Let's talk about anti-racism: four things I never understood about racism (Part 3)


This post is the third in a series I've been writing about things I never understood about racism. You can read the previous posts here and check out the anti-racism resource page for further learning.

I used to say that the first time I saw racism was when I moved from a diverse community of military families in Okinawa, Japan, to the coastal town of Jacksonville, NC as a Junior in high school. Overt forms of racism were easy to pick out there: the ugly racial epithet flung at my African American police officer neighbor, that racist joke I heard from white girls at a sleepover, the truck flying the confederate flag.

What I didn't understand then is that racism is much more than individual prejudice. Even if we all were kind to each other and worked really hard on resolving our personal prejudices (which we should!), racial inequities would still exist.

Inequities continue to be reproduced in our country because racism is systemic or institutional. Bear with me if this is new to you like it was to me.

Here's an example: A study by EdBuild released earlier this year found that "nonwhite school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students." Schools in the U.S. are funded by local property taxes. Think about your neighborhood. How diverse is it? Think about the wealth of the people in your city. How does it break down racially? Think, then, how this affects the funding of your local schools.

In the example of funding for education that I gave above, I doubt if any of us functioning in the educational system are intentionally wanting to disadvantage non-white schools and students. When we (speaking as a white person) buy homes in mostly white neighborhoods and pay taxes our properties, we're not intending that they go only to our white children in their mostly white schools. But, whether we intend it or not, the impact is that inequities will continue to exist and persist because the system is functioning in the way it was set up.

Sobering, right? (Journalist Nicole Hannah Jones has a lot of interesting things to say about racial inequities in education. I'll link to some of her work below in the resources section.*)

Here's a simple challenge. Take any area of interest to you, your family, your community, or the industry you work in and do a Google search for research into racial disparities in that area.

Here are some suggestions of things you can look up:
"disparities in health care." 
"disparities in infant mortality"
"disparities in maternal mortality"
"disparities in school funding"
"disparities in school discipline"
"disparities in life expectancy."
"disparities in arrests at school"
"disparities in hiring practices"
"disparities in military promotions"
"disparities in mortgage lending"
"disparities in sentencing or incarceration"
"disparities in farm loans"
"disparities in public transportation"
"disparities in income or generational wealth"

In all of these searches, I suspect you will find a similar pattern of disadvantage and advantage. Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that "every social indicator, from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being White" (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria).

And there's a reason for this. It has nothing to do with anything inherently good or bad about the "races" (we are all equal in our humanity in all its complexity), and everything to do with how race was socially constructed in this country. The racist narrative that shaped the very founding of our country (see Part 1) also shaped the fabric of our society in such a way that it no longer needs active racism to work; it only requires passive cooperation with the status quo. 

Racism and racist ideas became a part of the way every system in our society functions--healthcare, banking, housing, education, law enforcement, incarceration, employment. Daniel Hill, in his book, White Awake,* on white cultural identity (yes, we have a culture), explains this well: 
When left unchallenged, the narrative of racial difference inflicts catastrophic damage on every level of society, starting at an individual level moving into communities of people before infecting the roots of our socials systems . . . A social system is made up of the elements that work together in towns and cities, such as schools, police departments, businesses and manufacturing, hospitals, grocery stores, housing, and other entities. Though these entities provide services or play certain roles, they also form what is often called a social system. Each element within a social system is supposed to serve people of all backgrounds equally, regardless of race or any other social marker. But the narrative of racial difference prevents that because it is built around a calculation of human value based on race, which reproduces inequalities.
Studies show that race alone impacts these disparities regardless of social status or other factors. According to a report called "The Groundwater Approach: building a practical understanding of structural racism" by Bayard Love and Deena Hayes-Greene of the Racial Equity Institute,* "in today's economy (even excluding the impacts of multi-generational wealth), one's racial designation is actually a causative factor in one's socioeconomic status."

For example, according to the Groundwater Approach report, "The most recent CDC data show racial disparity in infant mortality, even when we compare black and white mothers with the same level with the same level of education." Another study shows that "in K-12 education . . . while independent racial and income gaps exist, black and Latino students underperform white students at each income level."

