What we mean when we talk about Structural Racism

It doesn’t mean you’re racist. It means that racism is an influence in your life and you need to be aware of it

I started school in the mid 1970’s in Rhode Island.

I went to segregated schools.

When you think of segregation, you think the confederate flag and southern accents, but my elementary and junior high schools were probably more segregated than any place south of the Mason Dixon line. I don’t remember any students of color in my elementary school. There were only a smattering of Hispanic students and one black student in my junior high. There were no black teachers. There was a Hispanic teacher. He taught Spanish.

I lived in a neighborhood that was almost exclusively white. I remember at some point a black family moved in down the street. All of my friends and acquaintances up until I was fourteen were white.

I’m not a racist.

In fact, by the mid 1970’s everything in my larger culture socialized me to believe that judging a person based on the color of their skin was wrong. This was the manifest lesson I learned in my all-white schools, read in my all-white textbooks, saw from the all-white leading characters on television.

Racism is wrong!

I mean, yeah, we told racist jokes, but that was just jokes. It wasn’t…you know…racism racism. And nobody complained.

I’m not a racist.

But the social world in which I’ve lived my whole life, especially my childhood was shaped by race and racism. It would be absurd to think that this upbringing, even in the face of expressed certainty that racism is wrong didn’t have an influence on how I perceive race. It would be dishonest to think that I somehow escaped being at least partially indoctrinated to accept the underlying principle of racism–that thosepeople are just not as good, as valuable as wepeople.

The manifest messages were clear.

Racism is wrong.

The latent lessons were undeniable.

Those people are to be avoided.

You see, I was one of millions of white children whose parents may not have been racist, but…

…but they wanted their kids to go to good schools.

…but they were worried that their property values would collapse.

…but they were worried about crime.

It’s not that they were racist, but…

So as those people started moving in, my family was among the many white households who moved out. It was called white flight.

White flight was made possible because of financial structures that were in place, accessible almost exclusively to whites, that allowed them access to credit, that permitted them to move into nice, “middle class” suburbs. Being white opened doors for my parents and me that were almost completely closed to all but a fortunate few black households.

When I interacted with black families, it was often in the context of urban decay. The tenement neighborhood my grandparents lived in, at one time almost exclusively Italian, was being “invaded” by black families. As white families, middle class, or unionized working class, moved away from thosepeople, property values dropped. Landlords rented to the only people available, poor black families. As these neighborhoods became more black, access to credit was cut off to any investment in those neighborhoods. White landlords, losing equity in their properties, unable to get loans for home improvement, allowed their buildings to decay. Businesses chased the middle class customer, and prospective entrepreneurs couldn’t get underwriting for investment in or near black communities…unless they were opening liquor stores because…well, you know.

So, as a kid, I’m riding with my uncles, or my father through the old neighborhood. I’m looking at what used to be sturdy old tenements, some dating back to the late 1800s, rotting on their foundations. It turns out that ninety year old buildings don’t last long if they can’t get a fresh coat of paint or basic maintenance.

That’s not the lesson I was taught, however. The lesson I received driving through the old neighborhood was, “these people don’t know how to take care of things.”

When advocates talk about structural racism, this is what it looks like. It’s not a matter of “all cops are racist,” or “all teachers are racist.” Structural racism means that everyone, whether they are racist or not, is at least partially socialized within structures that are shaped by a history and cultural pattern of racism. This socialization has an influence that shapes our understanding of race, that subtly imbues us with racist attitudes even if we understand conspicuously that racism is immoral. We receive a double message. Racism is wrong, but…

…those people don’t know how to live.

…those people are to be avoided.

…if those people go to school with you, you will suffer for it.

To understand structural racism, perhaps it helps to see society as an actual structure.

US Society

Here’s U.S. Society. We have a mighty culture held up by certain institutional pillars.

U.S. Society with Institutional Pillars

We can use such pillars as ‘Schools’, the ‘Market’, ‘Media’, and the ‘Law’ just as examples.

These pillars serve some kind of function in our society. Schools impart an education and prepare children for adult life in an advanced society that demands many forms of literacy and numeracy. The market distributes resources and produces wealth and opportunity, including work for the citizens. The media informs, entertains, and is instrumental in shaping a cultural consensus. The law governs our actions, defines our values, and helps us resolve conflicts in ways perceived as legitimate by the larger society. These pillars are very important.

These pillars are also social interactions. People do the work that keep the pillars standing. These people maintain the structures premised on certain principles or values. These values develop based on the needs and aims of the institution, but they evolve over time. They are handed down through culture and are shaped by our social history.

So when we look at schools we see dedicated professionals who believe in the primacy of knowledge and are dedicated to helping students achieve their goals. To accomplish this, however, schools have a history of enforcing a certain amount of conformity.

