Is being “not racist,” enough?
Throughout early colonial and American history, well-meaning people opposed the institution of slavery. Many of them were not racist. They didn’t own slaves and likely never caused any harm. They simply went about their lives and would not have taken kindly to being called racist. The anti-racists were abolitionists. They turned their homes and churches into a place of refuge for escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.
Being anti-racist is fighting against racism.
“A system of dominance, power, and privilege based on racial group designations; rooted in the historical oppression … and occurring in circumstances where members of the dominant group create or accept their societal privilege by maintaining structures, ideology, values, and behavior that have the intent or effect of leaving nondominant-group members relatively excluded from power, esteem, status, and/or equal access to societal resources.”
— Shelly P. Harrell, Ph.D., 2000
Power is a common thread in many conceptualizations of racism, which is contextualized within historical racialized systems.
Based on the above conceptualization, an ill-informed comment during a legislative committee hearing from Utah state Sen. John Johnson — a Utah State University professor — that “anti-racism is racism” is unsupported by academic literature and institutional practices. Johnson’s comment, having roots in the current narrative that diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are racist and serve a single political (liberal) ideology, is not isolated from the Utah Legislature, as some of its members sought to pass a handful of bills that targeted DEI in public education and business.
Let it be clear that anti-racism is not racism, nor is it a political ideology. Populations who have been marginalized for centuries do not have the historically contextualized power to exclude anyone from esteem, status or equal access to societal resources. This is evident in the Legislature’s relentless aim to maintain structures, ideologies, values and behaviors that align with theirs, despite opposition from the educational stakeholders, local constituents and members of their own Legislature.
The purpose of DEI initiatives is to ensure that everyone has equal and equitable opportunities to achieve upward mobility, health and happiness without facing interpersonal discrimination and unfair hiring or administrative practices. To say that these initiatives disadvantage anyone is false. One only needs to look at the distribution of wealth, the prison population and the demographic composition of tenured professors at local universities and the state legislature as examples.
Legislative bills that claim DEI efforts are unnecessary because everyone is treated similarly dismiss the existence of systemic racism. Misinterpreting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, as Sen. Johnson did, to push a color-blind ideology ignores the lived experiences of people of color and seeks to absolve white Americans from their responsibility in ending racism.
The heightened attacks on racial equity will result in racist policies if left unchallenged. Luckily, from Utah to Florida, constituents have wisened up and begun to push back.
These efforts are not new. Former presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan denounced DEI-related efforts in his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992. Buchanan’s speech is cited as the start of “culture war” politics.
Political posters of the 1990s look eerily similar to posters printed today, as culture wars became the tool used to join right and centrist Republicans. Placing Johnson’s proposed SB283 side-by-side with the proposal from the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute to “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies” shows where the text of Johnson’s bill originated.
This is an old fight that began with abolitionists. If it is to be won, not being racist isn’t enough.
In 2020, Utah launched the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which includes principles and actions toward advancing anti-racism and equal opportunity for all Utahns. At that time, Gov. Spencer Cox said in support of the compact: “This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about human correctness.”
It’s time for the Utah Legislature and governor’s office to live up to this commitment.
Kevin M. Korous, Tempe, Arizona, was raised in the Salt Lake Valley, is an alumnus of the University of Utah, has a Ph.D. in family and human development from Arizona State University and currently works as an applied statistician.
Darlene McDonald, South Salt Lake, is a writer and director of 1Utah Project.