Ever hear someone say something like, “Hey, wow, great news everybody! Racism’s over! We fixed it!” They’re genuinely excited that we elected an African-American president. They’ll tell you how the first mainstream black superhero character, Black Panther, just appeared in a big new movie. And by the way, P.K. Subban is a hockey star!
It’s hard to imagine what might be left on the end-racism to-do list, right?
Well, you might want to suggest that they not start tossing the confetti around just yet. Yeah, it seems there’s still a little something called systemic racism—and it’s real.
Racism at Every Level of Society
Systemic racism is about the way racism is built right into every level of our society. Many people point to what they see as less in-your-face prejudice and bias these days, compared to decades past, but as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
While fewer people may consider themselves racist, racism itself persists in our schools, offices, court system, police departments, and elsewhere. Think about it: when white people occupy most positions of decision-making power, people of color have a difficult time getting a fair shake, let alone getting ahead. Bottom line: we have a lot of work to do.
Here are seven ways we know that systemic racism exists.
According to one study, white families hold 90% of the national wealth, Latino families hold 2.3%, and black families hold 2.6%. Not only that, the Great Recession hit minority families particularly hard, and the wealth gap has increased. Think about this: while median wealth for a single white woman in the US is $41,000, the median wealth for a black woman is $100. And for single Latinas it’s $120. That’s almost unbelievable—and it’s a huge racial-justice issue.
It’s next to impossible to build wealth without steady and rewarding employment. But the black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of whites over the past 60 years, no matter what has been going on with the economy (whether it’s been up or down). Hmm, maybe higher education would help with that? Well, according to the data, blacks with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as all other graduates. That may be because, as one study found, job applicants with white-sounding names get called back about 50% more of the time than applicants with black-sounding names, even when they have the same exact resumes. (This seems to be a widespread problem: guests with distinctively black names even get less positive reviews from property owners on Airbnb.)
Let’s discuss education a little more in depth. If you thought that preschool, at least, was a racism-free zone, well… consider that while black children constitute 18% of preschoolers nationwide, they make up nearly 50% of suspensions. When all age groups are examined, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, even when their infractions are similar. Overall, black students represent 16% of student enrollment, but represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement. And once black children are in the criminal justice system, they are 18 times more likely than white children to be sentenced as adults. That’s chilling.
Given this, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that even though, as we said, blacks make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population. Why is that? Perhaps because if a black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a better chance of being arrested. It’s also true that, once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people. And for many years, laws assigned much harsher sentences for using or possessing crack, for example, compared to cocaine. Finally, when black people are convicted, they are more likely to be sent to jail. And their sentences tend to be both harsher and longer than those for whites who were convicted of similar crimes. And as we know, a felony conviction means, in many states, that you lose your right to vote. Right now in America, as many as 13% of black men are not allowed to vote.
When the government sought to make mortgages more affordable back in the 1930s, thereby jumpstarting the epoch of suburban living, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (and thereafter private banks) ranked neighborhoods all around the country, giving high marks to all-white neighborhoods and marking those with minorities in red as risky investments. Redlining, which essentially barred blacks and other minorities from sharing in the American Dream and building wealth like their white counterparts, was officially outlawed in the 60s, but the practice really never went away. In fact, during the Great Recession, banks routinely and purposely guided black home buyers toward subprime loans. A recent study demonstrated that people of color are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites.
If you’re white, you don’t usually need to worry about being monitored by the police. But the day-to-day reality for African Americans is quite different. More than half of all young black Americans know someone, including themselves, who has been harassed by the police. Statistics also show that black drivers are about 30% more likely than whites to be pulled over by the police. (So African Americans can expect to be monitored wherever they go—but did you know that they can’t even expect to safely cross the street? Blacks are twice as likely to die in pedestrian accidents than whites, perhaps because, according to one study, motorists are less likely to stop for blacks in the crosswalk.) And of course it’s well-known that Muslims are under increasing and often illegal surveillance.
African Americans in particular face discrimination in the world of healthcare too. A 2012 study found that a majority of doctors have “unconscious racial biases” when it comes to their black patients. Black Americans are far more likely than whites to lack access to emergency medical care. The hospitals they go to tend to be less well funded, and staffed by practitioners with less experience. But even black doctors face discrimination: they are less likely than their similarly credentialed white peers to receive government grants for research projects. And it seems that facing a lifetime of racism leaves African Americans vulnerable to developing stress-related health issues that can lead to chronic issues later in life.
Let’s be clear: systemic racism is a corrosive and widespread problem in our society, and we all need to do a better job of confronting it—in our towns, in our neighborhoods, and in ourselves.
Want to be part of the solution? Here’s how you can take action:
- Watch the totally amazing video below from our friends at Demos about the roots of systemic racism
- Sign this very important petition to restore the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that voting is accessible to every American
- Start a conversation. Once you know the truth, it’s hard to keep it to yourself. So tell a friend, a sibling, a roommate, your kooky uncle…that systemic racism is real, and we all need to be fighting to end it.
- Take an implicit bias test, and see if you have any implicit attitudes regarding race that you don’t even know about.