Institutional racism

One of the most challenging days of my life was the day I spent in a roomful of lawyers, in Germany. An Army 1st Lieutenant and race relations education officer, just back from six weeks of training at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), I was assigned to conduct a one-day race relations seminar at the U.S. Army headquarters in Heidelberg. The attendees were the staff of the Judge Advocate General – all of the Army lawyers in Germany, including the one-star Judge Advocate General, himself. Because lawyers join the Army at the rank of Captain, I was the lowest-ranking officer in the room. And I was the only non-lawyer.

I was used to encountering resistance to race relations education, and I knew that leading this seminar wouldn’t be easy. Sure enough, during the morning session, many of the things I said about personal racism were challenged, and I felt like I was being cross-examined. I wondered if my presentation was getting through to anyone. Then, gradually, some of the lawyers present nodded their agreement as I made controversial points, and seemed to be coming around.

When I talked about institutional racism in the afternoon session, I continued to encounter resistance from some of the lawyers. But others began to side with me, saying things along the lines of, “Actually, Tom, he’s right about that” and “Let him finish making his point.” At the end of the day, several attendees thanked me and shook my hand. A week or so later, I got a letter of commendation from the general, stating that it was clear why I’d been chosen “to be an instructor in the difficult subject area of racism.”

The only way that I was able to hold my own in a roomful of lawyers was that the evidence was on my side. I had the facts; the lawyers who argued with me only had opinions. Still today, many white Americans remain blind to institutional/systemic racism and white privilege. They have opinions about the disparities between the white majority and people of color, but they don’t know the facts about institutional racism.

Many of the facts I learned at the DRRI came from the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which analyzed the societal factors that provoked the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. The report disclosed inequities in employment, housing, social services and education, and identified discriminatory practices in policing and in the criminal justice system. The report concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Sad to say, not much has changed since the release of the report.

Institutional racism is a web of persistent, interrelated inequities having to do with housing, hiring practices, education, nutrition, health care, and law enforcement. People who are blind to institutional racism tend to believe that the disparities in wealth and social status are attributable to factors like intelligence and ambition. But, in fact, there is still widespread societal discrimination against people of color. The playing field is still not level.

The “white flight” to the suburbs left many inner cities mostly populated by people of color. Since most school districts are funded by local property taxes, and property in run-down inner cities and pockets of rural poverty is generally less valuable than in white communities, many minority group children get an inferior education, limiting their job prospects. Access to affordable health care, including preventive care, is often limited in minority communities. Many of these communities are also “food deserts,” with no supermarkets to provide fresh produce and nutritious alternatives to the junk food sold in neighborhood bodegas and convenience stores. Not only are job opportunities limited by poor schooling and job training, numerous studies have shown that many employers are unconsciously biased toward white job candidates over equally-qualified minority candidates. The economic inequality between white people and minorities can’t be denied. White people who don’t see or understand the mechanics of institutional racism are likely to lay blame for this disparity – consciously or unconsciously – on the victims of systemic racism.

People of color are disproportionately accosted or arrested, persecuted, incarcerated and killed in police custody, relative to white citizens. This is either because people distinguishable by their abundance of epidermal melanin are “racially” more prone to criminal behavior (as some people still believe), or because our criminal justice/law enforcement system is systemically racist, and in need of reform.

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