The Groundwater study proposes that these disparities are not a "people problem," as we might be tempted to assume, but a "groundwater" problem, meaning that the underlying systems are functioning in a racist way, without anyone in that system even being intentionally racist.

I'll say it again: because we all function in systems that operate in racist ways, as long as we're cooperating with the status quo, it doesn't matter if we're individually actively racist or not; the results are the same.This idea of infected social systems is called systemic racism or institutional racism. The term white privilege is used to describe the resulting advantages of systemic racism for white people. 

Here are a couple of things that I find helpful in talking about systemic racism and white privilege:

1. This doesn't mean that all people benefit from or are disadvantaged by systemic racism equally. It's just a broad way of understanding the social fabric of our country. You'll find lots of variation in the individual threads (again--because we're human).

2. Generalizing about social-constructed concepts like White and Black are helpful terms for breaking down the system as it was constructed. We first have to acknowledge it and see it to change it. This does not, however, speak to anyone's worth or value. I know that we white people can feel called out when our race is even mentioned. This is not about your individual worth; it's about your social context.

In conclusion, it's complicated. It's weighty, and it's overwhelming to begin seeing something that was actually always right in front of me. These are hard, uncomfortable truths that must be grappled with.

Can I encourage you in this? There is so much grace and mercy for us as we come to God repentant and brokenhearted over these things. There is tremendous freedom for white people when the burden of white supremacy is lifted. There is beauty in understanding our shared humanity. There is much to be learned from those our society called "the least," the "minorities."

Here's something that gives me hope: this system was constructed, so it can also be deconstructed. I like this metaphor from Beverly Tatum, from her book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?:

That brings me to my calling as a Christian, a calling to be an ambassador of reconciliation, a royal priest, an image-bearer who reflects the beauty of God and His Kingdom.

I highly recommend Latasha Morrison's new book, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God's Heart for Racial Reconciliation* if you want to look more into these issues of what racial reconciliation looks like for a believer and a church.

After each chapter of her book, Morrison provides prayers of lament and repentance. Here is one:
"We have not required justice, we have not loved others well, and we have not walked in humility in our brokenness."
Will you join me in lamenting and praying over these things?
"If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:15-17 ESV)
"Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them." (Ecc 4:1 ESV)
"When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause." (Isa 1:15-17 ESV)
"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Mat 6:10 ESV) 
I made this screensaver of Isaiah 1:17 for you to use this month to remind you of the actions you can take towards justice. You can download it in English or Spanish by clicking on one of the images below to save to your phone. I'd love for you to share this post if you've found it helpful.



ARTICLE/REPORT | The Groundwater Approach: building a practical understanding of structural racism by Bayard Love and Deena Hayes-Greene of The Racial Equity Institute


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  1. Will you be addressing how or what to do as well in a further blog post? Because the how and what is where I find I feel at such a loss. I read a lot of articles trying to convince me racism still exists and is endemic in our systems, and I agree. That's the difficulty for me. I don't need to be convinced; I am convinced! What I don't see a lot of is suggestions on how to tackle these issues. I know I can do some things as an individual in my life, but so many of these issues mean there needs to be radical overhaul of the systems. I suspect exactly how to do that is going to be a deeper issue and probably even more divisive between the parties in this country. It won't be an easy road. Even so, I'd like to see more written about HOW to tackle these issues so there are at least some ideas out there of a way to move forward. Maybe I'm just missing what is being said about the how or the voices calling for recognition of the issues are louder because they aren't being heard.

    1. I'm glad you're convinced, haha. That's a necessary first step! Yes, maybe I could point readers to some solutions or rather, to people a lot smarter than me who are experts. I think people ARE talking about solutions, but they're difficult and they so disrupt the status quo that they aren't popular. You're right, a million micro and macro systems have to be disrupted. I have on my reading list a new book by Ibram Kendi called "How to be an Anti-racist." I think he addresses solutions. A lot of the books I recommend have a solutions portion. I have mentioned the AND Campaign before. I really appreciate their platform for the 2020 election. Voting for anti-racist candidates seems really important to me as a step. Do the candidates recognize how the systems in your community operate? Also, looking at the context you live in and where you have a sphere of influence shouldn't be overlooked, right? Your workplace, schools, community. We can all do something and we can all invite others in to join us.


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