Last month, Lori Lightfoot announced that, for her second anniversary as Chicago’s first openly gay, Black female mayor, she would give one-on-one interviews only to “POC reporters,” referring to “people of color,” on the grounds that she wanted to push for equity in the composition of the overwhelmingly white City Hall press corps.
It took Gregory Pratt, a Latino reporter for The Chicago Tribune, to call her out for the misuse of power. Politicians, he wrote in a tweet, “don’t get to choose who covers them.” Pratt had been granted his interview request with Lightfoot but canceled on principle.
This month, two Jewish clinicians at Stanford filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that one of the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs pressured them to attend a “racially segregated ‘whiteness accountability’ affinity group, which was created for ‘staff who hold privilege via white identity.’”
“No affinity group was created for persons of Jewish ancestral identity. As a result, there is no ‘space’ in the D.E.I. program for Jewish staff members to safely express their lived Jewish experience,” read an overview of the complaint filed by the Brandeis Center.
Also this month, a federal judge, Marcia Morales Howard, temporarily blocked a $4 billion Biden administration program to provide debt relief to “socially disadvantaged farmers” — provided the farmers were from racial minorities — even as she acknowledged the Department of Agriculture’s ugly history of racially discriminatory practices.
“Socially disadvantaged farmers,” the judge noted, could get 120 percent debt relief under the program, even if they were “not remotely in danger of foreclosure.” Meanwhile, “a small white farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief. Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief.”
The three cases raise distinct legal and ethical questions. But they’re all variations of the same basic debate between newfangled equity and old-fashioned equality — between those, like the writer Ibram X. Kendi, who want new forms of what he calls “antiracist discrimination” to remedy past forms of racial discrimination, and those who, to paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, think we can stop discrimination on the basis of race without discriminating on the basis of race.
It shouldn’t be hard to guess who is going to win that debate.
This isn’t just because conservatives hold the commanding heights in the courts, where at least some of the core legal questions will be settled. Courts can do only so much to change culture, though it’s hard to imagine President Biden’s farm relief program surviving in current form.
The deeper reason is that advocates of equity do two things that offend ordinary sensibilities — one of them sly, the other blunt.
Sly is the redefinition of the word “equity,” which in common English means the quality of being fair and impartial, to mean something closer to the opposite: the quality of being anything but impartial to achieve a desired, supposedly fairer result.
And blunt is the racial preference, the explicit segregation, the insulting assumption-making and the overall intellectual sophistry that is antiracist ideology in action.
To have something called a “whiteness accountability” group is insulting to everyone who still believes we should be judged by the content of our character. To expect Jewish staff members to be assigned to that group is obscene, particularly when the Holocaust is still a living memory. To suggest that the federal government should be in the business of lending discrimination when lending discrimination is otherwise a crime makes a mockery of the law the government is supposed to enforce. To disfavor reporters purely on the basis of their race is definitionally racist, whatever the higher justification.
All this would have been too obvious for words until just a few years ago. The new dispensation in which racism is justified in the name of antiracism, discrimination in the service of equality, and favoritism for the sake of an even playing field, is exactly as Orwellian as it sounds. It may find purchase in the usual institutional and political progressive circles, but it’s not a good way to win converts when most of us believe that the promise of America lies in escaping the narrow prisms of race and identity, not being permanently trapped by them.
Thoughtful liberals who think this is much ado about nothing should spend some time pondering how perfectly people like Lightfoot are now playing into right-wing stereotypes. They should also spend time wondering whether the ideal for which they have long fought — a society that, if not colorblind, can at least see past color — is being jeopardized by progressives who apparently can see only color.
Whichever way, it shouldn’t be hard to see that trying to solve the old racism with the new racism will produce only more racism. Justice is never achieved by turning tables.