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Credit: Axios

Systemic Racism Is Hard to See Unless You Suffer From It

We must not be silent any longer

he opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” once stated the late Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel. “To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead…. What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”

The dark period in history through which Wiesel had the misfortune of living engendered an entire generation of philosophers whose contemplation of moral questions influence the character of modern society. Those of us living in the 21st century are fortunate, in a strange sense, for the past to have provided horrors at which we can now point and say, with resolute certainty: “Never again.”

But grasping at low hanging fruit is easy. There is another, equally vital lesson to be taken from the events of the past: it serves as a reminder that we always live in the midst of history, and that we are creating tomorrow’s history today. Putting oneself in the shoes of those who came before us allows one to recognize that the present moment differs from what preceded it only in degree and style, rather than principle. The real value of learning history, after all, is that is enables us to understand our own lives and experiences in the context of a much larger picture. Without that backdrop, we will inevitably repeat the same mistakes, thereby missing valuable opportunities to grow as a people. Although homo sapiens emerged as a distinct species approximately 300,000 years ago, it is no coincidence that complex human institutions such as cities, legal codes, and religious doctrines began to appear only after the invention of writing systems, about 5,000 years ago. Societal memory is what advances civilization.

The ongoing protests over police killings of people of colour — primarily young black men — speak to one of our modern moral blind spots. The outrage is proof that there remains much to be done in the name of justice, namely acknowledging that systemic racism remains a festering wound across much of the West in general, and in the United States in particular.

Left Behind

It is fashionable, in some circles, to claim that systemic racism is a myth. Black Americans, after all, have been legally protected from discrimination in public life and at the ballot box since the mid-1960s. If racism is so prevalent, one might ask, then where are the Klan rallies and lynch mobs marching down the street? Where are the slaves bonded in indentured servitude? How do we explain the success of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods? And how was a black man able to become president?

Systemic racism is less about what is done than about what is not done.

But these criticisms miss the point. For one thing, these famous figures are exceptions to the rule. Moreover, denial is a common response to large challenges because the easiest problem to solve is one that conveniently doesn’t exist. In truth, unbelievers in systemic racism simply don’t recognize it when they see it. That is because systemic racism is less about what is done than about what is not done.

Injustice is easy to spot when it takes the form of an evil act. It is much harder to identify — or at least, easier to ignore — when it manifests as an omission, even though this is the manner in which it most readily persists. It is about apathy toward another’s suffering, neglect of those requiring support, and, as Wiesel would say, indifference in the face of injustice. By far the most common form of injustice is inaction, such as attitudes, norms, and policies that permit groups of people to become disenfranchised.

The practice of “redlining” was one such practice. Named for the lines drawn on maps to indicate neighbourhoods whose residents were ostensibly unfit for investment or who represented excessive credit risks, redlining systematically denied entire communities of colour the opportunity to build equity in homes and businesses. According to a 2017 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, that sort of discrimination, which still exists in some places, “had an economically meaningful and lasting effect on the development of urban neighborhoods through reduced credit access and subsequent disinvestment.” Black families’ difficulty to build generational wealth has contributed to a staggering racial wealth gap in America, whereby, in 2016, the net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) was nearly ten times greater than that of a black family ($17,150).

A vicious cycle develops. Without assets to offer as collateral, many black entrepreneurs and families struggle to secure non-usurious business loans or mortgages. Indeed, as a result of predatory lending practices leading up to the housing market crash of 2007, about 30 percent of black and Hispanic borrowers’ homes had gone into foreclosure a decade later compared to only 11 percent of white-owned homes.

Uneven opportunities for quality education also contribute to a cycle of poverty in communities of colour. Between 40 and 45 percent of the funding for public schools in America, on average, comes from local property taxes, meaning that the quality of public education is significantly lower in poor communities. Although federal investment in education over the years has attempted to increase the share of funding allocated to high-poverty districts, large disparities remain between states. According to a 2018 study by the Education Law Center, for example, students in Mississippi (37 percent Black, 2010 Census) receive only about 40 percent of the per-pupil funds of New Jersey (14 percent Black, 2010 Census) students, while students in Alabama (26 percent Black, 2010 Census) receive slightly less than 50 percent of the per-pupil funds as students in Connecticut (10 percent Black, 2010 Census).

There are also other factors at work beyond per-pupil funding levels. These include:

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(Figure 1) Credit: Education Law Center 2018.
  • Fiscal effort, or the share of a state’s fiscal capacity that is directed toward education;
  • Funding distribution, a measure showing whether a state provides more or less funding to schools based on their poverty concentration (Figures 1 and 2); and
  • Coverage, or the proportion of school-aged children attending the state’s public schools.
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(Figure 2) Credit: Education Law Center 2018.

