The stain of racism
Originally published in May 2016 as part of the book Why Black Lives Matter (Too)
It is a unique time in history. We are more connected to one another through technology than ever before, yet seemingly more isolated and divided at the same time.
Social and news media have created a culture of constant information-sharing that often resorts to sound bites, shallow connection, and a lack of critical thinking. We are less involved in each other’s lives, and struggle to keep pace in our high-stress society. It is easy to overlook or ignore injustice when it happens to someone else, which is why each of us must be even more intentional about how we live our lives, build community, and shape the future.
Growing up in a predominately white suburb afforded me the privilege of being oblivious to the reality of racism. It was not until I formed friendships with people of color that I learned about the microaggressions they endure, like being followed in a store or overlooked for a job because of an ethnic-sounding name. I felt ashamed by my ignorance and the lack of diversity in my life. Then, I felt a responsibility to break the cycle and foster an appreciation for different cultures, perspectives, and beliefs with my children.
The uncomfortable truth is that the roots of racism run deep within the structures and laws of our country and are embedded in our psyche. Whiteness and Race were deliberately fabricated to discriminate and dehumanize groups of people for power and economic gain. Since colonization, our country has perpetuated white supremacy. This includes the Trail of Tears, the denial of the fundamental rights of citizenship and land ownership to people of color, and immigration policies that limited specific ethnic and religious groups from entering the country. It was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that racial, ethnic, and religious diversity among Asian, Latin American, and African people in the United States began to increase.
Our country has worn the shameful stain of slavery and segregation for all but the past 50 years. While the Civil Rights Movement led to laws for equal rights, no meaningful steps toward reparations or reconciliation were taken. It is unreasonable to assume that such atrocities, systemic oppression, and deeply held beliefs and biases can be wiped away in such a short span of time, particularly without substantive efforts for education, healing, and lasting equality. The concept of “colorblindness”, or not seeing race, was intended to signal progress and inclusion. Instead, it created anger, ignorance, and division. As a result, discrimination continues unabated against many people of color, often on a subconscious level.
Even though we may oppose racism and bigotry, we are often unaware of how we benefit from a system created and dominated by white people. For example, white people accumulated and passed down generations of wealth before black people were even able to start. According to Pew Research Center, the median household wealth disparity between whites and blacks is the highest point of inequality since 1989 (13-to-1). A wage gap remains today where white women earn 79% compared to white men. However, the numbers are far worse for women of color. The American Association of University Women reports that African American women make 63%, and Hispanic women make just 54%.
Each child holds a key to our future and should be given a fair chance for a better future that is not based on ethnicity, income, or zip code. Unfortunately, the average poor black child lives in poverty 3 to 4 times that of the average poor white child. Further exacerbating the problems, are underfunded school systems that do not adequately prepare students for success. Students of color also face harsher disciplinary penalties in school. Black students are three and half times more likely to be suspended or expelled for the same behavior as white students, which often leads to trouble with the law and jail.
Between 1970-2005, a 700% increase in incarceration has disproportionately impacted communities of color with 1 in 15 black males 18 years or older in prison today, compared to 1 in 106 for white males of the same age. A criminal record prevents access to housing, employment, education, and public benefits, leaving families and communities broken, increasing the chances of recidivism.
When the cards are stacked against you, the notion of simply working harder or making better choices carries little weight. In The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates illustrates this point, “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
There are things that we can do each day that may seem small, but can have a profound impact on removing the stain of racism, inequality, and injustice:
Learn about privilege. Understand the differences between individual and institutional racism, and the ways that we take our possessions and positions of power and influence for granted.
Spend responsibly. Financially support minority-owned businesses and organizations that have a commitment to diversity.
Evaluate the diversity around you. Choose jobs, schools, and places of worship that are diverse and value different cultures. Use your positions of power and influence to apply pressure and offer leadership where it does not already exist.
Elect leaders who work collaboratively. Vote for leaders who will work to overhaul broken programs and invest in education and rehabilitation for the marginalized, the left behind, and the forgotten.
Build authentic relationships. Reach out to people of color and ask them about their life experiences – listen and learn. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first but keep trying. Remember, it is not their responsibility to educate us about racism.
Perhaps most importantly:
Discuss race and injustice openly. Join people of color in discussing issues of gender, race, and class across generations so that we become more aware of the injustices and work to end them.
It is not enough to say we disagree with racist practices or rhetoric. We must raise the next generation of Americans to be actively anti-racist and committed to reconciliation. We must reject the notion that equality is oppressive to white people. We must reject hateful speech or violence. We must stand with all who face discrimination or injustice. We must speak out against all forms of inequality and injustice. We must teach our children to have compassion and empathy for people who are different from them. We must prove through words and actions that black lives matter too.
We are called to put the needs and pain of others before our own, fight for all of God's children, and help the poor and marginalized without condition or judgment. We can end racism, but it is up to us to raise our consciousness and lead the movement. It is up to us to cultivate a new generation of leaders committed to serving others and doing the hard work of creating lasting, positive social change for all.
Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.
Coates, T. (2014). The Case for Reparations. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Davis, A. (1983). Women, race & class. Vintage
Combating Mass Incarceration, retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/issues/mass-incarceration
PBS Roots in the Sand, retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/rootsinthesand/
Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States (2011). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf
Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession, (2014). Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/
What is the School to Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/fact-sheet/what-school-prison-pipeline
The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, (2016). Retrieved from http://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/