Now, do you see it?

Article by Peter Koeppel, member of Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton and the diocesan Stewardship Resources team.

That’s the insidiousness of systemic racism—everyone does what’s rational for their corner of the world, maybe even proclaiming that they’re not racist, no-one does anything overtly or intentionally racist, and yet, when all is said and done, the result is blatant, visible racism.

So, what’s up with systemic racism?

Maybe you remember when Black people could not live in white neighborhoods; maybe you remember when Black people could not get a mortgage from the local bank; maybe you remember when Black people could not travel easily, because facilities, from rest areas, to restaurants, to hotels, were “whites only.” If you don’t remember the latter, perhaps watching the recently released movie “The Green Book” will give you a hint of what it was like to travel while Black in the country of the free and the brave, not all that long ago. Do you remember “Separate but equal?” It was all about separate, and not a bit about equal. These are all just a few of the examples of overt systemic racism, where the system of laws, customs, and (racist) choices worked together seamlessly to restrict and curtail freedom and opportunities for Black people. How about current attempts at voter suppression, as well as gerrymandering in defining electoral districts: who do you think is the most frequently targeted demographic of these efforts: if you guessed Black people, you’re on to something. Is this great country of ours one you can only love, on account of its racial history, with an aching heart?

While red-lining laws and regulations have been consigned to the history books, systemic racism is still with us; it’s perhaps more subtle, and less intentional, but its effect is no less pernicious than before.

And no, the days of systemic racism are not over. While red-lining laws and regulations have been consigned to the history books, systemic racism is still with us; it’s perhaps more subtle, and less intentional, but its effect is no less pernicious than before. Let me give you an example of how it continues to rear its ugly head.

Let’s say you’re a developer. It would be very natural for you to find desirable sections of land on which to build upscale homes—that’s how you make the most money. And let’s say you have identified a piece of land that looks just right: it has nice views, maybe it’s near or in view of a body of water, there’s no industry or plants nearby, it’s not downwind from landfills or sewage treatment plants, infrastructure (water, sewer, energy, internet) can all be brought here. No racism in sight, here. Your next stop is at the local Zoning Board or Planning Board. You present your plan. They look at roads, traffic, tax base, utilities, maybe fire protection, wetlands and you get your approval. No racism here either. You build your spec-house and start marketing, and you attract interested parties. No racism here, either. Your potential buyers appreciate your upscale development; still no racism anywhere in sight. The buyers go and get mortgages so they can have you build and ultimately buy your gorgeous homes. The bankers approving those mortgages: they only evaluate your buyers credit-worthiness; no racism to see there, either.

So, when all is said and done, how come, when you look at the inhabitants of this beautiful new development, chances are they’re all white?

Not enough for you yet? How about the school board placing an elementary school to serve the children in that development. No racism there, either, but the children in that school are likely to be as white as their parents.

Finally, when a Black teenager tries to safely get through this development without sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb, a “concerned citizen” pursues and shoots him. Ok, now we finally see the racism. But it’s too late—the seeds for this were planted much, much earlier.

That’s the insidiousness of systemic racism—everyone does what’s rational for their corner of the world, maybe even proclaiming that they’re not racist, no-one does anything overtly or intentionally racist, and yet, when all is said and done, the result is blatant, visible racism.

Of course, we could take every one of the steps above apart, and discern how racism subtly or not so subtly rears its head. If the developer was willing to forego some profit and include some smaller houses on smaller lots in the plan; if the zoning board insisted on a more mixed-size, mixed-cost development, if the bank was willing to give loans to people not quite as rich, the whole development might look different. And therein lies the foundation for some of the federal and state rules, which try to actively discourage everyone doing “only their thing” resulting—without overt intent—in the emergence of all-white communities.

All that said, let’s not forget that one or the other of the players, above, might in fact harbor racial animus, and quietly move their part of the action in a particular direction. And once someone has made their home in the above fictional development, anything that could threaten the value of the land and homes triggers a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) reaction—unintentional racism becomes entrenched.

I don’t mean to pick on developers, zoning boards, bankers, or school boards. They are most certainly not the only examples of people simply going about their daily tasks, while not being consciously racist. You can find, if only you care to look, examples of deeply ingrained systemic racism are just about everywhere. Sometimes the effects show up quickly; other times, they take their time. Whenever you see differences—whether it’s in housing, public safety, justice, healthcare, education, job-opportunity—you might want to ask the question: what happened in this particular case to get us to where we are? Because more often than not, the answer is deeply disturbing.

Untangling the intricate threads of small decisions which, together, create tightly-woven nets of systemic racism, is not easy. Best to start right now – with an examination of what lies deep within us—and we may well discover that we have made choices which played a part in creating or perpetuating systemic racism. But once we manage to see it and own up to it, we will also put ourselves on the only path which allows us to address this pernicious problem: to act differently, going forward.

Black lives matter. They mattered 400 years ago, when the first enslaved Africans were pushed ashore in what became Virginia. They have mattered every second since. At many moments in our history, efforts to right the original sin of racism have brought progress, but not complete fulfillment. Now we are challenged to once again stand up in support of our Black fellow citizens—to, in the words of John Lewis, make “good trouble.” Our Black fellow citizens, siblings in Christ, deserve no less.

Comments
  • Dolly Chegosky
    Reply

    Thank you for not being silent to this weakness in our society. Things left unsaid, say a lot. Unless we voice our opinions, we become the silent majority that often allows wrongs to continue. The more we know and are informed as to how these practices started and were perpetuated, the bettter equiped we are to seek justice and not look the other way.

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