Coverage is an important indicator because, according to the Education Law Center study, it “demonstrates the degree to which wealthier families in some states opt out of the public education system.” It is easy to sympathize with parents who shudder at the thought of sending their children to a school that lacks the resources to provide a proper education. If they have the means to send their children elsewhere, they will do so. But the problem with this trend, as the ELC study explains, is that it potentially affects “the public and political will necessary to improve school funding” because wealthy families no longer have a stake in the public system. The outcome is a two-tiered system that provides quality education to the rich, and leaves the poor to languish in whatever else is left over.

A Broken System

This legacy of silent indifference toward the poor, who are disproportionately people of colour, paves the way for further misfortune. The poor live where they can afford the rent, giving rise to ghettos. Desperate people sometimes do desperate things, leading them to end up incarcerated at a higher rate than those living in privileged communities. Children grow up in families lacking the necessary structure and role models; 1 in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared to 1 in 60 white children. In their lonely search for meaning and belonging, those adolescents may be more likely to join gangs. Gang activity invites a heavier police presence, leading to more interactions — and thus more violent interactions — between police and people of colour.

Worse still, such a dynamic breeds stereotypes in the minds of those involved. Officer Smith’s partner almost got shot last week, so Officer Smith now approaches every interaction with extra trepidation. Meanwhile, DeAndre witnessed a different white police officer harass his cousin for no reason — for the crime of simply loitering outside the mall, the cop cuffed him and roughly pressed his face against a brick wall while he searched him for “contraband.” This was all done with impunity because the officer didn’t have his body camera activated. Neither DeAndre nor his cousin have forgotten. The following week DeAndre crosses paths with Officer Smith, each bearing a defensive attitude. They have both assumed the worst about each other before the first word is exchanged, increasing the likelihood of altercation and tragedy.

One of the most damaging dimensions of systemic racism is found in America’s broken criminal justice system, which punishes black people disproportionately. Incarceration correlates strongly with being poor, regardless of ethnicity, yet according to a 2020 Pew Research survey, Blacks comprise 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, but 33 percent of the prison population. Although the incarceration rate among black adults has been declining steadily for over a decade, it remains more than five times that of white adults. Nearly a quarter of incarcerated people have never been convicted or sentenced, but are merely in detention while awaiting trial because they cannot afford to post bail; the median bail amount for felonies is $10,000.

Some of the racial discrepancy in the prison population owes to antiquated and discriminatory drug laws. For instance, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act punished possession or trafficking of crack cocaine, a cheaper form of the drug used more commonly by black people, far more severely than equivalent offences regarding powder cocaine. Legislation was passed in 2010 to reduce the imbalance, but only partially. Indeed, 1 in 5 inmates nationally, and almost half of inmates in federal prison, is serving a sentence for a non-violent drug offence.

Amid a peaking crime rate, then Senator Joe Biden authored the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which President Clinton signed into law. It included among its numerous measures the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” provision, which mandated that a person convicted of their third violent felony serve at least 20 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Mandatory minimum sentences like this may sound reasonable at first, but they have had negative consequences beyond simply causing the prison population to balloon. Mandatory minimums give prosecutors fearsome leverage that frightens people charged with crimes into waving their right to trial. As a result, according to Emily Yoffe writing in The Atlantic, “[t]he vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains — some 94 percent at the state level, and some 97 percent at the federal level.”

Once a person has served their sentence, other obstacles remain. Many states make it difficult or impossible to vote ever again with a felony conviction, something that affects 1 in 13 black adults in the U.S., a rate more than four times greater than the rest of the adult population. The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated persons is five times higher than that of the general population. But even this high average obscures a racial disparity, as the “prison penalty” punishes Blacks much more harshly than Whites (Figure 3).

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(Figure 3) Credit: Prison Policy Initiative. Data from 2008.

The picture among juvenile offenders is worse, because while the overall number of juvenile offenders is falling, the ethnic composition of young offenders is becoming more lopsided. The Marshall Project, a journalism organization, reports that “in 2003, black youth were 3.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth; by 2013, the number grew to 4.3.”

The discrepancy owes significantly to discrimination. Black kids are 2.7 times more likely than white kids to be arrested for violating curfew, due in part to racial profiling and selective enforcement by police between neighbourhoods of differing affluence. Compared to white youth, black youth may also appear physically older (and more culpable) to judges and prosecutors, thereby eliciting more severe sentences than Whites for the same crimes. Another theory contends that certain new alternatives to incarceration have become more available to white kids than black kids.

In a 2014 study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 87 percent of white male juveniles who had been diverted from confinement were instead enrolled in delinquency prevention, family therapy, vocational education, anger management, addiction counseling, or other programs — compared with 73 percent of black males.

Once again, as is often the case, it comes down to a question of money. Black kids frequently come from poor families that cannot afford these alternative programs. The same applies to the ability to post bail, without which an individual will be held in pretrial detention, sometimes in adult facilities where they are much more vulnerable to abuse for weeks or months. Naturally, a person exposed to such an environment is much less likely to be rehabilitated. Minors in the adult prison system are 34 times more likely than their counterparts in the juvenile system to reoffend — if they survive. They are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide.

