When white Republicans like President Trump, Attorney General William Barr or Senator Tom Cotton deny the existence of systemic racism in police departments, they have no idea what that term means. Racism can be broken down into three components: 1) conscious/explicit racists beliefs and actions, 2) unconscious/implicit racist beliefs and actions; and 3) systems of beliefs, rules, practices and structures, some of which may not be obviously recognized as racist. All are part of systemic racism, but it’s perhaps the third element that people are most ignorant about.
If you look at many existing dictionary definitions of racism, there’s an emphasis on individual and conscious acts of discrimination or prejudice or racial animus and hatred*. In 2020, most Americans, even many racist white Americans would NOT publicly acknowledge such views or acts; in other words, the dictionary definition doesn’t describe the way racism works in today’s society. Even when racist whites slip up and reveal their racism, they deny that’s what in their “hearts.”
There are indeed a myriad of ways whites deny the existence of racism: Some whites believe that racism can’t exist because even the racists don’t act in ways described by the dictionary definitions. Other whites believe racism doesn’t exist because they have not seen it, which is as valid as my saying I’ve never seen the Indian Ocean so it must not exist. Some say they haven’t heard complaints about racism from their one black friend or the black people they know; whites like this don’t realize that black people and other people of color know that to keep their jobs and/or avoid more stress in their lives, they often chose to remain silent about the racism they experience or the racism in the institution or business they’re a part of. In many instances, they calculate that saying something true about their racial experiences or systemic racism will not bring change, it will only bring approbation and punishment. Again, this silencing of black and brown people is systemic and is one of the tools through which the status quo of racial inequities protects itself.
And of course, many whites simply don’t want to see and so do not; they don’t know any black people, don’t want to know any black people, and don’t believe black people when black people point to racial injustices. Such white people are programmed by white supremacy not to believe the word of black and brown people unless validated by a white seal of approval. This is one reason why the presence of white protestors has the potential of changing white minds in ways black or brown voices alone did not. But though this is a positive, this mechanism of change relies on the belief and practice that white people are the arbiters of truth. Thus, black and brown people must come to whites as supplicants not just to the power of whites politically, economically, socially and culturally but as epistemological inferiors who can never be the ultimate arbiters and validators of the truth. This positioning is systemic and not individual; it is a basic foundation of white supremacy. So:
We know that there is conscious or explicit bias, like the old definition of racism. And there is a systemic practice in American society to minimize or ignore these instances of conscious explicit bias. Moreover, the effect of this conscious explicit bias is then multiplied by millions of instances–by the police, in the work force and business offices, in schools and classrooms, in every area of society. It’s not just a “few bad apples.” In surveys, one quarter of the whites say they would object to having a black family move next door or a black person marry into their family. This means there are sixty million whites who hold such beliefs. Sixty million represents a system, not just the few. For in order for sixty million whites to hold what are clearly racist beliefs and thus, act according to those beliefs, they must grow up in families and environments where they were educated in such beliefs; this education did not just occur because one racist uncle or parent taught them to believe this way. The educational system, the culture around them, the ways their world views are constructed, all enabled them to carry such beliefs into adulthood and continue to believe there is nothing wrong—or even racist—about such beliefs and the acts that stem from them. Moreover, these whites who express conscious explicit racial bias are tolerated by and go unchallenged by the whites around them, who may not agree with such beliefs, but are not troubled enough by them to challenge other white people. So much more than a quarter of the white population, enable—both literally and in the AA sense—the sixty million to continue in their racist beliefs and actions.
At the same time, the effect of millions and millions of instances of conscious and explicit bias—from so called microaggressions to more violent acts–must be seen as a system of oppression, which black people and other people of color must face the threat of every day. The vast majority of white people have no or little clue as to the amount and frequency with which blacks and other people of color encounter outright conscious racism in their day to day lives. And this is just the less existentially threatening aspects of conscious racism. For there’s also the constant threat of racist police and police harassment, profiling and brutality, and all of these unequal treatments are perpetuated not just by the “few bad apples” but all those “good” police who not only turn their eye to police brutality and murder, but actively work to protect the “few bad apples” both through the Blue Wall of Silence and through the demands of police unions which make sure even the most dangerous racist police officers are never fired. It’s a system, people.
Still, there is some recognition of the injustice in conscious bias as shown in the dictionary definition. And this is the racism you might find even some white conservatives critiquing.
