The premier expositor of antiracist philosophy, Ibram X. Kendi, is admirably forthright about his prescriptions for allaying America’s legacy of racial prejudice. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination,” he wrote in the best-selling book How to Be an Antiracist. “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
As critics of Kendi’s outlook have observed, the prefix “anti” here seems superfluous. His philosophy is a familiar one: discrimination now, discrimination tomorrow, discrimination forever.
Proponents of the antiracist theory of social organization fancy themselves insurgents arguing passionately against the country’s prevailing ethos, but that is a dated self-conception. Antiracism didn’t just go mainstream in 2020—it became downright establishmentarian.
As a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines begins to roll out across the nation, for example, health-care policy experts and political officials tasked with rationing the precious boosters are increasingly attracted to the idea that the population should be triaged not by the relative risk of exposure or vulnerability to infection but based on the principles of “social justice.” Harald Schmidt, a medical ethicist with the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times that the vaccine should be withheld from older populations, in part, because they are “whiter” and have already had the benefits of a long life, which is an outgrowth of American bigotry. We should, therefore, “level the playing field a bit.”
This isn’t just the musing of an ideologue whose constituency is limited to newsrooms. Policymakers are seriously considering these views. One of the co-chairs of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, Marcella Nunez-Smith, said that she was “quite excited” by the prospect of “grounding in inequity” phased access to the vaccine. Eighteen U.S. states have applied the “social vulnerability index” created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a method to allocate vaccines, which compiles into a practical inventory the conditions thought to be a byproduct of social inequities. California is going further than even that by considering the concept of “historical injustice” in their vaccination distribution plan.
Mitigating the adverse health effects associated with the pandemic is just one opportunity to balance the historical scales. The outbreak’s crippling economic impacts are another.
This weekend, Congress finally agreed on a framework for another round of relief spending aimed primarily at preventing mass layoffs while giving individuals some belated but necessary monetary assistance. But for antiracism advocates, the egalitarian distribution of funding represents a moral failing.
The last rounds of relief spending were already inequitably distributed, they claim. A study conducted by the Urban Institute found that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act’s provision of stimulus payments to individuals did not reach its intended recipients fast enough. People without reliable Internet access, who had not filed an income-tax return or did not receive Social Security benefits and, therefore, did not have direct deposit information on file with the Treasury Department, or who did not have a bank account at all got their checks much later than most others. It’s no surprise that these conditions are associated more with those Americans farther down the economic ladder. Run this information through the media’s filter, and you get this headline from CBS News: “White Americans got their stimulus checks more promptly than Blacks and Hispanics.”
To remedy this injustice, “the next pandemic stimulus bill must be race-conscious.” At least, that was the course recommended by Barack Obama’s Organizing for America official Jim Pugh and Roosevelt Institute fellow Anne Price. “Black and Latinx” individuals and business owners, they reason, have been negatively affected by COVID-19 at rates that are not proportionate to whites. “This is not a coincidence,” the authors aver, “it is by design.” Many of their recommendations are sensible—dedicating federal resources to identify eligible recipients without prior tax returns, for example, and opening the process up to Americans with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. But other policymakers have taken their logic to its ineluctable conclusion: A “Black stimulus package” funded by the redistribution of funds expropriated from demographics that are perceived to have benefited unduly from the accidents of their births.
Are the conditions that vex these policymakers rooted in historical inequities? To some extent, that is doubtlessly true (though the disparities that antiracism advocates seek to address are invariably more complex than their philosophy allows). But when their remedy for those injustices necessitates more injustice, it looks less like reconciliation and more like revenge. And, ultimately, an outlook that prescribes disadvantaging entire demographics only to mete out karmic retribution gives way to the most high-minded of abuses.
We need look no further than the Nation’s Brandon Hasbrouck for evidence of such a thing. The “poisonous legacy of slavery” is so ubiquitous, so inexorably interwoven into our “structurally racist political institutions” that, short of throwing the whole thing out, the only way to rectify this condition is to do away with the “one person, one vote” doctrine affirmed in the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “We can implement vote reparations by double-counting ballots cast by all Black residents,” he advised. Such a policy’s desired effect isn’t only to provide redress to African- and Native-American residents but to disenfranchise white people, whose “votes currently count more than Black ones” anyway.
This suggestion has yet to find many prominent takers, but why would quasi-revolutionary antiracist reformers find it a bridge too far? We sought to provide the most equitable distribution of relief funding only for a certain type of reformer to insist that “equity” doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it does. We have spent the last year putting draconian restrictions on social and economic interaction to save the most vulnerable only for medical ethicists to suggest that we should let a few of them die because they have the wrong skin color. These are the fruits of a state of mind that regards rapprochement as less desirable than retaliation. We haven’t yet seen the final form this retributive attitude will take, but we will know it when it appears. After all, we’ve seen it before.