Two Paths

During the 20th century, the backlash against racial discrimination in America formed into two broad camps that differed in their tactics. The more militant of the two movements, favouring racial segregation, black supremacism, and sympathizing with violent resistance if necessary, grew around the Nation of Islam and its founder, Elijah Muhammad. For a time, it counted Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and its current leader, Louis Farrakhan, as its most prominent members.

The other movement was famously led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister and outspoken political activist. Through the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King and other civil rights activists aimed to draw attention to discrimination suffered by black Americans, and achieve full racial integration, through the persistent use of non-violent demonstrations and other acts of civil disobedience.

In 1963, the SCLC deliberately flouted discriminatory Jim Crow laws by staging lunch counter sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, Alabama. It was after being arrested early on in this campaign that King wrote his now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he describes his frustration.

An excerpt:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

[…]

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

[…]

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.

The SCLC campaign succeeded in shocking the sympathetic white public, whom until then had rarely, if ever, been exposed to the terror tactics of fire hoses and barking dogs employed by racist police against the black community, images of which were beamed through television sets across America. The relatively recent invention of the smartphone has provided a modern analog, documenting countless examples of police brutality that must have been disturbingly common all along. Now that the world often bears witness to these abuses alongside the victims themselves, millions share in the outrage and feel obliged to act.

What form that action will take remains an open question. Some radical activists today appear to feel that violence and property destruction is a justified response to police brutality. The slogan “No Justice, No Peace” speaks to the belief that the present situation demands tit-for-tat resistance, and activists who subscribe to this way of thinking see themselves less as fighting than as fighting back. MLK himself, despite his convictions against violence, once admitted that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” But violent resistance, as King ultimately recognized, is not the way forward because it is doomed from the outset. Violence always provokes a response. The question is: Will the response be the one you want?

Turning to violence only elicits further injustice because it provides a pretense for police crackdowns; we have already seen the deployment of the National Guard in response to the ongoing protests. Embracing violence also invites spoilers, such as anarchists or even White Supremacists/right-wing extremists, to infiltrate the protests. They would like nothing more than to hijack the chaos — and derail the original movement — on behalf of their own aims. (White Supremacists have long wished to trigger a race war on the path to making America a white ethno-state. They are correct to believe that the logical end to escalating brutality is civil war.) And finally, history suggests that Republicans benefit from street violence, while Democrats benefit from peaceful protests. In the run up to the most consequential presidential election in a generation, activists would be wise to reflect on the potential ramifications of their actions.

On the other hand, the significant, if incomplete, accomplishments of King’s principled, non-violent movement are proof of what can and should be done today. The purpose of a protest is to inconvenience and disrupt the established status quo, because that is the only way that society at large will listen for more than five minutes. And the only way to affect fundamental change without embarking down a path toward civil war is through massive, sustained, non-violent civil disobedience.

Embracing disciplined, peaceful protest grants the movement a firm grip on the moral high ground, which is necessary to win sympathy from a broader public whose attention span is normally too short and shallow to care about anything beyond Netflix and sports. But whereas violent hooligans merely attract attention, principled demonstrators receive the right sort of attention, the kind that wins public support instead of alienating it. The type that recruits moderates off the sidelines. And once a peaceful movement is set in motion, it becomes a question of perseverance. The NYPD announced on June 3 that regular days off had been cancelled for all 36,000 of its uniformed members, who will now work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week until further notice. Who will give up and go home first? Demonstrators, or police officers? If Americans can somehow put 100,000 peaceful marchers in the street every weekend for six consecutive months, who can ignore their demands?

That is how fundamental change is won.

Bootstraps, but No Boots

Many, even within the black community, still doubt that systemic racism and discrimination exist. Conservatives and free-market fundamentalists of all stripes seldom tire of praising rugged individualism and work ethic, fondly portrayed as pillars of the American Dream. There is no doubt that hard work, perseverance, and discipline are crucial elements of success. But without a sturdy foundation to launch from, they are rarely sufficient on their own. It is a convenient worldview to believe that luck plays no part in determining one’s lot in life, for it implies that those who gain deserve their possessions and comfort, while those who struggle to make ends meet are merely laying in the bed they made for themselves.

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(Figure 4) Credit: R. Chetty et al, NBER (L); Facing South (R).

But if that is the case, how are we to justify child poverty, which can only be inherited? What are we to make of America’s low social mobility, which measures the likelihood that a person will manage to reach a higher income threshold than the one they were born into? And in the context of black children’s life prospects specifically, what other conclusion can be drawn from comparing the two maps in Figure 4? It is not enough to say that our society no longer actively segregates or lynches black folks. The injustice has always penetrated far deeper than that, in the form of silent indifference.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once pronounced, “it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.

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2018 winner of the Dalton Camp Award for essay-writing. M.A. Political Science. I'll go to the mat for the Oxford comma.

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