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This is the first of a three-part series on the problem of systemic racism.
As I’ve watched the news the last few weeks, I found some incredibly difficult issues facing many individuals and organizations. What started months ago as only news coverage of nations struggling to respond to a global pandemic, I now see a world reeling from the infection of more than eight million and the death of four hundred thousand, globalized economic distress and social unrest.
While many Americans were seeking answers to health and financial relief questions, the 8:46 seconds of video shown on May 25, 2020, were the straw that broke the camel’s back concerning civil restraint. The murder of George Floyd spread rapidly across the internet. His death served as the catalyst for social activism that had not been seen in decades.
It was no surprise that the outcry for justice and police reform quickly drove a wedge among the community. However, the convergence of the pandemic, the economic downturn and the death of Floyd was the figurative perfect storm. People throughout the world who routinely suffer from unjust treatment were no longer willing to be placated by empty promises of corrective action.
In the interest of true scholarly discussion, I will make every effort to present both sides of the argument of the negative impacts of systemic racism in the United States and the requirement to make immediate changes to eliminate it. In the same manner, any decent person would not attempt to discredit a victim of an assault or other crime until they are completely heard.
The purpose of this first section of a three-part series is intent on doing the most critical step which many find the hardest to admit; we have a race problem in the United States. The people of color of the United States, specifically black people, are protesting that those in positions of power acknowledge there is a problem and do something about it.
Problems Scrawled across Protesters’ Posters and Shouted from Platforms Were Not New
The problems scrawled across protestors’ posters or shouted from their platforms were not new. The initial outcry in the United States was for justice and police accountability. Then the outcry grew into an overarching argument to address racism, specifically systemic racism. Systemic racism is also known as institutional racism and is defined as policies, procedures, and practices that favor one race over another.
Although it is easy to define systemic racism, it is one of the main points of disagreement among those who argue whether or not racism exists. Many individuals will agree that someone – but not them – may have committed a racist act. However, it is harder to find individuals suspected of benefitting from systemic racism or even acknowledging that it exists. In many situations, individuals might even dismiss the argument of systemic racism by saying that the individual involved was an anomaly and did not represent the majority.
In many cases, that is true. However, that is not the point of debate today; the attention is on the system of governing and policing.
The existence of systemic racism and its negative impact on minorities in this country is undeniable. Examples can be found in many published social sciences studies and by reviewing the laws of this country. It is not a pretty reality, and it is no surprise that many people are not aware of the examples.
When something goes wrong within our personal history, there is an understandable desire to hide or suppress it. That is what has happened in our country. Although an example of systemic racism beyond slavery is documented within the U.S. education system, the Tuskegee Experiment, which will be discussed later, is reserved for those pursuing their graduate degree.
The actual knowledge and reality of systemic racism are passed down from generation to generation in history controlled by our communities. Thus, the average American is unfortunately split into one of three categories: ignorance, denial or awareness.
Those who are merely ignorant or unaware of the details don’t like feeling associated with or benefiting from systemic racism. Those who are in denial and not open to discussion of facts are fearful of being held accountable and of correcting the problem. Those who are aware and knowledgeable of systemic racism are forced to shoulder the pain of it and fighting for its end.
What Is Missing Is Large-Scale Exposure to the Facts
What is missing is large-scale exposure to the facts. The discrimination and unethical treatment of someone because of their skin color is horribly wrong, but their institutionalization is devastating to a community. Examples of systemic racism are many.
I implore you to read the report of the Kerner Commission, which was convened by President Lyndon Johnson. The report found that white racism was the impetus for the civil unrest that swept the nation between 1965 and 1968. The report identified more than 150 riots or major disorders, including those after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The report suggested that policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices and many other racially tinged ills converged to cause the unrest of the time. An update to the report in 2018, asserted that little had changed in 50 years. Many of the negative statistics, such as unemployment and incarceration rates, had trended higher.
There may be some persons in denial that systemic racism still exists due to certain milestones in political history such as the abolishment of slavery or the election of President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, some that seek to deny the existence of systemic racism actually struggle to accurately define it. Despite continued numerous examples of system racism that highlight examples of policies instituted during reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, segregation and others, some might make the argument that the actions taken at the time were legal.
