Why Anti-racism is so Popular

Why Anti-racism is so Popular August 6, 2020

Imagine that you are the CEO of a large business or president of a university. We are at a time where racial animosity and division has moved to the forefront of our nation. As the leader of your organization you may be concerned with dealing with the effects of our country’s atrocious legacy of racism. You may be concerned due to what such conflict will do to the bottom line or you just might have a passion to end racism. So what do you do? The normal response would be to see what other organizations are doing to deal with racial alienation. And what you will find is that a lot of those organizations are turning to the work of advocates promoting a policy of antiracism. Indeed the book White Fragility has been number one on Amazon’s best seller list and How to be an Antiracist has not been far behind. Cool. So all you have to do now is find an antiracist trainer and bring them in for your organization.

I totally understand this sentiment. It is hard to be criticized when you are following the same path so many other individuals and organizations are taking. Doing what others do provides you with some defenses against the criticism that you are doing nothing about racism. But there is a problem with that path. Research has shown that this is not a path to racial unity or even to dealing with prejudice and racism.

For example, DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, justifies her approach in part to help whites deal with an unconscious bias that has been documented on the implicit bias test. But the work on implicit bias is questionable at best. The implicit bias test does not appear to be a good way to measure prejudice. Furthermore, the claim that there is a unique defensiveness of whites, relative to nonwhites, has not been substantiated by research. Is there any reason to believe that whites are more uniquely vulnerable to confirmation bias as nonwhites? If not, then why do antiracists pay so much attention to denigrating the opinions of whites relative to people of color?

Perhaps there is empirical evidence that anti-racism techniques have been very useful? Nope. The type of diversity training that emerges from these efforts has been shown to have little long term effect on prejudice. In fact, such programs may lead to a decrease, rather than increase, of the hiring of people of color. Furthermore, a focus on privilege can actually decrease sympathy for poor whites while not raising the overall sympathy for blacks. Antiracism may create less sympathy for others and thus less willingness to work with our out-groups. Empirical work seems to indicate that antiracism training does not lessen our racial hostility, but it may increase that hostility.

So, if antiracism is not a good way to deal with bias, then what should we do? Scholarly literature suggests that a theory known as the contact hypothesis may offer us answers. The contact hypothesis basically states that under the right conditions intergroup contact produces more tolerance and less prejudice. While I do not want to go into all of the conditions necessary, there is research indicating that when we have an overarching identity we move from seeing others as foreigners to seeing them as part of our group. At that point our biases towards former outgroup members tend to become dramatically reduced. So logically if you can find ways to create unity within your organization, then you are moving closer to dealing with racial bias in ways that will not happen if you use anti-racism training.

There is a danger in an antiracism approach in that it envisions race relations in a zero sum game. The message is often that whites have been winning for so long that now it is time for people of color to win. This is an understandable sentiment given our history of racial abuse, but in reality this approach can deepen, rather than lessen racial polarization. Research has found that the win win attitude we can find in collaborative communication leads to less prejudice and more volitional compliance in the decisions that are made.

Rather than trying to figure out how to make sure our group wins everything, we have to work at finding common ground and do what we can so that we all can win. This very process can bring us together and reduce racial animosity. It will be hard work. We will not easily give up the idea that we can get everything we want. It is tempting to think that we are always right and those who disagree with us have no clue. But if we can overcome these tendencies and learn how to fashion win-win solutions, then we have a chance to move forward towards healthy and beneficial interracial relationships.

These are the principles of what I call the mutual accountability model, although it is also fair to say that this is a collaborative communication model. It is a model that came to me as I conducted research on multiracial churches and interracial marriages. Religious institutions and marriages are two areas where the conditions of positive interracial contact can be met. From that work I begin to argue that interracial contact, done correctly, is a vital element for producing positive racial change in our society. In fact, I do not see how we will adequately deal with racial alienation until we interact with each other in healthier ways.

There are desires for justice that will not dissipate until they are met. Some have argued that we cannot have unity until we have justice. But I think they have it backwards. We will not gain the justice they seek until we are unified enough to work together for solutions we can all accept. Ultimately until we, across the racial spectrum, are willing to work with each other on ideas that go beyond serving the interest of our own racial, and at times political, tribe then we will not make any further progress in race relations.

