Having grown up just outside of Detroit, one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, and having completed a doctorate degree in understanding the role of policy and infrastructure in facilitating racial divisions within that city, I have come to understand and recognise the gravity of the situation at hand.
There is a fundamental problem that exists when we talk about racism and discrimination. Racism is not simply the use of certain words, acts of outward prejudice, and a belief in superiority. Racism is a system whose various parts have stretched into every possible corner of modern-day society. It is an infrastructure that’s deeply engrained in the histories and cultures of particular nations. It is a system of social norms and public policies that have, for centuries, operated in a way that privileges certain people over others, simply based on the colour of their skin. Racism is not merely a behaviour, it is a structural issue.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her brilliant book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, explains, ‘Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organization, acting accordingly…It is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias. It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically impact people’s life chances’.
From its very foundation, the United States has implemented policies and practices that have created a system of structural racism. This has been developed by practices of lynching which targeted freed black slaves who were thought to have too much freedom, redlining policies which prevented African Americans from purchasing property, and Black Codes and Jim Crow laws which through public policy, officially enabled segregation in schools, parks, theatres, cemeteries and jails amongst other places. In the United Kingdom, there too is a history of racism and discrimination, evident for example in the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries, the use of the British West Indies Regiment during WWI, and the discrimination faced by Caribbean immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s.
The history of structural racism has played a significant role in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of much of the Black community today. This system continues to manifest as privilege, access, and equity. In the United States, Black individuals currently have a drastically lower median level of wealth than whites or Asian Americans, African Americans are more likely to be arrested, charged with crimes and convicted and sentenced than white Americans, and cities continue to experience socio-spatial racial segregation.
Across the pond
In the United Kingdom it is evident in the lack of diversity at the UK’s top universities, in the disproportion of black individuals targeted by ‘stop and search’, and even in the current global health crisis where Black and minority ethnic groups have a substantially higher risk of death from Covid-19, which may be a result of structural inequities.
It is important that the long-term impact of these broad patterns of discrimination is understood within the wider context of our histories and communities. Therefore, while we might not be able to see it so directly in our own lives for it is not always as visible as we may think, we must acknowledge that racism is still present, and there is still work to be done.
What we are seeing taking place in the United States, is a legitimate and vocal frustration over a decades-long failure to correct this system and a genuine desire to reform discriminatory police practices and address the failings of the broader criminal justice system. But this is not just an American issue – this is a humanitarian issue.
While we must actively seek to understand the context of the situation and the frustration being felt by the Black community, we must also actively seek ways in which to be productive as a whole society. Not only do we need to recognize our own unconscious bias, but we must strive to find points of intervention within this wider system where we can actively encourage both dialogue and action.
Reflection and change
It is time for listening, reflection and change. It is not always easy, and times it is uncomfortable. But we all must start somewhere. Some have been using social media as a platform, others are protesting in the streets. Some are donating to local and national causes, others are educating themselves and their wider networks.
Just as it took years to embed racism into our societal structure, it will take years to dismantle it. A protest or a demonstration should not need to be the catalyst which ignites conversation and change. In our communities, we all have a different role to play, and so long as we keep moving forward, we can continue this movement together.
Finally, the first step in this work involves looking at ourselves. We will turn to our colleagues, our partners and collaborators at The Young Foundation to listen, learn and move forward together. We not only stand in solidarity with the Black community, but we are committed to our ongoing efforts to amplify those voices less heard, diversify our institution and continue to better our own practice.
There is much that The Young Foundation still needs to do – and we as a team, are dedicated to doing it. Black Lives Matter.
Learn more about structural racism and data-driven policy solutions
Urban Institute | Structural Racism in America: https://www.urban.org/features/structural-racism-america
NAACP Policy Demands: https://www.naacp.org/campaigns/we-are-done-dying/
Campaign Zero (data-driven policy solutions to end violence and hold police accountable): https://www.joincampaignzero.org/
How to be a good ally