Understanding Systemic Racism Part 1 – by Joseph Nwoye, Sabah Holmes

Is this the beginning of a revolution that finally addresses racism honestly?

Part 1: Understanding Our Shared History

When people say, “enough is enough!”, Do we really understand why? Why is it that we consistently deny the traumatic experience of racism that pains African Americans every single day? Why do we vote for leaders who effectively support policies and practices that are racist or discriminatory? What propelled so many Americans of all ethnicities including White, African Americans, Asian American, European American, Hispanic Americans to come together despite the Covid-19 pandemic to protest on the streets? Why do African Americans continue to endure racist and discriminatory practices generation after generation? These are some of the questions we ponder here given the recent events and the Black Lives Matter movement that has taken the world by storm even as a pandemic rages, propelling people to deprioritize their personal safety in order to stand up against racism and a history of subjugation and discrimination.

Acculturated Myths of Inferiority, Historical Injustices and White Privilege in Action

Racist and discriminatory treatment of Africans is not new, and it continues, generation after generation. The mistreatment of African Americans, specifically, is well documented historically and we now have some high profile documented contemporary examples of the experiences of racism suffered by Black people.

Social and cultural conditioning has propagated the idea that somehow, Black people, in particular, are inferior. That someone of color, particularly Black, is inferior; is an ideology that has been cultivated historically within society, assisted by media, the content we consume and the education systems we have built – not just in America but across the world. By extension, this ideology of inferiority has been embedded within families and therefore the communities they build and the children they raise, perpetuating the myth of ‘White’ is better than ‘Black’ generation after generation.

Study after study has demonstrated that discriminatory practices in our society are systemic; and skewed in that these systemic inequalities disproportionately impact Black people in America and in the world more than others, even when compared to other people of color. Intersections with faith, disabilities, gender and sexual orientation only make worsen these inequities for the Black community no matter which sector or power structure they encounter.

White Privilege and White as an ethnicity and a color are extremely uncomfortable areas for leaders and many people generally, to accept and discuss openly without feeling guilt, shame, fear and defensiveness. Yet, White Privilege is exercised at work and in community’s day after day. Often these discriminatory lived experiences are not captured but thanks to 21st century technology, discriminatory experiences, particularly covert racism are increasingly caught on camera so that what is often unseen but felt can be demonstrated, even with its detractors. Some even practice their White Privilege to the extent of denying racism exists at all and we are living in times where a shift has occurred to discussing this more openly.

Competing narratives around what is valid discrimination and what isn’t; who the perpetrator is and who the victim is from a White versus Black perspective, especially when racism and lived experiences of Black and Brown people are denied or challenged by those in power; strengthen belief systems of the inferiority of those who are not White or acceptable to the framework of power that exists.

In America, history is filled with examples demonstrating that people have been acculturated to believe that they can make false statements against African Americans knowing that it will cause a police of official response that disproportionately deems the African American as a perpetrator and the White person as a victim. It seems that there is no thought given to the violation of the human rights of the African Americans in question who are often harmed in several ways from being assigned criminal charges to exclusion from normal society to death in the worst cases, often perpetuating and leading them into being systemically and definitively disadvantaged. This does not mean that criminals or perpetrators do not exist within the African American community but instead we posit that a disproportionate focus exists to deem African Americans predominantly (and those from communities of color) as perpetrators in comparison to their White peers.

White Privilege and the exercise of an acculturated belief system of superiority can be seen in many examples where African Americans have been a victim of racism and White privilege in action:

