Imagine yourself being born in the US, the land of many opportunities; “the land of the free and home of the brave”. Sounds optimistic enough? Not for the 27.4% in the American demography, especially the 13% of the entire population which represents the African-American communities. In fact, not only in the US but throughout most of the western countries, being of African heredity leaves you more vulnerable to social scrutiny. Why is it so? Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will have some insight into what systemic racism is. So let’s dive right into it.
To visualize how systemic racism works, let’s look at the incident which sparked the recent Black Lives Matter protests- the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd. George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man was choked to death in broad daylight by a police officer who placed his knee for eight straight minutes on George’s neck in the city of Minneapolis. His crime? He was suspected of using a forged bank cheque at a local grocery store. On the contrary, Dylann Roof- an extremely right-winged white supremacist who was responsible for taking nine innocent lives in the Charleston church shooting- was arrested peacefully. You might be wondering why does one country have two different systems. The answer lies within the term implicit bias which in simpler words means unconscious bias or when you are not aware of being biased. It is important that we take a moment here to realize that implicit bias can inherently lead to explicit bias where people are consciously biased towards a particular group. Implicit bias is one of the key factors behind police brutality in the US and also has a major role in the core of Systemic or Institutional Racism throughout the globe. But what does the term implicit bias look like? Let us take a peek through the pages of history in search of a reference.
In February 1999, four New York City police officers were on patrol in the Bronx when they saw a young black man standing on a stoop. They thought he looked suspicious. When they pulled over, he retreated into the doorway and began digging in his pocket. He kept digging as the police shouted at him to show his hands; a few seconds later, the man, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was dead, hit by 19 of the 41 bullets that the police fired at him. What Diallo was reaching for was his wallet. He was going for his ID as he stood on the steps of his own apartment building. Diallo’s story, and the officer’s fatal pre-judgment of him, is recounted in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestseller Blink. The book is definitely worth a read! Diallo’s case is just an example from a big list of deliberate violence propagated by implicit biases. Implicit biases, thus as shown, play a pivotal role as they add up or act as a starting point to hate crimes against people with an African origin or those who belong to minor ethnic communities.
But why does implicit bias exist in the very first place? Let us all take a look at the US during the 1960s. You might be wondering, why is the spotlight on the US? It is mainly due to the fact that the constitution of the so-called “world’s best democracy” did not even consider people of color to be human beings at the time it was written. Before the 1968 Civil Rights Act racial segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement was legal. The human rights champion Martin Luther King is famously known to have quoted “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Unfortunately, even after the passing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act which is thought to have ended legalized forms of racism, Martin Luther’s hopes only act as a seemingly tangible envisionment.
So going back to the pre-civil rights movement era, or decades after the American Civil War many government agencies started to map out sections of a city with a high density of Black people living in them by a process called redlining. It would specifically target black neighborhoods and deem them to be less worthy of private and public investments. Financial institutions such as banks would use these maps as a reference point to deny black people of loans, based purely on their race and the area they were living in. Historically speaking getting a home and a college degree are the two main ways in which people climb the American economic ladder. Without proper funding for their housing and business, the African-American population could not afford to invest in their own financial future. New businesses did not develop and existing ones did not expand. As a result, the education system for these communities did not develop much as a significant amount of the funding for the school systems came from local taxation, and as black businesses made very little revenue, the tax itself added up to a meager amount. It is evident in the Windy City, that the financial effects of redlining on African-Americans are still visible to this day. According to statistics, today on average white families are more than 7 times wealthier than black families mainly because of the inherited wealth.
This rudimentary approach of redlining is what created ghettos and generational poverty. When schools do not get enough capital, they cannot hire qualified teachers or offer higher classes. This does not only fail students of color due to inadequate resources but also creates a school to jail track. Black students have higher suspension rates than whites mainly due to lack of a disciplined education system in which students are cramped more than there should be in a single classroom. These suspended students have a higher chance of ending up in juvenile detention centers or facing arrests where they are introduced to the criminal justice system which again is skewed against people of color. The number of black convictions is higher than white convictions. Even though African-Americans make up 13% of the total US population, they make up more than 40% of the US prison population. This disparity is a result of human perception and pre-existing social stereotypes, caused by implicit biases, which label black people as criminals. Researches have shown that black people serve much higher jail terms and are offered harsher paroles compared to their white counterparts. Studies show only 13% of drug-abusers are blacks, but 36% of the people arrested and 46% of the people convicted are of color. And when these people get out of prisons, they earn about 21% less than formerly incarcerated white men which again feeds into poverty, which feeds into housing, which feeds into education and the vicious cycle continues.
The lack of funding also results in the absence of universal healthcare systems which is topped with a history of the racist justice system, police brutality, and mass incarceration that have made the lives of African-Americans progressively worse. As a matter of fact, systemic racism actually fuels racism to an individual level mainly due to the prejudice and stereotypes associated with the people of color. The end results of this are the various hate crimes committed against Afro-Americans such as the killing of George Floyd and the rise of white supremacy groups such as the infamous Ku Klux Klan.
Despite such pressing environments, some people are able to strive and get out of this continuous cycle, however, they are still exposed to racial abuse. According to a Harvard study, resumes with white-sounding names get twice as many interview requests than black-sounding names. This is just one of the many examples which show the aftermath of systemic racism and how it continues outside of African-American ghettos. As the NBA Hall of Famer- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” Systemic racism can be seen in every aspect of life from disparities in housing, family, wealth, incarceration rates, and representation in the government to education.
The key challenge with systemic racism is that there is no singular group or person responsible but the whole system is responsible. Not only in the US but throughout many of the western countries such as the UK, the problem of systemic racism still persists. Increasing public school funding and making it independent of housing taxes is a good way to start social reforms. Protecting voting rights, reforming criminal justice systems, and ending predatory lending can act as major stepping stones tackling systemic racism. Recent actions such as the unveiling of the Justice in the Policing Act in the US Congress act as a flicker of hope for black communities as their struggle for equal treatment continues.
Wordsmith: Hrishik Roy