How Racism Survives in Race-Neutral Policies

by Martin Friedman
Associate Director, Social Justice Initiatives, YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish

What is the difference between equity and equality? As we prepare to participate in this year’s Stand Against Racism, our second one, I’m reminded of a conference call I was on several years ago with other coordinators of social justice and race initiatives. Knowing that we all had adopted the logo of “eliminating racism and empowering women,” I asked if the YWCA had a common definition of racism. I was told no. That is left up to individual associations.  This reflects a common issue when dealing with racism: What is it?

For today, let’s focus on racial equity and how disparate outcomes can arise from seemingly race-neutral policies. Let’s take, for example, two seemingly race-neutral policies, such as not hiring anyone with a felony conviction or not renting to anyone with a felony conviction. On the surface these appear to be race-neutral policies because NO individual will be hired or rented to with a felony conviction.  However, according to the 2005 Sentencing Project, the state of Washington had an incarceration rate of 393 per 100,000 for whites compared to an incarceration rate of 2,522 per 100,000 for African Americans.  And, according to the Becket Report published in 2007, if you are African American and living in Seattle, you are more than 10 times more likely to be contacted by police than if you are white, regardless of income or prior criminal conviction. Whatever the reasons for these disparities in the criminal justice system, they will lead to inequitable results in hiring and renting due to a seemingly equal policy.

For this year’s Stand Against Racism, our regional YWCA will host a panel discussion on reducing racism in the criminal justice system. We are doing this with this thought: “How can we, a large nonprofit agency with multiple employment and housing programs, work toward the elimination of racism while such huge racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system?”

Our panel will include a Seattle City Council member, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal law-enforcement officer, two judges and an expert on the school-to-prison pipeline.  Our invited guests will include our agency partners, board members and concerned community members.  Our focus will be how to achieve more equitable results from our criminal justice system and especially how to improve results that directly affect the women and families we serve.  This is just one of many efforts we engage in as we strive to eliminate racism and empower women.

Martin Friedman has been the Social Justice Initiatives director at YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish since March of 2007.  His experience includes 15 years of working for the Upward Bound program for the City of Seattle Human Services Department. Friedman assisted in the development of the Undoing Institutional Racism Group (UIR Group) of employees organizing against institutional racism in the department and city practices, and the white caucus of the UIR Group, European Americans Against Racism.  He has been involved with organizing for equity in numerous institutions in the Seattle area, including the Seattle School District and the Washington State Reformatory.


Stand Against Racism logoThis post is part of the YWCA Stand Against Racism blog carnival on issues of race, justice and diversity. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.

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One Response to How Racism Survives in Race-Neutral Policies

  1. Elle says:

    This article leaves me confused. The state of Washington had an incarceration rate of 393 per 100,000 for whites compared to an incarceration rate of 2,522 per 100,000 for African Americans. Wouldn’t it make sense for you to focus your efforts on reducing the number of African Americans who commit crimes? You then have fewer crime victims and fewer lives ruined by having a criminal history. It’s a win win. You are making a mistake by suggesting that the problem is in the criminal justice system. You have to reach people as children, before they make decisions that will negatively effect their lives and their futures.

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