The values associated with the Market Pillar include a work ethic, competition and consumerism. The Media emphasizes free speech, charisma and entertainment. Those making our legal structures work, from our courts to our beat cops, from our public defenders to our private law firms are dedicated to contractualism, justice, and equality before the law.

Value Pillars

These values are mostly laudable, perhaps with some unforeseen negative consequences along the way. But these values didn’t just happen. Nobody sat down and wrote up the principles that all schools and markets would follow from this point on.

These values emerged over time and, therefore, have a historical context.

In the United States, racism is an undeniable component in the evolution of our social values. Racism imbues at least part of all of our institutional structures. This does not mean that everyone who participates within these structures is a racist. It means that a history and culture of racism shapes, at least in part, the decisions we make today within these structures.

Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. (US DoE 2014)

We can see this in schools. Schools have had and continue to experience a legacy of segregation. Schools and administrators may not be overtly racist, but this legacy of segregation continues to shape how educators interact with black students. So when non-racist teachers interact with black students they carry the baggage, what are called incorrigible propositions, that these kids are less capable, more problematic, requiring more–meaning harsher–discipline. It’s in this context that we see black students disproportionately represented among those receiving suspension, expulsion and other forms of discipline.

When the biases inherent to the School Pillar overlap with criminal justice in the Law Pillar we can understand the cultural and historical influences responsible for the School to Prison Pipeline. The Justice Policy institute points out that schools, having adopted zero tolerance policies in the face of growing concerns over violence (concerns not borne out by the data), and often “outsource” their discipline to police officers. This has a universally negative impact on students. The Justice Policy Institute reports that, “even controlling for a school district’s poverty level, schools with officers had five times as many arrests for “disorderly conduct” as schools without them.”

That policing in the United States is motivated in part by racist values is beyond dispute. It should come as no surprise that the racist values lingering in the school system, combined with racist values inherent in police culture coalesce to the detriment of black students. According to the Justice Policy Institute:

Several studies have looked at the relationship between race, behavior, and suspension, and none have[sic] them have proven that black students misbehave at higher rates. A study in 2002 found that white students were more likely to be disciplined for provable, documentable offenses — smoking, vandalism, and obscene language — while black students were more likely to be disciplined for more subjective reasons, such as disrespect.

Justice Policy Institute

These variables combined translate into a powerful conflict cycle. Schools perceive black students as less valuable. Police perceive black suspects as more dangerous. Black respondents then respond to these environments with less willingness to participate and cooperate. These negative behaviors then become confirmation for preconceived notions premised in racist culture and history even when the individuals involved in the interactions do not perceive themselves as racist.

Our current, heated debate on structural or institutional racism is losing the nuanced context to impassioned rhetoric. Activists refer to structural racism, and those within the structures react defensively. I’m not a racist! I have friends who are cops, and they are not racists! We need to respect the police!

Perhaps they are not racist. And yes, we should respect all working people, especially those who have dedicated their lives to serving their community–often sacrificing more lucrative opportunities to do so. We also need to respect the victims of an exploitative and destructive system.

That’s the point. Even those who are not racist…even people of color…are influenced by historical and cultural forces embedded within our social structures. Values are passed down from generation to generation. A police officer or a teacher or a politician or a media analyst or any other actor, enters into their field having learned certain values from their overall culture. Racism is one of those value sets. It’s not the only value set. It may not be the most important value set. But it is influential in motivating human behavior to greater or lesser degrees.

Furthermore, once the individual, say the brand new police officer, enters the precinct on the first day, she learns the accepted values from other officers who came before her…who learned from those who came before them…who transmitted values from those who came before them. Among those values is racism going back to the Antebellum slave patrols. Again, it’s not the only value that is learned, but it is a value that is reproduced structurally.

These values do not completely define the actions of individuals within the institution, police officers, teachers, media personalities, doctors. They do, however, increase the probability that individuals will act on racial bias at least part of the time. This will have disproportionately negative impacts on black people. It is a factor that white subjects do not have to contend with (that’s the meaning of white privilege).

If we want a police force, or educators, or a health system, that is free of racial bias, then we must acknowledge the imbedded nature of racist values in our society and in our institutions. Becoming aware is the first step to mitigating the influence of poisonous cultural influence.

Furthermore, doing so improves the life prospects of everyone involved. Black citizens benefit from greater integration into society. Teachers benefit from better relationships with their student. Police officers are safer when suspects respond out of respect for legitimate authority rather than fear and anger related from racial exploitation.

Everyone wins.

And from the perspective of a white male, I promise, acknowledging the influence of racism in your everyday life does not hurt. It doesn’t make you a racist. If we really want to be anti-racist, there is no other way.

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