Just because something is legal, however, doesn’t make it ethical or morally right. The legal mistreatment of people of color continued well into the 20th century. The examples are as early as 1904, the St. Louis World Fair featured a human zoo of thousands of Filipino people of color to the 1979 end of the Eugenics movement that forced sterilization of minorities and others deemed “delinquent” and “unwholesome.”
In the years following the St. Louis World Fair, there were human exhibits of Native Americans and Africans in American zoos. The Bronx Zoo featured an exhibit of an African man listed as: “Age 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by D. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.”
This treatment of people of color was legal and drew crowds of thousands a day at the height of the exhibit until he was relocated to Lynchburg, Va. I cite this example not to argue the legality of it, but to demonstrate the pervasive mindset of a recent era.
The Eugenics Program is just one of the devastating federally funded programs that few individuals know about unless it affected them or someone like them that was targeted. This program would lead to the forced sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed unfit to reproduce. The governor of North Carolina, which accounted for 7,600 of those sterilizations, apologized to victims of this program as recent as 2002. These emotional wounds are still fresh in the minority community.
Systemic Racism Is Intriguing Because Knowledge of It Is Embedded in Our Education System
The last example of systemic racism is intriguing for the simple fact that the knowledge of it is embedded within our education system at the highest level. The Tuskegee Experiment of 1932-1972 is one of the most recent breaches of trust by the U.S. government with the African American population. The Tuskegee Experiment was a 40-year medical study of the effects of syphilis on African American men while purposely denying them medical treatment.
Individuals pursuing graduate degrees requiring human research learned about the Tuskegee Experiment from the Belmont Report, written to identify the basic ethical principles in research. This information is not taught in social studies or American history.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When thinking about why racist acts continued beyond the passage of civil rights laws, consider that up until Thursday, July 2, 1964, it was legal to discriminate. It was permissible to employ harsh tactics to suppress minorities: intimidation, termination, incarceration, fines and police tactics utilizing dogs.
I would argue that the average person as well as public officials that were legally employing all of those negative tactics and racially motivated negative actions did not have on Friday, July 3, 1964. Those same people who were in power to discriminate and control the tools of the systemic racism returned to their jobs. The fact that the two federally funded racist Tuskegee Experiment and Eugenics programs continued for another 8 and 14 years respectively indicates that systemic racism did not end just because the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Let’s be clear that the acknowledgment of systemic racism is not a personal indictment of the wrongs of others. It is not an agreement to have an earned place in our society stripped away. It is, in fact, a positive step; it is an acknowledgment of the biases institutionalized to harm other human beings. No one is asking anyone to apologize for the system that was built long before many living today were born. In fact, a portion of the U.S. government and some institutions have already apologized. U.S. House of Representatives passed resolution 194 apologizing for slavery.
To those that argue that the demand for reparations is also seeking an apology, it is important to research the definition and U.S. history of reparations. Reparations are defined as the making of amends for a wrong one has done by paying money to — or otherwise helping — those that were wronged. The United States has paid reparations to the Native Americans for unjust land seizure, Japanese Americans for internment camps and Hawaiian Americans for the overthrowing of the Hawaiian government.
In 1862, even the slave owners within the District of Columbia were compensated for the loss of their property: the slaves themselves. So, with this knowledge, you may now have an appreciation for the frustration for even the reparations argument. Races negatively affected by the United States government before blacks, after blacks and even some slave owners were approved to receive reparations. Why can’t the Black community receive the same consideration?
What is being asked of us is to stop denying that systemic racism exists and to be part of the solution. Acknowledgment is the first of the three-step process to correct the injustice that has plagued the country for hundreds of years. The next step is to have an honest and thorough conversation to examine just how bad the problem is and to see what can be done to fix it.
About the Author
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr., currently serves as the Program Director of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management with the School of Business at American Military University. He serves as an adjunct faculty for various universities around the world. Dr. Parker is a native of Temple, Texas, a certified Inspector General by the Association of Inspector Generals, and a proud member of professional organizations advancing knowledge and professionalism, such as the Association of Supply Chain Management and the National Naval Officers Association.
Dr. Parker is a published author, inspirational speaker, consummate entrepreneur and consultant who speaks worldwide on Diversity and Inclusion, and Leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University, an MBA from Liberty University, and a B.A. in history from Wittenberg University. Dr. Parker has a long history of passion and interest in local communities and is a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.
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