Framing racism as a personal failing, at times even as a mutual problem, PK (Promise Keepers) speakers routinely failed to address structural problems.
~Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Racism has been a problem in the United States even before its founding. I don’t think you can reasonably argue that racism wasn’t part of the very foundation upon which this country was built.
There’s a powerful scene near the series finale of the AMC show Turn, which focuses on the spy network that was put together and eventually helped the colonies win what we now call the American Revolution. America has won the war, and General Washington insists that all escaped slaves who sought refuge in New York and Charleston with the British be returned.
Series regular Abigail was on a boat bound for Nova Scotia, which then gets turned around, and Abigail ends up in chains — a freewoman believed to be a slave. With the glimpse of a pistol and an allusion to her escape, Abigail does eventually reunited with her son in Canada.
In real life, British commander Col. Guy Carleton ignores Washington’s demand and allows them to go to Nova Scotia with other British Loyalists, but that is not dramatic enough for the show.
What this scene points to, however, is the very man who fought so hard for American independence was not so concerned with the independence all of people who lived in the colonies. Unfortunately, this is a trend that would continue throughout American history. As we all know, slavery, and it’s later ramifications, is the greatest blight on this nation.
People will want to argue that slavery ended 150 years ago, and we should just leave it in the past. To that I would say that the Civil War ended 150 years ago. Slavery, however, is still the specter that haunts this country. Racism is alive and well. We may not use physical chains. We may not sell and purchase slaves or make them work in the fields any more, but that doesn’t mean the monster has gone away entirely.
The truth is that systemic racism is alive and well. In fact, it’s still thriving in some places. It’s seen in multiple aspects of life:
- the wealth gap: 90% of the wealth in this nation is held by white families
- unemployment numbers: African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed; in one study, persons with “white-sounding” names were 50% more likely to get a call back than persons with “black-sounding” names
- the education system: black students are three times more likely to get suspended for the same infractions as white students
- housing: redlining was a practice that intentionally kept black families from owning property in certain areas, which immediately put black families behind white families in other areas like generational wealth accumulation and education; additionally, black families are less likely to get favorable appraisals when they do go to sell their homes.
- the criminal justice system: while only making up 13% of the general population, African Americans make up 40% of the prison population; not only that, but blacks are more likely to receive a harsher sentence than their white counterparts for the same crime.
- general surveillance: black drivers are 30% more likely to get pulled over, and more than half of young black persons know of somebody who has been harassed by the police.
- and health care: to quote the U.S. Senator from Louisiana Bill Cassidy, “For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.” For whatever reason…
You can’t honestly tell me that systemic racism is not a problem. If it was any one of these areas, you make be able to say that it was an outlier. But in nearly every area of American life, the metrics for our black friends are in a worse spot. This is not a coincidence.
I know a lot of people want to argue that the only way to fix racism is to fix the hearts of people. And it sounds good. It makes it a lot easier for us to do nothing and feel better about it. But there’s more to it than just personal issues.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one example. Technically speaking, African Americans had every right to vote, but undue barriers were put up to prevent them from doing so. It was more difficult for black voters to cast their ballots than for white voters. We are seeing similar movement in today’s society as well.
And people argue things like, “How hard is it to get a driver’s license or state I.D.?” Which makes sense… if you live in a place with multiple BMV locations so you don’t have to find the means to travel, and with reasonable hours that don’t force you to take a day off work, and you have access to (and knowledge of) all the necessary documents that you’ll need when you get there.
But what if you have to travel 30 miles, but you don’t have a car? And your minimum wage job won’t give you the time off that you need to go when it’s open? What if you don’t have internet access and don’t know that you need multiple proofs of address ahead of time?
The people who think these things are easy to take care of don’t have to deal with the barriers that others have to deal with. So, of course, it looks like it’s an easy thing to do. It’s just not.
So, what can we do?
Listen. Hear stories other than your own and from people who don’t look and live like you. Get out of your bubble and see the experiences that others are having. It’s not going to look like yours.
Advocate. There are times when you can use your voice and your position to help others. Do it.
Vote. Actually vote for candidates who are looking to help those in need. Vote for people willing to do the necessary work to remove these barriers that have been put in place. I honestly don’t care about party affiliation. Vote for people who are going to do the right thing regardless of party. For incumbents, that means looking at what they’ve done in the past. Chances are, they aren’t suddenly going to have a change of heart after 20 years in political positions. If they aren’t doing anything to help people, get rid of them, and put somebody in their place that will actually do something worthwhile.
Systemic racism is not something that will be overcome overnight. It took a long time for these systems to get into place, and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it. But every small step is a victory. Do what you can, where you can.