  1. George Stinney: In 1944, An African American child was accused of murdering two white girls and spent 81 days in prison without being able to see his parents. He was held in solitary confinement 80 miles from the city he was from. He was alone, without the guidance of his parents or a lawyer and was executed with 5,380 volts to his head. Can you imagine all that voltage going through a child? 70 Years later, through a judicial review that began in 2004, it was established he was innocent and had not received a fair trial by an all-White jury. During his trial, even on the day of his execution, he always carried a bible and consistently claimed his innocence. One of many stories where a young man was sentenced to death because of the color of his skin in the United States.
  1. Emmett Till: In Mississippi, a 14-year-old African American boy was lynched in 1955 for offending a 21 year old married White woman at her family’s grocery store, accused of whistling and flirting with her. What actually happened remains disputed but what is not disputed is that key considerations were not made and what is evident is that there was a disproportionate response any claimed interaction because of Till being Black. His killers were acquitted by an all-White jury and the brutality of his murder and mutilation shocked the US, turning Till into an icon of the civil rights movement where his is an oft referenced case by researchers of historical racism in America. His accusers did not face any punitive measures under law and when justice was called for, Mississippi law enforcement defended Mississippians and supported the killers temporarily.
  1. Susan Smith: In 1994, Susan Smith, a mother of two, strapped her two children in their car seats and let her car roll into a lake. She blamed it on African American men and falsely accused them of kidnapping and carjacking. Ask yourself why she felt able to say this and use her White privilege to blame who she believed would easily be convicted and blamed for a crime she committed and did so because she knew she could exercise her female White privilege in this way and absolve herself of the crime. Of sound mind or not, she was aware of how to weaponize her Whiteness against Blackness and act it out to seek empathy for herself as a victim of Blackness. This strategy had been used before, and it still being used today.
  1. Rodney King: In 1992, with the advent of new technology and videotape, four White police officers in Los Angeles were caught on video while beating an African American, Rodney King. It was savagery and difficult to believe and watch. To understand how difficult it was, as King was beaten, there were more than a dozen police officers who stood around watching and never came to rescue a victimized African American man. It was unbelievable and to add insult to injury, the officers were acquitted of police brutality, which led to six days of violent protests, looting, and riots.
  1. Trayvon Martin: In 2012 and Florida saw the death of a 17-year-old African American who was visiting his fiancé and returning home from a convenience store. He was reported as suspicious by George Zimmerman who was a part of community watch. After an altercation, Martin was fatally shot and Zimmerman claimed self-defense. The police brought no charges initially; not until the case gained notoriety. While Zimmerman was finally charged in 2013 with second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, the jury acquitted him of all charges. The question you must ask yourself is, was there enough cause to deem Martin as suspicious? Can a Black man not walk down a street without being deemed dangerous or suspicious at mere sight? How would a White peer have been deemed by Zimmerman? Sadly, another life lost that cannot be justified.
  1. Eric Garner: In 2014, another African American man died as a result of chokehold applied by a New York police officer. Officers approached him on suspicion of him selling single cigarettes. When he denied the accusation, said he was tired of being harassed and resisted; he was wrestled to the ground into a chokehold with several officers on top of him, with him repeating 11 times – Ï can’t breathe” while officers pressed on even as he lost consciousness. He lay was on the ground for 7 minutes until an ambulance arrived. His death was ruled a homicide. No criminal charges were brought against the Officer Daniel Pantaleo, he wasn’t indicted and it took 5 years after Garner’s death to fire him. Was this a fair outcome for the murder of an African American and a proportionate response to the supposed crime he was accused of?
  1. Breonna Taylor: In 2020, Kentucky, an unarmed and innocent 26 year old African American emergency medial technician was shot as part of a no-knock warrant executed by the Louisville Metro Police Department where over 20 shots were fired in response to her boyfriend who fired from a licensed firearm thinking intruders had entered their home. While Taylor died of gunshot wounds, the officially filed report was almost blank and stated she has no injuries. Forced entry was not mentioned even though this was the case and the three officers involved were only placed on administrative leave. Is the disregard for an African American life and the willful misrepresentation of facts evident?
  1. Ahmaud Arbery: February 2020 in Georgia and an African American man is shot dead by an armed, White father and son duo while he is just jogging through his own neighborhood. Another White man also following Arbery records the shooting. The District Attorney advised no arrests be made. Had the video not been found and had not gone viral, the case would not have come to the attention of the Nation. It took 74 days to arrest the father and son team that shot Arbery. Evidence of racial slurs has been presented. It is evident from reviewing Arbery’s case that when a Black man is seen, an assumption of criminal intent and a crime definitively having been committed is immediately made. How under these circumstances can anyone be innocent until proven guilty, particularly when judgement by both law and White citizens is skewed against the Black community?
  1. Amy Cooper: May 2020 in New York and we meet a White woman, Amy Cooper, who when told to put her dog on a leash by an African American birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, calls 911 and repeatedly tells them “there’s an African American man” recording her and threatening her and her dog. While in this case, luckily, Christian Cooper did not lose his life, it brought vividly to light how White Americans view Blackness and what it means and how it is perceived by the police. History indicates what the outcome may have been had the police arrived and who they would have believed and what the potential consequences may have been. Thankfully, this incident was recorded and we live in changing times so the discourse is vastly different since Emmett Till and the days of slavery when Black people were treated as commodities to be traded with no regard for their human rights.
  1. George Floyd: May 2020 and Minnesota brings us to the now we live in. Floyd was put in a chokehold with 2 other police officers pressing down on him and another protecting the officer who had Floyd pinned under his knee for 8 minutes 46 seconds. All the while Floyd begged for release and said “I can’t Breathe”. Another officer kept two members of public at bay instead of intervening in what was obviously excessive use of force. George’s death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement because this was just another example of excessive force and unchecked levels of powers that sit with law enforcement which disproportionately impact the Black community. Charges against the officers have been revised as a result of the video going viral. The question to ask, among many, is that, what would have been the outcome has this not been recorded on video and how many such incidents go unreported and unrecorded?

