at the United States Commission on Civil Rights and was delegated the authority of Assistant U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.  Shortly before his departure from the Civil Rights Commission, the Wall Street Journal observed that “the Commission has rarely been better managed,” and that it “deserves a medal for good governance.” Marcus previously held the Lillie and Nathan Ackerman Chair in Equality and Justice in America at the City University of New York’s Bernard M. Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

Before entering public service, Mr. Marcus was a litigation partner in two major law firms, where he conducted complex commercial and constitutional litigation. He has published widely in academic journals as well as in more popular venues such as Newsweek, USA Today, Politico, The Hill, The Jerusalem Post, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and The Christian Science Monitor.  Mr. Marcus is a graduate of Williams College, magna cum laude, and the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

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