I feel wholly inadequate in trying to address a topic on which volumes have been written by people more learned than myself, but still I feel the need to try to make sense of all this.
Let’s first try to understand the debate about racism in the United States and any disagreement or misunderstanding over the term — systemic.
We need to agree on the definition of systemic. It is most commonly used in horticulture to describe a problem with a diseased plant; “A systemic drug, disease, or poison reaches and has an effect on the whole of a body or a plant and not just one part of it.”
The word comes from Late Latin systema "an arrangement, system," from Greek systema "organized whole, a whole compounded of parts," from stem of synistanai "to place together, organize, form in order," Hey, now you can speak some Latin. 😄
I imagine you get the idea. It means that if the rose bush in your garden has a systemic disease, that sucker is riddled throughout with the disease. Simply cutting off one branch that may look worse than the others will not get rid of the disease; you will most likely have to attack the problem it at the roots so that the cure is taken up by the entire plant.
Another observation — when we say the word racism, it invariably conjures up the image of a Black person in the minds of most white Americans. We know there are other people of color, Latinos, East Indians, and many people from the Middle East, but the “really black” people are from Africa in the minds of many in our society. This is due, in part, to the incessant coverage of everything Black in the news media and other forms of journalism.
Let’s look at the roots of our democracy and the growth of our nation as it relates to our modern day problem.
Jefferson, we’re taught in school, is the one who insisted on the words about equality in our Declaration of Independence. His first draft of the document states: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;…”
The phrase was later changed, by consensus, to; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The meaning is arguably the same, meaning these rights cannot be screwed with or taken away or abridged in any way.
We are taught that Jefferson supported abolition, and he did, but with a caveat. Jefferson actually wanted the black people, once freed, to be repatriated to Africa from whence they came. He wanted them the hell out of the country; in retrospect, a form of white supremacy - wanting to keep America white. From The Atlantic, this excerpt from piece on Jefferson's writings:
"In theory Jefferson's "solution" to slavery consisted in "colonization": the deportation of all the freed blacks from the United States, preferably back to Africa. Cohen: The entire body of Jefferson's writings shows that he never seriously considered the possibility of any form of racial coexistence on the basis of equality and that, from at least 1778 until his death, he saw colonization as the only alternative to slavery.
Late in his life, however, Jefferson began to admit the impracticability of this colonial solution, at least in its widest sense, while reiterating his faith in an attenuated form of it. Cohen writes;
In 1824 Jefferson argued that there were a million and a half slaves in the nation and that no one conceived it to be "practicable for us, or expedient for them" to send all the blacks away at once. He then went on to calculate:
Their estimated value as property, in the first place, (for actual property has been lawfully vested in that form, and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?) at an average of two hundred dollars each … would amount to six hundred millions of dollars which must be paid or lost by somebody. To this add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado [the west coast of Liberia], a year's provision of food and clothes, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more … and it is impossible to look at the question a second time."
In other words, Jefferson saw the slaves as property and he appears to be trying to find a way around the economic impact of freeing slaves resulting from sending them all back as opposed to be torn by the inhumanity of the whole slavery thing. Not unlike today, the almighty dollar tends to rule the minds of those at the helm of government as opposed to simply doing the right thing and contending with the economic fallout.
John Adams, another of the prominent founders of our nation, while not owning slaves himself and generally in disagreement with slavery, as President, wrote this in response to the receipt of a pamphlet from abolitionists;
“There are many other Evils in our Country which are growing, (whereas the practice of slavery is fast diminishing,)* and threaten to bring Punishment on our Land, more immediately than the oppression of the blacks. That Sacred regard to Truth in which you and I were educated, and which is certainly taught and enjoined from on high, Seems to be vanishing from among Us. A general Relaxation of Education and Government. A general Debauchery as well as dissipation, produced by pestilential philosophical Principles of Epicurus infinitely more than by Shews and theatrical Entertainment. These are in my opinion more serious and threatening Evils, than even the slavery of the Blacks, hateful as that is.
I might even add that I have been informed, that the condition, of the common Sort of White People in some of the Southern states particularly Virginia, is more oppressed, degraded and miserable than that of the Negroes.
These Vices and these Miseries deserve the serious and compassionate Consideration of Friends** as well as the Slave Trade and the degraded State of the blacks.”
* Adams was mistaken about the state of slavery; it was in fact increasing in popularity and was on the increase, not in decline.
