Antiracism describes any work done in support of policies, practices, and norms that promote racial equity. Taking an antiracist stance requires understanding racism as systemic, which means that it is reproduced through a complex set of social, cultural, legal, economic, and political forces.
Antiracism rejects the idea that racism is a character flaw that can be defeated by focusing predominantly on changing individual attitudes. On the contrary, antiracist scholars and activists argue that focusing predominantly on the individual can be counterproductive because it enables, for instance, a person to claim she is “not racist” even as she promotes policies or ideas that further racial inequities. To be antiracist is to take action in support of antiracist policies or to develop and share antiracist ideas.
Massive protests against racism in criminal justice were staged throughout the United States in 2020 following highly publicized police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia. Antiracism experienced a resurgence in public interest and mainstream debate as the striking differences in infection and death rates caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic and incidents of racist police brutality amplified the extent to which racial disparities are endemic in American institutions.
Historical and Theoretical Roots of Modern Antiracism
Antiracism in the United States dates to radical slavery abolitionism. Many abolitionists were not antiracists; they viewed the enslavement of humans as morally wrong but did not necessarily reject white supremacist principles. Radical abolitionists, however, argued against both the practice of slavery and the anti-Black racism used to rationalize, justify, and codify it. Anti-Blackness is a specific and foundational form of racism that pervades US systems and culture.
It associates Blackness with negative value to imply the (often-unstated) positive value of whiteness. Colorism, a related set of attitudes based on a light/dark binary, assigns higher cultural value to pale skin and lighter-skinned people and lower cultural value to dark skin and darker-skinned people. Even when expressed among racialized communities, colorism is an extension of the anti-Black racism upon which white supremacy relies.
Antiracism stresses the importance of knowledge in developing an antiracist consciousness, especially as governments and other powerful interests have controlled access to literacy, information, and education to further racist narratives throughout US history. Across time, political parties, and geographical regions, white leaders have enacted various policies to restrict or control Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people’s access to tools of knowledge. These include laws that barred teaching enslaved people how to read and write in the antebellum South, the segregation of schools and libraries under Jim Crow laws, mandates that K12 instruction be conducted only in English, and the separation of Indigenous children from their families to send them to residential schools where they were forced to assimilate into white Western culture.
Restricting ways in which it was possible to learn and what knowledge was accessible for Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people made it less likely that they would question their assigned inferiority. It also prevented them from being able to read and argue against laws designed to discriminate or dispossess on the basis of race. Under slavery, enforcing mass illiteracy made it more likely that enslaved African Americans would accept, for instance, interpretations of the Bible that some white preachers cited to claim that white supremacy and race-based slavery were ordained by God. Furthermore, the forced assimilation of nonwhite youth into the languages, norms, and institutions of white culture disrupts the passage of intergenerational knowledge among oppressed groups, erecting barriers to organized resistance.
The separation of children from their families of origin and racial disparities in literacy and education have persisted as topics of focus for antiracist research and activism in the United States. As the universities and professions began to diversify in the latter half of the twentieth century, a field known as critical race theory emerged. Critical race theory is a multidisciplinary framework through which scholars examine how categorizations of race, law, and power have shaped and continue to shape American society and culture.
Practiced among philosophers, legal scholars, sociologists, historians, media critics, and others, critical race theory is invested in tracing the history of race as a social and legal category and in framing racism as a central and even quotidian element of American life. Black feminism has contributed significantly to critical race theory. The emphasis on Black women’s lived experiences of racism, or the ways systemic forces come to bear upon everyday lives and social interactions, allows for theorists to identify, analyze, and challenge attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate racism.
In the 2010s the activist collective known as Black Lives Matter was particularly effective in raising antiracist consciousness among Americans. Black Lives Matter began on social media following the acquittal of a white man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in 2013. The hashtag rose to nationwide prominence in 2014 when it was used to protest the police killing of another unarmed Black teenager, Mike Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. In one 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, just 14 percent of white and 15 percent of Hispanic adults expressed strong support for the movement. When Pew polled the public again in June 2020, strong support had risen to 42 percent among Hispanic adults and 31 percent among white adults.
Among African American adults polled, strong support for Black Lives Matter’s antiracist activism increased from 41 percent in 2016 to 71 percent in 2020. Despite garnering relatively little support among the general public and being vilified in conservative political media in its early years, #BlackLivesMatter had evolved into a unifying rallying cry for racial justice in the United States by the time of the George Floyd murder protests of 2020.