But we also now know there can be unconscious or implicit bias: One can be unconscious and unaware of the prejudice programmed into your own mind–i.e., you can believe you are not racist, not want to be racist, and still act in ways that are racist or support the system of racism. In emergency rooms black patients receive less pain medication and wait longer for it than white patients with the same injuries and conditions. I don’t believe all or even a majority of medical practitioners want to practice racially biased medicine–but they still do. Some of the police who protect the “few bad apples” or ignore or coverup the egregious behavior of their fellow officers may not think of themselves as racists, but their actions protect racist behavior and help keep the “few bad apples” out on the streets; in this way, they are culpable for the behavior of racist police. But it’s not just the police. Studies have shown that teachers, both white and black, racially profile black children and other children of color and will spot and criticize behavior in black children that they do not notice or chastise with white children. Blacks and whites smoke marijuana at exactly the same rate, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for smoking marijuana—and of course are more likely to be convicted and have harsher sentences. Similarly, black kindergarteners are suspended at a rate of about four times that of white kindergarteners. In other words, the racial profiling of black children can begin as early as in kindergarten. Do I believe that many teachers who racially profile don’t believe they are racists and perhaps may even be horrified when they discover this is how they act towards their black students? Yes. But that doesn’t change the results of their discriminatory actions and the harm they do to black children,.
Here’s what unconscious or implicit bias reveals to us: Racism is so programmed into the ways white Americans think about and perceive black and brown Americans that these white Americans can’t see their own racist beliefs and actions, can’t see the ways they are part of the problem. Racism then is like a basic computer operating system in the minds of even liberal white Americans. It’s been shown that AI programs to help detect crime patterns are racist because how these systems are set up and the data put into them are already racially biased–which means there is bias in the humans who create these programs. So implicit unconscious bias is another aspect of systemic racism, and in certain ways, the damage this implicit unconscious bias does is as great as explicit conscious bias, since the former so often goes unrecognized and unnoticed.
But there is a third aspect to system racism. We now know that the vast racial disparities in American society did not appear overnight or because of a “few bad apples”–whether in police departments or in any other institution or area of society. These disparities are a result of a long established history of racism, and this history has created a vast system of beliefs, practices and structures which contribute to the creation of these racial disparities.
Conveniently, some of these beliefs and practices might superficially appear to be racially neutral, but were always intended to support the racial status quo of inequality. Examples of these are “qualified immunity” for police officers or Supreme Court opinions and practice arguing that to rule police actions as discriminatory or illegal, there must be a previous court precedent (i.e., we can only rule something is discriminatory if it’s been ruled so in the past–even though the past was supposedly more racist than the present).
Other examples of how systemic racism occurs–how our country’s history is portrayed in our culture and our education systems in ways that minimize or occlude the racial injustices of the past and in ways that neglect the positive contributions of black, brown and Native and indigenous peoples; the ways nationalism and white supremacy is confused with patriotism (my country, love it or leave vs. I love my country and want it to be better because I love it)—thus, enabling whites to label any protest or movement towards racial inequality, such as Colin Kapernik and other black NFL players kneeling at the national anthem, as unpatriotic. And indeed, for white nationalists the status quo of racial equality is just fine, is their definition of America, and any attempt to change that is a threat to them.
The ways we tell our past is who we are. For many conservative and even liberal whites, a basic belief is that slavery is long in the past and has no effect on today’s society, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary: One origin of American policing stems from slave patrols during slavery and almost immediately after slavery was supposedly abolished at the end of the Civil War, white Southerners quickly established the Black Codes, one of the many legal measures to recreate the white slave owner’s control over blacks under a different name—any black person who was not working at the immediate moment could be arrested for vagrancy or other charges, and not just by police but by any white person (thus the origins of present day Karens who will call the police on black people for barbecuing or for sleeping in a college dorm lounge or entering an Airbnb they have rented).
For whites to deny the existence of racism in the present, it is necessary for them to deny or occlude or minimize racism in the past and how that past affects the present: In Minneapolis, where I live and where George Floyd was murdered, white home ownership is three times that of blacks, and this discrepancy has a great deal to do with the wealth gap between whites and blacks in this city. Though this discrepancy exists in the present, its existence stems as much or more from the past than the present; the discrepancy is a result of redlining and the past practice past of denying blacks the right to own homes and in particular own homes in white neighborhoods– denying potential black owners loans that whites making the same amount of money were able to obtain; charging black home owners higher interest rates; denying blacks ownership of their homes until they paid in full their loan (in contrast to whites who owned their home immediately after the loan went through); denying black G.I.s the same loans that white G.I.’s received under the G.I. bill after World War II, etc. And then of course, there’s the overall way blacks were discriminated against in education and the job market, so that they went to and still go to schools which were and are underfunded compared to white schools and were denied jobs they were qualified to do and promotions they were qualified for; black unemployment has always been higher and often twice as high as white unemployment; this is in part a result of how the government spent money disproportionally on its white citizens in comparison to blacks and enacted programs which discriminated against or excluded blacks; it’s also a result of how, in the past, it was difficult for blacks to prove racial discrimination in the workplace or ever bring it up (it’s still that way). Most whites of today are better off economically than blacks not just because of their individual efforts, but because their white parents, grandparents and great-grandparents benefited from a system of racial discrimination and handed the economic benefits of that past on to whites in the present.