These quotes are not meant to denigrate the work that either of these men who helped to bring about our great, if still flawed nation or the reputations of anyone of the people of that time; they were a product of their era and their generation; they only knew what they were taught at home and in their places of worship.
We have to look at this in the context of that time. These were generally reasonable people of some faith and having been raised to believe that white people were superior to other races would likely be reticent to accept that there was true equality of the races no matter the words in our Declaration. But, it does demonstrate that 250 years ago, the seeds of racism had long been planted. Given that virtually every person of power, wealth, and influence was indeed a white man, those beliefs were not only embedded in our history but were being taught to the next generation of children as being normal and almost certainly part of God's plan.
Fast forward to the mid-1800s and we are embroiled in a great debate about a number of tangential issues revolving around the main issue of slavery that would lead to a bloody civll war. The basic problem for all this commotion was the South’s resistance to end slavery. None of the original founders was still alive by the time of the Civil War, but their sons and daughters who had been instilled, perhaps brainwashed or indoctrinated with the philosophies of their white parents were very much alive and depending on their individual indoctrination, came down on one side or the other of slavery.
In the 1800s, the term racism didn't exist. There were plenty of debates about slavery, but it didn't seem to the people e fo that time to be a debate about racism. According to the second edition (1989) of the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known usage of the word “racism” in English occurred in a 1936 book by the American “fascist,” Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism.
Keep in mind, also, that the U.S. at this point was not as populated as it is today and that nearly half of the states (not counting territories) favored secession and retaining slavery and that significant numbers of people in the rest of the Union states agreed with the South or at least thought the Federal government should butt out. Our, that is the white-Anglos, deeply embedded belief in the inferiority of Blacks and other people of color, and the fear of granting them freedom was very real. While some people were against slavery, I suspect that many did not consider Black people to be their equal.
During reconstruction following the Civil War, the U.S. passed several laws regarding the issue of slavery in an effort to right the wrongs done to the African people brought here against their will. There was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amendment that gave Blacks citizenship, and the 15th Amendment granting them the right to vote. Somewhat like a presidents Executive Order, these acts had little bearing on what life was like for Negros in America.
By the end of Reconstruction in the mid 1870s, violent white supremacists came to power via paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts and the White League and imposed Jim Crow laws which deprived African-Americans of voting rights by instituting systemic and discriminatory policies of unequal racial segregation.
Let’s progress another 50 years or so to the early 20th century. Almost everything in our society was dominated by white men; our government, industry, unions, the military, politicians, and teachers. These were the people who were informing the general populace on the issues of race and segregation which remained rampant across the nation.
The new century saw a hardening of institutionalized racism and legal discrimination against citizens of African descent in the United States. Although they were technically able to vote, poll taxes, pervasive acts of terrorism such as lynchings (often perpetrated by hate groups such as the reborn Ku Klux Klan, founded in the Reconstruction South), and discriminatory laws such as grandfather clauses kept black Americans (and many Poor Whites) disenfranchised particularly in the South. The discrimination was extended to state legislation which "allocated vastly unequal financial support" for black and white schools. In addition to this, county officials sometimes redistributed resources which were earmarked for blacks to white schools, further undermining educational opportunities.
Racism, which had been viewed as a problem which primarily existed in the Southern states, burst onto the nation's consciousness following the Great Migration, the relocation of millions of African Americans from their roots in the rural Southern states to the industrial centers of the North and West between 1910 and 1970, particularly in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York City (Harlem), Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, and Denver.
Southern migrants were often treated in accordance with pre-existing racial stratification. The rapid influx of blacks into the North and West disturbed the racial balance within cities, exacerbating hostility between both black and white residents in the two regions. Stereotypic schemas of Southern blacks were used to attribute issues in urban areas, such as crime and disease, to the presence of African-Americans. Overall, African-Americans in most Northern and Western cities experienced systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life.
Throughout this period, racial tensions exploded, most violently in Chicago, and lynchings—mob-directed hangings, usually racially motivated—increased dramatically in the 1920s. Urban riots—whites attacking blacks—became a northern and western problem. Many whites defended their space with violence, intimidation, or legal tactics toward African Americans, while many other whites migrated to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions, a process known as white flight.
Many of the people we’re talking about in the early 20th century were either your parents or grandparents, depending on your age.
The Jim Crow Laws were state and local laws which were enacted in the Southern and border states of the United States and enforced between 1876 and 1965. They mandated "separate but equal" status for blacks. State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. One of the first federal court cases which challenged segregation in schools was Mendez v. Westminster in 1946.
