Modest Antiracist Health Measure Provokes Outrage

'Reverse racism' isn't a thing. Racism is what happens when power leverages prejudice to perpetuate itself.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted April 27, 2021 in Blog (Last Updated April 27, 2021)

I think it's fair to say most white people - me included - don't really know how to talk clearly, directly and explicitly about race and are uncomfortable even thinking about it.

But we need to talk about race and the Hamilton vaccine rollout.

Most white people accept the surface argument that racism exists and is a Bad Thing, but are not prepared to dig below the surface to understand what this really means, what it says about the systems of power that underlie racism, and what needs to happen to change it.

White liberals lean toward the comforting (to us) idea that the opposite of racism is the 'equality' of colour-blindness, where everyone is treated the same regardless of race.

Challenging this, antiracism holds that the opposite of racism is not equality, but equity.

Equity understands that racial inequity is systemic, multilayered, compounding and cumulative, and that you need to meaningfully reckon with all those entrenched, systemized layers of compounding and cumulative disparity before the field can ever be called level.

If we ever want to achieve equity, we need to consciously, deliberately and explicitly identify and confront inequity in all the places it occurs, and we need to undertake specific, concrete and effective measures to countervail inequity in all the places it is found.

For example, when we recognize that there are systemic racial disparities in access to vaccines, equity holds that we need to respond by directly and explicitly addressing those systemic disparities with a countervailing policy.

Antiracist activists in Hamilton have spent months trying to work with the local Public Health Unit to adopt an equity-based approach to its pandemic response.

Community leaders like like Sarah Jama with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), Kojo Damptey with Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI), Dr. Amiel Joseph at McMaster School of Social Work and others have been calling for a policy that explicitly addresses systemic racial barriers in the delivery of health services.

Hamilton Public Health asked for their input - asked them to do the work of identifying systemic inequity and advising where and how to apply equity principles to countervail those racial disparities - and then mostly ignored their expert guidance.

It's only after being called out publicly over the past two weeks that the City was finally pressured into taking the concrete step of earmarking a tranche of vaccines explicitly for racialized residents living in high-risk neighbourhoods.

Even then, the city's communications rollout was so incoherent and shambolic that once again, antiracist activists had to step in and try and communicate more clearly and explicitly what the city was doing so the message would reach those who needed it.

Please note: this single act of dedicated outreach doesn't mean white people can't get vaccinated. It just means there is (finally) some small recognition that inequity and disparity will inevitably persist in the absence of direct, targeted action to reduce it.

But many replies to the city's recent tweet - accusing the city of 'reverse racism' for trying to reduce racial inequity - demonstrate that a lot of white folks feel deeply threatened by any policy, no matter how small, that confronts racism head-on.

What's going on? As antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi argues, race is fundamentally a power construct - and people with power don't want to give it up. So they resist and fearmonger and project about antiracist policies - like earmarking a few vaccines for racialized people in high-risk communities.

We are talking about a tiny effort to countervail systemic, compounding and cumulative disparity, yet the commentary from white folks overwhelmingly centres their (our) own outrage and grievance at not being automatically prioritized this one time.

To borrow and adapt a popular saying: When you're accustomed to privilege, even modest efforts to countervail extreme inequity feel like 'reverse racism'.

But 'reverse racism' isn't a thing. Racism is what happens when power leverages prejudice to perpetuate itself.

As Kendi also argues, 'not-racism' isn't a thing either. Every policy, every action either confronts or perpetuates inequity. If you are not confronting inequity, you are perpetuating it. There is no middle ground.

So if you, like me, are a white person, for crying out loud do not begrudge or get personally offended by this tiny effort to countervail the vast, compounding and cumulative racial disparity in health outcomes in Hamilton.

Save your outrage for the racial disparity itself, and focus your energy on learning what you can do to help confront, dismantle and countervail the racist systems that have perpetuated and compounded inequity for far too long.