During the week in which Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five officers in Dallas were killed, a friend of mine emailed me and wanted to discuss a phrase that I had used on social media quite a bit. That phrase was “systemic racism.” He wanted to know what was meant when people used it because it could be interpreted in lots of different ways.
Considering the kind of responses that we all saw on social media that week, the respect and kindness that was shown by my friend was a breath of fresh air! So I spent an hour or so writing out how I define “systemic racism” and why I define it that way. I’m no expert by any means, but this is an issue that I care a lot about. So…
Here’s what I wrote (with a few minor edits and a few links included):
I think you picked the right place to start — “systemic racism.” … It’s not often that the term is defined carefully and even when it is, not many people listen.
Here’s the way I define it: Our system as a society in the United States is bent against people of color, especially black people.
It began before there was a United States with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and continued through Antebellum slavery.
After the Civil War when black folks were free, they had few places to go. This period, called Reconstruction, was a really trying time for most black people.
Many black people, if not most, ended up moving to northern cities looking for work or because they were forced out of the their homes in the south. Since very few white people (both in the north and south) wanted to live with them, they were forced (sometimes by law) to move into downtown areas. These areas were devoid of jobs that they could do.
Other groups already living in those areas (most notably immigrant groups), especially the Irish, Italians, and various Asians, have had an easier, but still quite difficult, go of it in our country. And when black folks moved into the inner-cities, many of these other groups moved out (at least those who could afford to often did).
That left very little work for black folks and not many other people groups cared.
In the midst of this horrid situation, it’s natural enough that crime began to rise. People needed money for food and shelter. Eventually the criminal element began to organize, just like it did with the Irish, the Italians, and other groups before. (Side note: for whatever reason, we call black organized crime “gangs” and that of other groups “the mob” or “the mafia.”)
Anyway, while this was going on almost no laws were made to assist, aid, or protect black people. They were slaves and then they weren’t. Black folks were set off on their own. And when some of them weren’t succeeding, people (especially white people) said, “work harder.” And many, many black foks did just that. Or that tried to…but many couldn’t find work. And even for those who found work, it was almost never a “good enough” job to help get them out of their predicament.
But no one really cared.
Well, that’s not entirely true. A few people cared a lot…so much so that they worked tooth and nail to ensure that black people continued to have a hard time.
Many cities and counties passed laws limiting where black people could live, where they could be educated, whether or not they could vote, etc. This is what we all call the Jim Crow era and these laws and policies are called Jim Crow laws. Some people even hated black people enough to kill them for little or no reason. Public lynchings were happening fairly often in the south and, for the most part, most of the murderers were never caught, tried, and brought to justice. As if they needed another reason, but most black people at this time had no faith in the governments of the cities, counties, states, or even of the US.
Then, as you might expect, in the 1950s and 60s black civil rights advocates began to rise up, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Rosa Parks, and others. They were demanding that people look at the plight of their community. They were demanding that they be treated with equality and justice. They were demanding that the color of their children’s skin shouldn’t impact whether or not they had a shot at making it.
And what were they met with? Death threats. Church bombings. Stricter laws in some places limiting their freedoms. And more lynchings in some places.
What it took for America to begin to wake up to the overt racism of so many people was live video footage of police dogs being sent to attack black folks, including children and black folks being beaten unconscious by “peace” officers. The public perception of the civil rights movement began to shift, but overt racism wouldn’t let go. Civil rights leaders were assassinated, more acts of terror were leveled against the black community, and even white allies were assassinated too.
After the various Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Acts were passed, it became more or less a major social faux pas to exhibit any overt racism. The KKK and other white supremacy groups eventually shrunk. The use of the n-word decreased to some degree, at least in polite company. Not serving black people in a business became a crime, etc.
For most white people, this is when they think that racism in America ended.
If only that were true. If you ask individual persons of color, especially black folks, about their experience of race in the US, some will tell you horror stories of overt racism and virtually every single one will tell you stories of the results of implicit racism, what many people call “micro-aggressions.”
Implicit racism would include things like women clutching their bags when black men walk by, people touching black women’s hair, and people asking a Latino graduating from college if they are the first in their family to do so (a question almost no one would ask a white person). Most people don’t mean anything nefarious by these micro-aggressions, but people of color notice them and many are hurt by them.
These hurts add up over time. They make people of color feel white people view them as other, something different, and, to some, as less than fully human.