Let’s move to the second half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Membership in the NAACP increased in states across the U.S. A 1955 lynching that sparked public outrage about injustice was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago; Till was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman; assuming it really happened, some saw that as a capital crime punishable by death.
In June 1963, civil rights activist and NAACP member Medgar Evers was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens' Council. In his trials for murder De La Beckwith evaded conviction via all-white juries (both trials ended with hung juries).
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing marked a turning point during the Civil Rights Era. On Sunday, September 15, 1963 with a stack of dynamite hidden on an outside staircase, Ku Klux Klansmen destroyed one side of the Birmingham church. The bomb exploded in proximity to twenty-six children who were preparing for choir practice in the basement assembly room. The explosion killed four black girls, Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Denise McNair (11) and Addie Mae Collins (14).
Many U.S. states banned interracial marriage. In 1967, Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the state's anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between people classified as white and people classified as "colored" (persons of non-white ancestry). In the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, the Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the U.S.
Please note that this was 1967, not ancient history; this was just over fifty years ago that some states were trying to outlaw intermarriages. This is recent history and we were still batshit crazy about black and white mixing together. This could have been your parents or your grandparents promoting anti-marriage propaganda.
As the civil rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and 1960s deepened existing racial tensions in much of the Southern U.S, a Republican Party electoral strategy – the Southern strategy – was enacted in order to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans, a practice that continues today.
Republican politicians such as presidential candidate Richard Nixon and Senator Barry Goldwater developed strategies that successfully contributed to the political realignment of many white, conservative voters in the South who had traditionally supported the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party. In 1971, angered by African delegates at the UN siding against the U.S. in a vote, then Governor of California Ronald Reagan stated in a phone call to president Nixon, "To see those... monkeys from those African countries - damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes!”.
This is the 1970s and white people are still denigrating people of color with terms like monkey, spear chucker, jungle bunny, spic, greaser, and a long list of terms intended to diminish the person of color.The perception that the Republican Party had served as the "vehicle of white supremacy in the South", particularly post 1964, made it difficult for the Party to win back the support of black voters in the South in later years and it remains their Achilles heel today.
From 1981 to 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture discriminated against tens of thousands of black American farmers, denying loans that were provided to white farmers in similar circumstances. The discrimination was the subject of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit brought by members of the National Black Farmers Association, which resulted in two settlement agreements of $1.06 billion in 1999 and of $1.25 billion in 2009. This was going on into the late 1990s; if you are 25 or 30 years old, this is part of your history, not something in a history book.
The problems persist today; Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Central Park Five, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the list goes on. White women calling 911 because a Black man is in Central Park - he turns out to be a bird watcher. White suburbanites seeing a black person in their neighborhood and calling the cops with no justification other than "they are Black".
This timeline should show you that racism is not new, but has existed in the U.S. and around the world for a very long time - thus, we call it systemic.
I know this has been long, but it is important for us as a nation and as individuals to understand that discrimination is deeply embedded in our society, or culture, and in the psyche of many white people in this country. I hope that you can see the pervasiveness of racism throughout our history. We have been taught by parents, political leaders, religious leaders, and just friends and adults in our lives to distrust and fear people of color and especially Black people.
It will take a thoughtful and long-term program to turn this around. And, as I heard someone talking today on the radio, this isn’t something you make happen by force; you can't legislate an open mind, acceptance, and love. You have to find a way to reach inside people and show them the value in their becoming a better person and that it is their civil obligation to make our world a better place. They, and their children and grandchildren will live in a better world for the decisions they make today.
There was a time when we, the white we, rejected the Irish, Italian, the Greeks, East Europeans, and Asians of all stripes. Today, we admire these groups for both their contributions to our country and the world, and welcome them into our families via intermarriage. It was easier because they generally looked like us - they simply had accents. It was a little harder with Asians, but we have, by and large, moved past that barrier.
Exactly how you craft that message about people of color so it reaches a maximum number of people, I don’t quite know, but it’s the only real answer. Certainly, we as individuals can make a huge contribution to this change by teaching our children to accept everyone and only judge people by their behavior. We can either work to change the opinions of our friends, or we unfriend them; isolate them and maybe that will bring them around. Beyond that, I’ll have to depend on the experts to devise ways of changing our society and nation for the better.
I think and write and talk and then do it all over again.