When I say mutual accountability, I am not arguing that our ultimate solutions will be colorblind. Given the racial history in the United States, it is not likely that our ultimate solutions will assign the exact same tasks across the racial spectrum. But the mutual accountability aspect of the model is that everybody is responsible to engage in a healthy conversation with those they disagree with and to listen to the concerns of others. In some ways the ultimate solution is less important than the process by which we all have arrived at that solution. If we can deal with a racial controversy in a way where individuals of all races accept the resolution, then we will pull together to make that answer work. If we impose a solution into a situation then we are ensuring great resistance.

To this end, I propose that if you find yourself in a situation where you want to deal with the toxic effects of racism in your organization, first cultivate an attitude of active listening among the members in your organization. Active listening is listening for comprehension and not argument. A good test on whether a person has actively listened is whether he or she can relay the sentiment of the speaker in such a way that the speaker acknowledges that the listener understands what has been said. The more individuals practice active listening, the more they can communicate with those with other perspectives in ways that promote understanding and unity instead of division.

Second, I would also suggest that you ask individuals in your organization to consider what is essential in what they desire and what is optional. To move forward we must get used to the idea that we will not get everything. We will have to make compromises, as is true in all our meaningful relationships. If we are going to make compromises, then we have to know what is sacrosanct and what is not. We cannot get everything we want and expect those in our outgroups to be excited about supporting us. We have to give up something so that we can get more people on board, so it is important to consider what we are willing to give up.

Finally, encourage people to think about solutions that meet the needs of their out-groups as well as their in-groups. If we have practiced active listening, then we will have a better understanding of the concerns of those in other races. We will clearly make sure that solutions we propose meet our needs. The challenge will be to think about how our needs and the needs of others can be met. Let us try to get win win answers instead of the win lose. Think about how we can move ahead in ways that work to our benefit but also the benefit of others.

These attitudes will lead an organization towards more collaborative conversations that can develop teamwork and unity where before there was polarization and dissension. There is not a guarantee that these steps will work. Unfortunately so much of the efforts to deal with racial alienation have been tied up in that antiracism efforts that there are not many efforts to do what research has said will work – attempts at collaborative communication rather than power struggles. We do not have a lot of examples to draw upon that provide us with absolute assurance that how we promote collaborative communication will succeed in our particular circumstance.

This is problematic since if you decide to focus on collaborative conversations instead of antiracism, then you will get strong pushback. And because you will not see immediate results you will have to endure the pushback for a while. You may even be accused of placating racism by your refusal to go the full antiracism path. Doing what everyone else is doing provides some cover, although there are some people who will complain no matter what you do. However, many will provide some back pats and congratulate you for doing the right thing.

But once the antiracism training has no real effect many of those who were giving you back claps will expect you to do more antiracial training. And then more antiracism training. The demands for this training will never end. And I suspect that receiving the positive sanctions from those who support such training is additive and even though our racial situation does not change, there is a high in getting praise from all the right people. So even if antiracism is not working there is plenty of incentive to maintain support of this program. Lots of social pressure can keep you going back to a program that does not work. That pressure helps to explain the 8 billion dollars a year businesses spend on diversity programs, most of which are based on the principles of antiracism.

It is not an easy decision to move away from antiracism and towards collaborative communication. In spite of the evidence that antiracism is not the best way to deal with racial polarization, the safest way to handle racial issues is to implement an antiracist program. One can hire an antiracist trainer and protect oneself, to some degree, of criticism. Efforts at collaborative communication may be seen by antiracist advocates as a cop out and if those efforts fail, then those critics will use that failure as ammunition for their complaints. I believe that most leaders in this situation are risk averse and thus will opt for the safe route of antiracism.

My hope is that eventually there will be a few who will refuse to play it safe. They will attempt to find solutions that lead to enduring changes. I believe such changes are possible with collaborative communication. I have pointed out that research supports the potential of collaborative communication and seeking out win win solutions. But if I am wrong then we must keep looking for paths that are more fruitful than the antiracism direction we have headed into today. Leaders who are brave enough to take the abuse that will come when they refuse to go down the antiracism path will be the ones who will eventually shatter this paradigm and create the possibility of a better future for race relations.


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