sys•tem•ic sĭ-stĕm′ĭk, -stē′mĭk
adj. Of or relating to systems or a system.
adj. Relating to or affecting the entire body or an entire organism.
Today I want to talk about the second definition: Relating to or affecting the entire body or an entire organism. The body we’ll talk about today is the United States of America.
However, instead of talking about systemic racism in the abstract, I’m going to talk about racism in my own life. We all know the statistics systemically (% of CEOs, % of wealth, etc). I want to talk about my own life history with racism.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve really gone through a lot of self-reflection. I’ve read books that increased my understanding around the issue. I’ve watched every episode of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. I’ve reposted anti-racist posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ve engaged in more and more conversations with people on Facebook around the issue in the wake of Jacob Blake getting shot 7 times in the back. Quite a few of my friends seem bent on justifying the action by saying some of these things:
- “He resisted arrest”
- Resisting arrest is not grounds for execution
- “He had outstanding warrants”
- Having a warrant is not grounds for execution
- “He was going for a knife in his car”
- He got shot in the back 7 times because he could possibly eventually have a knife? Really? A knife’s only good in close combat, so back up a little. You’ve got several officers with a GUN trained on him – no need to be afraid of a knife.
Looking back at previous Facebook conversations I realized I’d had this conversation before. Always conservative friends defending what seems to me indefensible actions by the police. From Michael Brown to Freddy Grey. They even defended George Floyd’s murder.
So, without further ado, I’d like to point out how systemically racist we are as a nation. Consider the following:
- Within my parents' lifetime, Black folks were being beaten for crossing a bridge to protest that they couldn't vote. If my parents felt that was justified, they would have passed that onto people in my generation. People in my generation are now in power as police and politicians. To think that because the VRA (Voting Rights Act) was passed in 1965 and since then there has been no more systemic racism discounts the impact that family culture has from generation to generation.
- Within a month of the redistricting rule of the VRA being struck down in 2013, states throughout the South started redrawing their lines - for the first time since 1965 without federal oversight. Notably in almost every case Black folks' votes were diluted as a result. This was 7 years ago.
- Since George Floyd was murdered in Wisconsin, I've interviewed multiple Black folks for my podcast, all of whom live in Utah, and all of whom agree that Utah is a great place to live as a Black person. All of them agree that police, by and large are well trained in most cities here (SLPD, UPD for example). All agree that there are cities in Utah where police are not well trained (Cottonwood Heights, for example). All of them have lived multiple places throughout the country and all have experienced racism from police everywhere they've gone – including Utah.
- Many people I've talked to point to a few notable exceptions to say that systemic racism doesn't exist (Obama and Oprah are prime examples). These are anecdotal and do not prove a lack of systemic racism. Systemic denotes something we can only see as we look at a wider data set than, say, 2 people. As an example, Black folks during slavery and Jim Crow were very good farmers and it would make sense to see about the same percentage of Black farm owners as a percentage of population (roughly 13-17%). What we find instead is about 3% are farm owners. Why is that? Looking closer we can see that Black farm owners are not given loans at the same time as White farm owners, therefore they can't buy seed and fertilizer. When it is time to plant, their crops don't have a yield high enough to pay back the loan and eventually the farm goes out of business. Systemic racism against Black farm owners has been proven in court. The latest of these is still being litigated (in 2020).
- You can find the same thing drilling down in multiple sectors - not just farming. This is the very definition of systemic racism.
- When I purchased my home in Millcreek, UT in 2013, in the covenants it stated that I could not sell my home to a Black person. At the time I didn't think much of it - I mean there's no way that would hold up in court. Then I started thinking about it a little deeper.
- My home was built in 1948 in a subdivision called Veterans Heights. Veterans coming home from WWII needed a place to live and thanks to the GI bill, they could get a loan to pay for a home. They could also go to college thanks to the same bill. Because of the wealth that my grandparents accrued because of their home and education, my parents both graduated from college. By the time I came around, it was a given that every single one of my 7 brothers and sisters would graduate from college (which they all have) and I expect nothing less from my children.
- Now imagine you came home from WWII and instead of being able to buy a home and go to college with funds from the GI bill, you are specifically written out of the bill, so you can't buy a home nor can you go to college despite fighting for world freedom in the same war as White folks. Adding to the problem, where most Black folks lived in the South, they were treated like dogs, arrested and incarcerated because of Jim Crow laws - laws that were only retracted in my parents' lifetime, or rewritten to not be technically illegal.
- The wealth I received from generations of having the privilege of owning a home and going to college, Black folks have only recently been able to take advantage of.
The system is not going to be dismantled overnight - and it's clear that in many places police continue to treat White people very differently.
I think the question we should ask, and what the protests are bringing to light, is this: would this have happened if Jacob Blake were White? I contend that no, he would not have been shot 7 times in the back because he maybe might possibly eventually hold a knife in his hand.
Anecdotally, when people see a White man with a hatchet actively threatening a police officer not be shot and then in the next video watch a Black man who was breaking up a fight and who maybe perhaps could eventually hold a knife get shot 7 times, it starts being clear what's going on.