Alongside opinion polling, a sharp rise in the purchase and consumption of antiracist media in 2020 also suggested significant shifts toward broader multiracial acknowledgment of systemic anti-Black racism as an enduring social problem. A rising interest in antiracist media had been noted prior to 2020, with books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), essays like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” (2014), films like Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016), and journalism like Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project (2019) sparking national conversations regarding the role of race in shaping American culture.
In the summer of 2020, however, with a pandemic-suppressed economy and record numbers of people working and learning remotely from home, the sale of antiracist books skyrocketed. In some areas, sales of civil rights and antiracism titles tripled. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum topped the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list.
Antiracism in Institutions and Organizations
While antiracism scholars and activists generally view the rise in media consumption as a positive sign, they also contend that consciousness raising is just the first step toward redressing centuries of harm. Black intellectuals and organizers have expressed concern that white people and others new to antiracism may think increased knowledge will lead naturally to substantive social and organizational change. Antiracism stresses, however, that active and ongoing work toward racial equity is needed in institutions and organizations of all sizes, both public and private, to undo racist policies and practices. Antiracist work related to criminal justice, for example, extends beyond ending racist policing practices such as racial profiling to include institutional racism in the courts and corrections systems, as well as racism in academic disciplines that inform criminal justice practices such as sociology and psychology. Thus, activists argue, because racism is systemic, antiracism must also be systemic.
Many large organizations including private corporations, elite universities, and professional sports franchises made public commitments to antiracism in 2020. Some corporations committed to spending millions on internal antiracist initiatives, while others announced large donations to prominent antiracist groups. When the players for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, the league supported their act of protest by postponing all play.
The National Football League’s (NFL) Washington, DC–based team, which had refused demands to stop using an anti-Indigenous slur as a team name for decades, announced that it would undergo a process to change its name. Similarly, a number of towns, cities, colleges, and universities took action to rename schools and buildings named for white supremacists or to remove statuary that celebrated the Confederacy or Confederate soldiers.
While some of these actions were praised, many were criticized as superficial shows of support that were not backed up by evidence of steps taken to redress the ways racism functions structurally within their own organizations. Corporations that announced donations or released antiracism-themed ads and content, for instance, were pushed to reveal what actions were being taken internally to address racial bias in hiring, promotion, pay, and leadership.
Some activists argued, however, that capitalism is incompatible with antiracism. Ibram X. Kendi, for instance, describes racism and capitalism as “conjoined twins” whose origins and lives cannot be separated from one another. Race-based slavery was the vehicle through which white European and American powers accumulated massive amounts of wealth relative to the rest of the world.
Inequitable race-based practices were entrenched in the American economy over centuries such that they were not eliminated but instead transformed after emancipation. Agriculture, which remained the primary economic engine of the South, needed free or cheap labor for the industry to survive. Lawmakers passed the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866 to make it easier to imprison recently freed African Americans, providing a supply of free labor.
Black and Latinx Americans are still disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and the privatization of prisons has granted control of incarcerated people to white-run for-profit organizations that can treat prisoners as workers and consumers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, incarcerated people in California, New York, and Arizona were made to work for minimal pay with little protection and under precarious conditions. In November 2020 inmates in Texas were reportedly paid just $2.00 per hour to move deceased bodies to mobile morgue units. Furthermore, prisons have increasingly monetized services, extracting profits from incarcerated people and their families by charging for access to basic video or telephone communication.
Antiracism in education is important not just for students and educators but also for administrators and policy makers. As the demographic makeup of US youth continues to shift toward greater racial and ethnic diversity, and as technological advances have given people of color more avenues for publicizing racism in classrooms, the traditionally white-dominated field of education has increasingly recognized the limitations of white-centered curricula.
Not only does a historically white-centered curriculum alienate students of color, but it also perpetuates bias among the next generation of students and educators. However, the persistence of white-dominated curricula is a product of more than any individual instructor’s or school district’s choices. Antiracism in education must also address how systemic forces like standardized tests, disciplinary policies, and unconscious bias among administrators, staff, and faculty reinforce white-centered norms, narratives, and decision-making.
According to a survey published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2020, most Americans support the use of antiracist curricula in K12 schools. Seventy percent of American adults indicated support for antiracist education as a way to reduce and prevent hate and extremism, while just eighteen percent opposed it. A program description including teaching students about the country’s “history of racial prejudice and violence, including slavery, lynching and Jim Crow laws” drew slightly more support than the more generalized “anti-racism studies.”