Fairfax Democrats prepare to challenge themselves on race

By Sean Perryman:

Following the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party at both the local and national level continues to grapple with race and the role it should or shouldn’t play in its platform and organizing.

In that vein, on September 12th, the Fairfax County Democratic Committee (FCDC) will hold a Racial Equity Workshop for its membership. The workshop is designed to give members a greater understanding of structural racism and its impact on day-to-day interactions.

Essential to any understanding of race is an examination of racism. The construct of race after all was conceived to justify maltreatment of people of color. But it does not end there.

So, what is racism?

With Nazis, Klansman, and white supremacists running for office, taking center stage in our media, and organizing marches on the nation’s capital in a sequel to their violent gathering in Charlottesville, it’s easy to point and say “that’s racism.”

This overly simplistic definition of racism absolves us of deeper self-reflection because “at least, we’re not them,” but it fails to capture the insidious and pervasive nature of systemic racism. To point to examples of explicit racism as the only form of racism make us accountable for only our intentions and not the consequences of our actions or inactions. This simplified understanding that racism is explicit, intentional, and stems from ignorance, however, fits within the popular conception of the term.

Let me offer a more thoughtful definition: In his award-winning book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” scholar Ibram X. Kendi flips that ahistorical definition on its head.  “[S]elf-serving efforts by powerful factions to define their racist rhetoric as nonracist has left Americans thoroughly divided over, and ignorant of, what racist ideas truly are,” he writes.

Instead, Kendi posits that racism is better understood this way:

“Racial discrimination -> racist ideas  ->  ignorance/hate”

That is, we discriminate based on self-interest, we create racist ideas to justify that discrimination, and people internalize those racist ideas. In this understanding of racism, it is critical that we tackle how we all have internalized racist ideas, even people from traditionally marginalized communities.

If we want to be serious about being anti-racist, we cannot pat ourselves on the back for merely not ascribing to the ideology or not adopting the language of the lowest among us. We should strive for better in both policy and practice.

Can we say we have done that?

Let’s look at the situation here at home: Fairfax County has many disparities along racial lines including housing, education, and employment.

The simplified understanding of racism permits non-racist justification of these disparities. Kendi’s definition, however, states that “[w]hen you truly believe that racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” This means that the existing disparities require an examination of our policies for racism, whether intentional or unintentional.

In the context of schools, for example, this sort of understanding of racism moves us from talking about “achievement gaps,” which suggests students of color are simply not performing to analyzing “opportunity gaps,” which examines the features of a system that led to the disparity.

In a county controlled by our party, we need to be critical and understand our role in the creation and maintenance of existing disparities.

Kendi’s definition of racism is inherently difficult because it requires frequent self-analysis.

What do we see if we apply that critical lens to FCDC?

Even a momentary reflection on the demographics of FCDC shows it is not representative of the diversity of the county and maybe that fact alone deserves further examination.

How does it feel to be a person of color in this organization? How do we view people of color? How do we view Black people?

Sure, the party see values in Blackness. Black bodies vote, Black wrists knock, Black feet canvass, and dollars from Black families spend just as well, but do we treat Black people as individuals with unique voices, views, and the ability to be leaders? Do we value their input? Do we view Black people as a group to be assisted or to assist us? (Both are wrong, by the way.)

Ask Black members of FCDC have they been treated as interchangeable with another Black member.

In “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, he presents a liberal white family—the Armitages—as the face of systemic racism.

Without delving into the plot, the Armitages viewed Black bodies as a commodity to be used. Their will and consciousness are both disposable. The movie demonstrates how quickly the lines between admiration, fetishization, and exploitation can be obliterated.

Do we resemble the Armitages? Does it matter if we, like Dean Armitage, would have voted for Obama for a third-term?

I invite you to question your understanding of racism, explore the questions presented here, and participate in the Racial Equity Workshop.


Sean Perryman is Recording Secretary for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. He works as  Director of Diversity and Inclusion Policy and Counsel at the Internet Association. A former litigator, he enjoys writing about issues of equity and race.


5 thoughts on “Fairfax Democrats prepare to challenge themselves on race

  1. Sean: thank you for raising awareness about this valuable workshop. I look forward to attending it!

  2. I think this uses too broad a definition of racism. If almost everything is racist, then nothing is. Not all discrimination is based on racism. Not all disparities are due to racism. Nor are all disparities due to discrimination. There are many variables in life other than race. Seeing everything through the racial keyhole is too limiting. This is also not necessarily true: “we discriminate based on self-interest.” We discriminate for many reasons. This is an interesting idea, “we create racist ideas to justify that discrimination,” but I’ve seen no particular proof for it. Making racial differentiations appears to be, alas, a natural and ordinary thing for humans to do, regardless of discrimination.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Marc.

    Nowhere does the article suggest that “almost everything is racist” or that “all discrimination is based on racism.” I won’t respond to that since those points were never made.

    The point that all disparities are due to racism was also not made but I’ll try to clarify in case it wasn’t clear. The author who I cites point was that significant racial disparities have to be assumed to be due to racism if we truly believe that the races are truly equal. Race being a social construct means that no race has birthright to genius or success. Thus, when we see deep disparities along racial lines, we can usually trace those to racism, which led to the disparity. I hope that is clear.

    As for no particular proof, I suggest you read the book from which the idea stems. This article was meant to introduce readers to an idea, not document the proof for the idea. The book which is subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” is in fact a definitive history. I encourage you to check it out.

    Finally, and not without irony, you state (without proof) that “racial differentiations appears (sic) to be…a natural and ordinary thing for humans to do…” Actually racial differentiations as understood today appeared around the 15th century. Before that, the concept of race wasn’t really understood other than an association with country of origin. And, anyone who has watched babies or small children interact, understand there is nothing natural or ordinary about making racial differentiations. I hope if you’re in the area you’ll attend the workshop or do some work in this area. A good podcast is “Seeing White.”

    Good luck!

  4. Sean, you quoted Kendi as saying, “[w]hen you truly believe that racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” That is pretty much the same thing as saying “all disparities are due to racism.” This is a confusing statement: “Race being a social construct means that no race has birthright to genius or success.” If race is a social construct, then almost nothing can be said about it. The “social construct” argument is used a lot, but there is a spectrum of beliefs from social construct to alleged genetic differences. In between is social reality, where ordinary people do perceive different races. If we’re going to deal with the world as it is, we have to acknowledge that some people see race. Do they construct it or perceive it? That’s a question for cognitive psychologists. In part, the perception causes the effects. There are also random effects, and effects based on factors other than race. One can try to trace those factors back to race, but causality is difficult to prove. Disparate impact is different from intentionality. Discrimination is pernicious and bad, but it’s not the only influence on peoples’ lives. It’s important to study success factors and not get mired in victimhood. Unfortunately, almost no anti-racism efforts can show any quantifiable success. Nevertheless, diversity and inclusion efforts are worth doing. But once over lightly with a workshop won’t solve much. As for this statement, “you state (without proof)”, please don’t play games. As you know, in a limited forum like this, it is not possible to give proofs of every statement. I’ll have to lean on my credibility as someone who has worked in the social justice and equity field for over 40 years, investigated, developed policy, taught, and written on the subject. You may want to take a look at Tom Sanchez’ and my book, “Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity,” Island Press, 2012, or see some of my other writings on social justice topics linked through my LinkedIn page.

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