The problem is that people who represent authority are guilty of implicit racism too. (So are people of color, of course, and so are people of color who are in positions of authority.) What does this look like?
Well, when I worked at Best Buy as security personnel I was way more likely to watch a black teenager on the monitor, even though in all my time there we never caught a black person stealing anything. (Side note: I caught employees and lots of white people stealing.) But my first instinct was to watch the black teen. And my implicit bias against black people isn’t just something that I have. Many black people report being harassed while shopping. It even happens to “well-dressed, respectful, and articulate” black folks.
Hiring managers, as famously reported by the Freakonomics people, are much more likely to favor applications that have “white sounding” names to those with “ethnic sounding” ones. This implicit bias more or less goes away when the applicants are in front of the hiring manager, presumably because he or she is trying to be equitable when seeing a person of color face-to-face.
And, unfortunately, police are victims of implicit racism too. Multiple studies have shown that people, all people, tend to prefer images of lighter-skinned people, while at the same time being more threatened by images of darker-skinned people. This same implicit bias has been seen in numerous studies of police officers too, though they tend to do better than the general public.
Thus, for many police officers, black people, and especially black males, are implicitly more threatening, will be watched more closely, etc. This can be seen in the evidence from the NYPD about how black people (as well as Latinos) are much more likely to be stopped and frisked and why “driving while black” is a reality, since black drivers will, generally speaking, be watched quite a bit more closely.
(Please note, implicit racism is not the fault of a given individual. It’s human nature. It’s part of our basic tribalism that says members of “our group” are better than members of “their group.” And black cops are also likely to exhibit implicit racism against black people as white cops are.)
But a more important part of systemic racism today has less to do with implicit racism and more to do with the residue of our explicitly racist history as a country and some explicitly racist laws and policies.
What do I mean? Well, as I mentioned earlier, after the Civil War many black people moved into inner-cities. Those that didn’t, those who stayed in smaller towns, were more or less forced to move into neighborhoods that were comprised almost exclusively of other black people. And these boundaries were often set into law or official housing policies.
Even liberal Pasadena, CA (where I live) in liberal Southern California has some of these policies in its past.
And, unsurprisingly, many black people still live in these very same neighborhoods today (unless they’ve been pushed into even “worse” neighborhoods thanks to gentrification, property prices rising, zoning policies, and imminent domain abuses, etc.).
And, unsurprisingly, these communities didn’t have the best services, the best stores, the best schools, etc. And between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, these communities were heavily policed by largely white police forces because of the realities of organized crime and because of overt racism (just go back and listen to some of the recordings of Bull Connor, the infamous sheriff in Alabama [like this one]…they’ll make your skin crawl!).
So folks in these communities started way behind the starting line in comparison to where others in the US started. And black families who “made it” had such a harder and longer road to hoe, even than white families who began at similar levels of poverty due to explicit and implicit racism.
During the 70s things seemed to be getting a tiny bit better. It was during this time that the rise of the black middle-class happened (which is basically gone today, by the way), thanks in part to government jobs, especially those at the post office, sanitation control, and the like.
Then the 1980s came with the “war on drugs.” Some of the policies set in place during this time period by the federal government, as well as state and city governments, really harmed black communities.
How so? Cocaine.
The rush of cocaine into the US during the late 1970s and 80s really hurt lots of people. In fact, it seems that people of all ethnicities were using cocaine in more or less equal percentages.
But the laws surrounding cocaine disproportionately affected black people. Crack cocaine was punished much more harshly than powder cocaine, though both are equally bad, equally addictive, and equally dangerous. And black communities tended to use crack over powder. Sentences for crack cocaine were much longer than those for powder. Drug-free zones were set up in communities affected by crack cocaine, but not those for powder, which meant that a drug conviction in a drug-free zone was more harshly punished.
So when a black person was caught using cocaine, he would be sentenced to a much, much longer sentence than a white man, sometimes dozens of times longer, since he was likely to be using crack in a drug-free zone. And since the police were more likely to police black neighborhoods (due to the number of calls, population density, and implicit racism), black people were much more likely to be caught using and possessing cocaine.
It was so bad that black users of cocaine would go to jail for much longer sentences than the white people who sold it or whomever trafficked it into the country!