On a larger and more general level, there’s the systemic negative portrayals, stereotypes and beliefs about black and brown people that permeate American culture: Even most white people understand that these negatives images and portraits exist. In his program to reduce the racial achievement gap, the Innocent Classroom, the novelist/educator Alexs Pate asks teachers to list how America portrays black and brown children, and the teachers always come up with a list of forty to fifty negative adjectives and nouns (dropouts, thugs, stupid, ugly, destined for jail, welfare, unwed mothers, absent fathers, violent, angry, sassy, illegal, terrorist, criminal, gangbangers, disinterested in school, lazy, etc.). If you know this list, Pate tells the teachers, the children know this list–and indeed, one fifth grade teacher at a nearly all black school asked his class to make such a list and it was almost an exact duplicate of the list the teachers came up with. These negative stereotypes are not just an instance of a few bad apples, but instead work as cultural programming or propaganda which creates and instills the negative psychic messages that create both conscious and unconscious bias in white people, including the police—i.e., those biases don’t happen by chance; they reflect and are woven within the American portrait of black and brown people.
What’s more children of color grow up burdened by these stereotypes; some children of color try as best they can to ignore them and some even succeed to some extent if their parents make monumental efforts to make sure the children don’t imbibe and believe them. But many black and brown children grow up not just under the shadow of these stereotypes and the white people who view them and act toward them as if the stereotypes are true; no, the children of color themselves begin to feel as if the stereotypes might be true, as if the stereotypes are their only destiny (if you’re a ten year old black boy and you enter a Target and are followed and you have never stolen anything in your life, what message are you receiving?). Certainly in the eyes of society, black children are never allowed to grow up feeling a sense of innocence in the ways white children do, not when almost every black parent must have The Talk about what will happen when the child encounters the police and what the child should try to do so they aren’t killed. Just as importantly, educators like Pate have shown that this stereotype threat has harmful negative effects on academic achievement and the children’s sense of optimism for their future.
Then of course, in light of recent events, there’s all the structures which prevent police accountability–the legal practice of qualified immunity; the power of police unions to ensure that even those police who receive numerous complaints and whose actions can result in million dollar suits, still remain on the police force; weak or no civilian control; privacy rules hiding complaints concerning officers from the public; no residency requirements; the immense size of police budgets (as opposed to economic or social programs to help disadvantaged communities—i.e., the choice to lock up poor people of color rather than help them improve their lives and livelihoods); incentives for ticketing and minor violation arrests, which have little to do with public safety and more to with racial profiling, financial incentives for city governments, and the prison industrial complex; programs such as “The Bulletproof Warrior” which was taken by the officer who killed Philando Castile and which trains police to view their relationship to citizens as like that of an army occupying a hostile territory; programs like this emphasize police security and safety as always overruling a consideration of citizen security and safety (i.e., you patrol Minneapolis the way the US Army patrolled the streets of Fallujah; your duties are toward your fellow officers and not to your fellow citizens since you’re not supposed to look at them as fellow citizens).
It staggers belief to assert that the vast racial disparities in the justice system and American society are a result of a few racists, a few “bad apples.” And indeed, this belief is just another apparatus designed to defend the racial status quo; i.e., it is a tool to defend racism, not just an outgrowth of it.
Rather than citing a few bad apples, we must acknowledge that a vast and complex system supports and enables centuries old racial inequities.
And so in this moment in our history, there is a difference: Many younger Americans, both white and of color, have started to be educated in a more complex and systemic definition of racism; thus, they realize that wholesale and far reaching changes are needed if we are actually going to dismantle this system. This effort also involves attacking the obfuscations and intellectually trickery designed to hide the complex ways racism works in this country.
* Two weeks after the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests, Merriam Webster revised it “racism” entry and expanded it to include systemic racism. A 22 year-old African American, Kennedy Mitchum, wrote the company asking them to change their definition, saying “Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary. It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.” We are in a time of transition from the old definition, which means many Americans still don’t understand what systemic racism is.