Proximity & Equity

The Difference Between First-Degree Racism and Third-Degree Racism by John Rice

"Only when people align on what racist behavior looks like will we be able to take practical steps to make those behaviors costly."

The unrelenting protests, the supportive statements from white leaders nationwide, and the early momentum behind policing policy changes are all indications that this might be a turning point in our nation’s battle against racism. Will we seize this opportunity or will we lose momentum, showing once again that America can be 'a 10-day nation' that moves on too easily to the next crisis, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned a fellow civil-rights activist in 1963?

— John Rice, Founder & CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT)

John Rice, a New Profit Board Member and Founder & CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow — a former New Profit grantee-partner — recently published a piece in the Atlantic titled, “The Difference Between First-Degree Racism and Third-Degree Racism.” In the piece Rice provides insights into racism in America, particularly what he calls “third-degree racism,” the more insidious, hidden form.

“Organizations cannot be meritocracies if their small number of black employees spend a third of their mental bandwidth in every meeting of every day distracted by questions of race and outcomes. Why are there not more people like me? Am I being treated differently? Do my white colleagues view me as less capable? Am I actually less capable? Will my mistakes reflect negatively on other black people in my firm? These questions detract from our energy to compete for promotions with white peers who have never spent a moment distracted in this way. I wager that 90 percent of the white executives who read these last sentences are now asking, particularly after recent events, ‘How did we miss that?’ This dimension of racism is particularly hard to root out, because many of our most enlightened white leaders do not even realize what they are doing. This is racism in the third degree, akin to involuntary manslaughter: We are not trying to hurt anyone, but we create the conditions that shatter somebody else’s future aspirations. Eliminating third-degree racism is the catalyst to expanding economic power for people of color, so it merits focus at the most senior levels of education, government, and business.”