And this war on drugs, which targeted black communities (intentionally or not, doesn’t really matter), really hurt these communities. Many children in these communities had to grow up without fathers since so many black men were incarcerated on drug charges.
Some neighborhoods were so bad that only a very few men ever made it out alive or without being incarcerated. One of my mentors, who happens to be black, grew up in the neighborhood where my wife and I currently serve and he tells the sad story that of the 20 boys that grew up on his street, only four or five aren’t in prison or dead today. His story is not uncommon in neighborhoods like mine, one that is labeled a drug-free zone and has a large black population.
(Quick aside: many of the crack-specific sentencing laws and policies have been altered or overturned, but, in general, crack convictions still carry longer sentence than powder cocaine today.)
And with the massive influx of people (mostly people of color) being incarcerated for drug charges, jails began to fill up. State and federal monies were used to build more. Then these new jails filled up. It got so overcrowded that many states gave many of their prisons over to private, for-profit companies who run them. These companies make millions and millions of dollars incarcerating people. They often get paid by the number of full jail cells they have.
In other words, these companies have a vested interest in keeping their beds full, so they do what any successful business would do, they lobby to keep laws and policies in place that keep their beds full and their profits growing. And their money is in the pockets of politicians on the left and the right, thus ensuring that the industrial prison complex remains full of people, mostly on drug charges.
And a very disproportionate number of these people are people of color, thus furthering the problems of their communities since it means that parents (especially fathers) are literally taken out of the equation.
And all the while, white people use drugs at about the same rate as blacks (some studies indicate that white folks use more drugs) and yet white people are not arrested as often and when convicted serve shorter sentences and once in prison are more likely to receive parole.
And it’s not just drugs. As the horrible Brock Turner (the swimmer at Stanford that was basically given a slap on the wrist for sexually assaulting a woman behind a dumpster) story reminds us, white folks are often given the benefit of the doubt and/or shorter sentences. For example, a Vanderbilt football player, Cory Batey, committed a similar crime as Brock Turner, and he was sentenced to a much, much longer sentence — 15-25 years.
Then you take a look into the public schools which serve black students and see that they are much, much worse than those that serve white communities. In fact, according to some recent research, a case can be made that our public schools are more segregated now than they were during Jim Crow. And, unsurprisingly, the schools that serve black communities generally stink.
And the list could go on and on. Black graduates of college are less likely to land a job than white graduates. Etc., etc., etc.
And, unfortunately, the data shows that a given black person is much more likely to die at the hand of the police than a given white person. All of the factors above play into this sad statistic.
Just to be clear, in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases I don’t think that black people are more likely to die during a police interaction due to explicit racism. There are really so few people who are jerks like that anymore.
But implicit racism and its effects are real. And the residue of the explicitly racist policies and laws of the past and some of the current policies and laws that disproportionately impact black people are real too.
If we’re going to move forward as a nation, then we need to admit some things. Here are a few of those things:
We need to admit that we live in a country in which our Declaration of Independence calls a group of people “savages” and the 13th Amendment of the Constitution repealed a compromise that argued that black people are 3/5ths as valued as other people.
We need to admit the horrors of the Jim Crow era and the violence committed against black people during their fight for civil rights.
We need to admit the impact of the war on drugs on black communities.
And we need to admit that doing nothing about the current plight of the black community will only make the resulting problems worse.
That’s systemic racism.
Systemic racism is not a fiction. Systemic racism is not an excuse. Systemic racism is real and its effects hurt black communities like the one where my wife and I serve.
But you may be wondering, why talk about systemic racism on a blog about being missional, that is, following Jesus in the real world? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward — the real world is messed up and unjust and Jesus calls us to care about matters like this. He says “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Matthew 5.6)
I know, you memorized “righteousness” as a kid. So did I. But “justice” is an equally valid translation of the Greek word that is found here and the context in which this word is found leans toward folks who are oppressed and thus longing for justice.
So I guess that’s really the question then…when we, as followers of Jesus in the real world, see a problem such as systemic racism, do we hunger and thirst for justice? Or do we try to deny the evidence, invalidate the experiences of people of color, and effectively perpetuate the injustice through our silence and inaction?
What do you think about the way I defined and discussed systemic racism?
What do you think we can do about it?
What can you, as an individual, do about it?
Let me know in the comments below.
And be civil. I will be monitoring these comments closely. Anything that deem disrespectful, racist, or rude will be removed.