I Thought Injustice Didn’t Have to Do With Race

Here’s what changed my mind

Photo: Mads Perch/Getty Images

When I was a girl, my mother (who is Black) taught me that slavery was something terrible that happened in the past. She said that because the North won the Civil War, and because the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow, Black people were now equal in the eyes of the law, and the only thing keeping us down was ourselves.

I believed that for a long time — the myth of the model Black person. I believed that all we needed to do was “act right” to have as much chance of success as any White person. Because my racial ambiguity afforded me scant encounters with blatant racism, it was an easy assertion to fall for.

I grew up in a predominately White, working-class community, but in college and beyond, I made many more Black friends whose race was more externally obvious than mine. Nothing revealed to me the prevalence of modern covert and overt forms of racism more than witnessing their encounters with it:

Hearing my Black female friends’ difficulty in finding romantic partners, partly due to beauty standards that exclude dark-skinned women, evidenced in frequent declarations from men of all races that “I don’t date Black girls.”

Seeing my friend, a full-grown Black woman, rudely scolded by a White store owner for opening a granola bar before paying for it — while we were in line to pay for it.

Hearing complaints from multiple Black friends who can’t use Airbnb because their reservations are routinely denied or cancelled.

Just to name a few. Yet these frustrating and demeaning interactions with normal people seem tame compared to my Black friends’ encounters with law enforcement:

Like when my Black male friend told me the story of a racist cop who would regularly pick him up off the street as a teenager and make him sit in the back of his cop car as he drove around hurling racial slurs at him. This was before most phones had recording devices. When my friend tried reporting the cop to his police department, they denied that it ever happened.

Or when my Black friend who has a degree in dentistry and was pulled over for speeding. It was unintentional, which she proved by getting her odometer calibrated. Despite her respectful explanation, the officer threatened her with six months in jail and the judge called her a criminal. She ended up with six months’ probation, but only because she paid thousands of dollars for an out-of-county lawyer, since every other lawyer she contacted in the county advised her that she’d have to serve time.

Or when multiple Black friends, including one who is an aerospace engineer, fear driving nice cars they’ve worked hard to own because of how many times cops pull them over, sometimes with guns drawn, demanding to know whether the car is theirs.

Just to name a few.

Systemic racism buries the narratives and histories of those who suffer from its brutality

Each story left me shocked, appalled, and in disbelief. How could this happen in today’s age? It wasn’t until my own sister was falsely accused of a serious crime that I got to experience the (in)justice system from the inside for what it is: an obfuscated maze of cronyism and pay-for-play, where cops can rewrite reality to match their own narrative, money is often the price of justice, you are assumed guilty until you can prove yourself innocent, and years of a human life are just another number.

It’s an utterly terrifying, hellish system to navigate if even a single person with authority inside of it decides they don’t like you. And if you’re Black, that can be — and often is — a lot of people.

Racism isn’t just about people being mean to you, even though that is damaging enough when repeated over and over throughout a single person’s life. Systemic racism happens when we create institutions that give anyone the authority to assert their individual biases against others without consequence.

People can be biased against you for any number of reasons: if you’re fat, if you’re skinny, if you’re short, if you’re tall, if you have mental challenges, if you’re nerdy, if you practice a certain religion, if you’re an immigrant, if you’re poor — and yes, even if you’re White.

But in this country, historically and statistically today, people are most biased against you if you’re B-L-A-C-K.

That is why systemic reform activists felt the need to declare that #BlackLivesMatter as central to their work.

Systems that allow for those with authority to harm Black people can be, and are, used to target anyone.

If you educate yourself about institutional racism and the New Jim Crow (read the book if you haven’t), you’ll learn that many systems that today allow for the use of unchecked power were intentionally designed to target or exclude minority groups. Other structural institutions started off with good intentions but left loopholes that corrupt people have exploited. While those systems disproportionately harm Black people, in practice they threaten and violate every American’s rights, freedoms, and welfare.

We can see structural racism in action in the media when stories are written to sensationalize, otherize, and confirm people’s prejudices — because that’s what earns clicks.

It happens in the workforce, when employers at public firms and in government deny highly qualified candidates positions because of prejudice, then give them a BS reason for why they picked someone less qualified.

It happens in education, when students who have experienced trauma are held to a stricter standard, punished more frequently, and denied extracurricular activities because they don’t perform well enough on standardized tests to get the funding for needed resources.

It happens in hospitals, when doctors overcharge, misdiagnose, and mistreat patients who they know aren’t educated or empowered enough to advocate for their own medical needs within the complicated health care system.

It happens in banking when lenders offer predatory interest rates because they know their clients have limited options.

And just because there are rich, successful Black people doesn’t mean Black people have equal opportunity. Just because someone who identifies as Black — or African, or mixed, or a person of color — hasn’t experienced racism, or denies that institutional racism is real, does not negate its existence.

All lives can’t matter unless and until #BlackLivesMatter. Ending systemic racism is everyone’s fight.

In retrospect and with context, I can see clearly now how systemic racism and its generational effects impacted my upbringing: the self-hate of my textured hair and ethnic features, colorism that created tension between members of my own family, and toxic mindsets and behaviors born from racism-rooted trauma, which I inherited from my mother, and she from hers.

Systemic racism buries the narratives and histories of those who suffer from its brutality and barriers, so what we see primarily are the rotten fruits: poverty, anger, ignorance, abusiveness, immaturity, mistrust, learned helplessness, division. Meanwhile the noxious roots of injustice stay embedded in society and continue to reproduce as we scramble to prune the overgrowth with tools like affirmative action, federal assistance, and increased policing. None of these are long-term solutions.

Systemic racism is able to continue because of how all of us are conditioned to blame its victims for their own demise at its hands. We fault the individual for expressing symptoms when we are all culpable for upholding the environment which produces the underlying disease. Systemic racism creates vicious and unforgiving cycles of poverty and oppression that are extremely difficult to escape once you become ensnared in them.

Though rooted in anti-Black racism, systems that allow for those with authority to harm Black people can be, and are, used to target anyone. All of us are affected in different ways. Healing from the emotional damage done by these systems is a responsibility that can, and should, be supported by the community but ultimately falls upon the individual.

However, permanently dismantling, reforming, and atoning for unjust systems requires intentional group effort. George Floyd’s extrajudicial execution has illuminated for many the dark path of unregulated oppression that our country has been leading, and also an opportunity to diverge toward new systems of transparency, fairness, and accountability. It’s about more than sparing lives; it’s about supporting livelihoods. The way forward on the second path may not be altogether clear, but it is undeniably separate from the one we’ve been traveling.

So now, we each have a choice to make. Pick your side; there is no middle ground. Complacency is a vote for the status quo.

I hope you choose the side of progress. It starts with learning the concealed history of how we got here, unlearning the flawed and damaging beliefs that keep us from advancing as a people united, and listening to the stories of those whom our systems have harmed. Among those may be your own.

All lives can’t matter unless and until #BlackLivesMatter. Ending systemic racism is everyone’s fight.

Paradigm shifter advocating for the liberation and dignity of all people.

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