Do these cases not evoke the memory of what George Floyd experienced in Minnesota? These are only some of many, many several cases. Racism, in its cause and effect is generational. The pain and trauma it causes under-represented groups is continuous, overt, covert and often resulting in death for members of the Black community. While it is heartening to see more young and White people at protests, there is plenty of silence that still exists within those in power and this has to be challenged and shifted. If not now, then when? Another 400 years from now?

Clearly, these examples, few of many, many thousands, indicate institutional and systemic racism that impacts African Americans and the Black community profoundly. The institutional demonizing of African Americans has been normalized. It is common knowledge that they can be blamed even if no crime has been committed because African Americans, men in particular, are feared for their blackness and stereotyped as criminals by a society created by White privilege. Many White men and women have been socialized to believe that shifting blame to someone Black or a person of color as being a perpetrator always sounds believable and will elicit a decisive and aggressive response from authorities in question.

Therefore, it is easier to accuse, judge and kill a 14-year old Black child for a crime he did not commit rather than a White child. The trend continues.

Can you imagine what the parents, families and communities of those continuously and disproportionately deemed perpetrators, especially those found innocent, go through? It is like never ending living nightmare, and it continues, while being denied and ignored willfully by those in power and many within various societies and cultures, in American and beyond its shores.

US Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights era of the 1960s ushered in stories and photos of Till’s disfigured body in the open casket that was published in Jet magazine helped touch off. In fact, Rosa Parks said she had Till in mind when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus that same year – an incident that catalyzed the 1960s civil rights movement.

Even as the civil rights movement continued, African Americans were being murdered by White supremacists and racists. This ignited riots in a number of major cities, including Harlem/NYC, Watts/LA, Newark/NJ, Detroit/MI. In every case, the catalyst for violence was a confrontation between a member of a systemically disadvantaged community and law enforcement.

In several cities, the protests began as peaceful demonstrations. After each racist incident, small surface level changes followed but little to no meaningful systemic changes were made by those in power, either at work or within communities.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Commission’s 1968 report stated that we were in effect two nations, Black and White. The report made evident the divide – that Whites have everything and the Blacks lacks everything; lack economic opportunity, have inadequate support from and access to education institutions, and are socially isolated. A sense of helplessness resulted from the reinforcement of White privilege by law enforcement, magnifying the disrespect effected by a biased justice system.

The Commission described how the socio-economic system assured sustained inequity in many ways that continue till today. Little has changed and much needs to change. This is why the protests rage. Centuries of slavery and colonization have changed little meaningfully for those in the Black community and communities of color which causes the frustration, pain and anguish to present in the form of protests which, especially in a pandemic, turn into rage against a system of power that refuses to budge.

Coming to present day, Colin Kaepernick is considered by some as “the face of the new civil rights movement,” has been dubbed the face of the new civil rights movement because he drew attention to the oppression of Black people and people of color in the United States. He was criticized and was even disparaged by organizations as well as attracting presidential rebuke. It is hoped that the recent incident may lead to a meaningful and lasting change, although many within the Black and Brown community remain cautious and some, even understandably skeptical. 

Where do we go from here, knowing that historically Blackness has been criminalized, feared and the Black community marginalized disproportionately even among communities of color?

CLICK for  Part 2  – where we explore if there is a way forward, to move beyond our past and explore a future where racism is finally challenged directly, more honestly. We explore if these are indeed the times we live in now or are we being unrealistically optimistic. We also offer a roadmap that can help leaders, organization’s, political and civil administrations start on their journey to successfully address systemic racism if they commit to the long road ahead, because targeting race and racism is a marathon not a sprint.

Joseph Nwoye Sabah Holmes

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