Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism

 

617-462-6642

gbigonet@icloud.com

           

 

Systemic Racism

 

"There is no such thing as race. None . . . Scientifically, anthropologically, racism is

a construct--a social construct. And it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, and

people who don't like themselves can feel better because of it. It can describe

certain kinds of behavior that are wrong of misleading."

Toni Morrison

 

Systemic racism has become a popular topic in our society today but few people are able to agree on what racism is or have any idea of how to bring about real change in the imbalance in our society along racial lines. Most white people view racism as the outright discrimination against or hatred of people of color. We see racism as individual acts by individual people. We have learned that someone is either racist or not racist. Most of us do not consciously discriminate or hate people of color so we are clear we are not racist. It all seems very clear. Someone is a racist or they are not. But then how does this definition of racism explain the phenomenom we call systemic racism? Much of what is considered racism is more accurately bigotry that is perpetrated by individuals.

Systemic racism is a system of advantage based on race that is interwoven into our culture and socialized ways of being. Everyone is affected and influenced by racism and all whites world wide benefit from and unconsciously participate in supporting it. Racism is a deep rooted system that includes segregation, white supremacy, white saviorism, white apathy and white centrality. Systemic racism is most often supported through our socialized implicit bias, color blindness, white solidarity and white fragility. In order to uphold this system of racism it is vital no one talks about it or people will have to acknowledge the harm being done. To this end a culture has been developed that keeps whites silent, blocking blacks from confronting it through tone policing and defining asians via the model minority myth to be meek and soft spoken.  

In her book "So You Want to Talk About Racism" Ijeoma Oluo diferentiates racial prejudice from racism by defining racism as "any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power." (p.26) She later goes on to add that "so much of what we think and feel about people of other races is dictated by our system and not our hearts. Who we see as successful, who has access to that success, who we see as scary, what traits we value in society, who we see as 'smart' and 'beautiful' - these perceptions are determined by our proximity to the cultural values of the majority in power, the economic system of those in power, the education of those in power, the media outlets of those in power..." (p.29) It is important to note that white people can be or feel disempowered in a variety of ways and this does not in any way diminish the systemic power that creates racism.  

In essense it has been white people in power throughout the last 400 years of our culture who have defined what is valuable, what is good and bad, etc. All of these definitions have been ones that have supported white people staying in power. These values are so intricately interwoven into our society that it has become increasingly difficult to see them as about race but their end results is that they keep whites in a place of greater standing and greater power.

It is vital to acknowlege that racism was created for the economic advancement of rich white men. The only way that slavery could be justified is by convincing the world that whites were superior to people of color. The only way that they could justify their brutal treatment of blacks was by convincing the world that blacks were dangerous and scary and needed to be put in thier place. Only by keeping blacks separate from whites could they convince people that blacks were different and less deserving than whites. Only by refusing to educate them could white men convince the world that people of color had inferior intellects. Only by creating a culture of hatred toward people of color could society allow the racial attrocities to occur, could rich white men stop poor white men and repressed people of color from uniting and uprising against them. Jim Crow laws were not created because of the hatred of black people they were created so that rich white men could still use black labor for free or for a greatly reduced cost. The only way in which rich white men have been able to acheive their wealth is on the back of the people of color that they oppressed. Racism for over 400 years has successfully met that goal.   

Systemic racism is a reality in our society and is evidenced by:

  • Higher rates of police brutality against people of color
  • Mass incarceration of people of color including the fact that most people of color get stronger sentances for the same crimes than whites 
  • Educational systems designed for and set up to the benefit of whites
  • People of color receiving less pay and having greater barriers to getting jobs than their white counterparts.
  • People of color unrepresented and misrepresented in movies and television
  • The school to prison pipeline - 1 out of 3 black men will see prison in their lives
  • Black children often seen as scary or dangerous when participating in innocent childish antics that all children do
  • Black people experiencing lack of mobility on where they can live
  • People of color having harder time getting loans and when they do their interest rates are higher
  • And much more 

If you question if systemic racism exists in our society I'll ask you one question: Is it better to be white or black in America? If you believe there is no difference ask yourself how you would feel if you woke up tomorrow with dark skin. Would you feel the same level of safety and security in the world?

My Experience with Systemic Racism

I can't say that as a white man I've had much awareness of systemic racism. I knew it existed but identifiing it was beyond me for most of my life until last June when I posted this to Facebook:

"I'm done staying silent!! I live in a smallish suburban Boston mostly white affluent town. There's one major road, Route 9, that goes through it. For years I have noticed that when the police have pulled someone over a majority of the time the driver is a person of color. In these cases there are always at least two police cars on the scene and most of the time the car occupants are out of the car. When it is a white driver, one cruiser, car occupants in the car. I've noticed this for years, negatively judged it, but never said anything.

Tonight I was driving down rte 9 and two cruisers came flying down the road with their lights flashing. I at first thought there must have been an accident or something major going on. Two miles later I came across three cruisers with one car pulled over and a young black couple standing outside the car. Once again I was appalled but just drove on. Afterwards I wish I had stopped and pulled out my phone and started recording the scene.

I've decided I'm not going to be quiet about this any longer. Tomorrow I'll be calling my town selectman/woman and discussing this with them. I'll also be calling the town chief of police and discussing this with them. I'm tired of being silent. This institutional racism in my own town is so clear and so unacceptable that I can't stay silent anymore.

Are you being silent in some way? If so, I encourage you find a way to speak up as well. The institutional racism isn't going to end until more of us privileged white people speak up. Stating that I am going to speak up in this way feels terrifying to me but it's time for me to walk through my fear and do something."

I didn't call anyone the next day. Unfortunately, we need to say goodbye to a beloved dog that had been with us for 14 years that day. On the next day late on that Friday evening I decided it would be better to send an email as opposed to calling so I composed and sent an email to the chief of police and the board of selectmen. The following Monday afternoon I received a long and detailed response from the chiet fo police. He started by saying that his first response to my email was anger and defensiveness that someone could accuse his police department of being racist. I didn't have the words for it at the time but this was a classic white fragility response. He then went on in great detail describing the training they do every year, the stats they have on race and arrests, why sometimes more than one patrol car is called to a traffic stop, and what exactly I had witnessed that Wednesday. He was very articulate, had clearly put a lot of thought into these issues and seemed to be doing everything right.

But why then were 40% of the traffic stop arrests of people of color when there are very few people of color in town as he had stated to me? He had his reasons. Arrests made on rte. 9 which is the main route through town. When they pull over anyone who has a want or warrant they have to arrest them. Most arrests of people of color was for existing wants and warrants. Per him, they had no choice. What we didn't discuss and it's not his fault is why do so many more people of color percentage wise have outstanding wants and warrants. I knew this had to be because of systemic racims but didn't full understand why.

Now I have a better understanding. It has to do with the impoverished conditions we have kept them in. It has to do with the school-to-prison pipeline. It has to do the fact that police and the courts routinely give harsher penalties to people of color. It has to do with the white images of blacks as scary and dangerous. It has to do with the fact that we prevent them from receiving the same quality of education, and then make it harder for them to get a job. This is much of what black men and women deal with in their lives. Any group put in the same situation will have a larger percentage of it's population having wants and warrants. Systemic racism has set up the dynamic of cops doing their job the "right" way but still in support of racism.    

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.