Combating Racism – Understanding History

To combat racism, it is important to acknowledge our history and understand the ways it impacts our current realities. Systemic Racism (also called “institutional racism” and “structural racism”) refers to systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage certain groups, in this case Black Americans. Systemic racism began with the colonization of this country and continues today.

Our country was founded in part on racism: on taking the land from and breaking promises to Native Americans, on “civilizing” their children by taking them from their homes and giving them to white families to adopt, on forcing them onto reservations so white settlers could expand into their lands, on giving them Christian names, on killing them in large numbers, etc. Native Americans were called “savages.” Today, Native Americans live in third world living conditions (approximately 30% of Native Americans live below the poverty level). Many have no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. It is no wonder that Native Americans have higher rates of physical and mental health challenges than white Americans.

In 1619 the first indentured servants were brought to Jamestown. By 1860, there were more than 4 million indentured servants, or slaves, in the United States. They had no rights. Slave masters forcibly raped many of their women slaves to impregnate them to have more slaves to work for them. Clergy members of the time preached that “slavery was the will of God” thus justifying their abusive treatment.

After Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, laws and customs legitimized racism toward Black Americans.


Jim Crow was the name given to a song and dance caricature of a Black man performed by the white actor, Thomas Rice, in blackface. Rice first surfaced his character in 1828 and performed his minstrel character through the 1830’s and 1840’s in an effort to mock and humiliate Black people.

Jim Crow laws – state and local laws that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the former confederate southern states – began the idea of institutional racism.

These laws were enacted beginning in the 1870s and throughout the early 20th century by white dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by Black people during the Reconstruction period. Moreover, public education had essentially been segregated since its establishment in most of the South after the Civil War. Jim Crow laws were upheld in 1896 in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court laid out its "separate but equal" legal doctrine for facilities for Black Americans.

Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow state constitutional provisions, along with the legal principle of “separate but equal” mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, public facilities and public transportation. Facilities for Black Americans were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to facilities for white Americans; sometimes, there were no facilities for the Black community. In addition, Jim Crow laws instituted the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains between white and Black people. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, initiated the segregation of federal workplaces in 1913. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for Black Americans living in the South. Anyone who violated Jim Crow laws was threatened with and dealt severe consequences.

Three major sets of beliefs supported the growth of Jim Crow laws:

  • Whites are superior in all ways,
  • mixed race families would destroy the country, and
  • violence against Blacks was acceptable to keep them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.

Violence against Blacks, and particularly lynching, was seen as a way to maintain law and order, punish an alleged transgressor, or intimidate. After the Reconstruction era, lynchings of Blacks were seen as a form of entertainment for whites, who saw the practice as justified. Law enforcement condoned the practice, often witnessing the lynchings. Few convictions were ever made. In addition, lynchings helped to increase the self-esteem of poor whites who were much lower in social status but saw themselves as better than Black people.


The Social Security Act passed in 1935, established a system of old-age benefits for workers, benefits for victims of industrial accidents, unemployment insurance and aid for dependent mothers and children, the blind, and the physically handicapped. Excluded from coverage were about half the workers in the American economy. Specifically excluded from the act were agricultural and domestic workers. A disproportionate number of Black Americans were in these two occupational groups. Some scholars have concluded that policymakers in 1935 deliberately excluded Black Americans from the Social Security system because of prevailing racial biases during that period.

The Wagner Act (also known as the National Labor Relations Act) of 1935 guarantees the right of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining and take collective actions such as strikes. The act banned company unions. Like the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act excluded agricultural workers and domestic service workers (and others) from the legal right to bargain collectively with employers. The disproportionate impact of this legislation reveals a racial bias as the motive for this coverage exclusion.


The 15th Amendment, which was ratified by the states in 1870, prohibited racial discrimination in voting. But Black Americans were kept from voting in large numbers in southern states due to state-created requirements – literacy tests and poll taxes and constitutional quizzes – that prevented them from registering to vote. Fears that some whites could also lose their rights because they could not have met these expectations generated the “grandfather clause.” A half-dozen states passed laws that made men eligible to vote if they had been able to vote before Black Americans were given the franchise (generally, 1867), or if they were the lineal descendants of voters back then. Most such laws were enacted in the early 1890's.

The grandfather clause was a means of enfranchising whites who might have been excluded by things like literacy clauses. It was politically necessary, because otherwise poor whites would have been disenfranchised. Protecting whites from restrictions meant to apply to Black Americans was yet another form of discrimination.


In 1933, faced with a housing shortage during the Great Depression, the federal government tried to stabilize the housing market and began a program explicitly designed to increase – and segregate – America’s housing. The housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”

The discriminatory practice called “redlining” originated with the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934, which created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The Underwriting Manual of the FHA, includes these words: “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”

Redlining refers to the practice of drawing lines around portions of a map to indicate areas or neighborhoods most at risk for default on loans, therefore preventing lenders from making loans. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “graded” neighborhoods based largely on their racial makeup. (These original maps of the HOLC are currently maintained in the National Archives.) Neighborhoods marked with red lines tended to be older districts in the center of cities, often Black neighborhoods; those areas mapped in green were considered the “best places to live” and whites could get mortgages in those areas while Black Americans could not get loans to live there.

This map of New York characterizes the areas in red as “hazardous.”

Reverse redlining is the practice of targeting these same communities or protected classes for predatory lending.


Under systematic racism, race means a different level of access to goods, services and the opportunities of society. Limited or no access to these opportunities results in disparities in “success indicators.”

For example, by historically preventing access to quality housing and neighborhoods, many Black Americans have been forced to live in low rent, high rise rental units. This has had significant ripple effects.

Today 41.1% of black families own their homes compared to 71.1% of white families that own their homes. These homeownership disparities contribute to the shocking wealth gap in America. In 2017, the typical white family held 10 times the amount of wealth as the typical black family -- $171,000 for whites to $17,409 for Blacks, on average. Today Black wealth is about 5% of white wealth. Without access to quality housing, Black Americans can’t build wealth.

Housing discrimination continues to determine life outcomes. In low rent districts, the tax base doesn’t support quality education. Schools are poorly funded and under resourced. The best teachers avoid going into poorly funded schools, resulting in lower educational attainment for students. Most Black Americans who live in low-income, segregated areas cannot afford to send their children to the best schools in white neighborhoods.

The level of education does not prepare many Black Americans for higher paying jobs. And by living in mostly segregated neighborhoods, these Americans have less access to the kinds of connections that could help them get quality employment. Segregated neighborhoods don’t provide those kinds of contacts. Even if people in lower income housing qualified for higher paying jobs, the ability to get to those jobs is limited. They must go to work where the bus routes are restricting their ability to accept quality jobs, resulting in lower paid jobs. Even when quality employment is possible, Black Americans have difficulty getting into the “good old boy” networks. Opportunities for mentoring and coaching are more limited, often resulting in less chances for upward mobility.

People who live in low rent districts have less access to high quality grocery stores resulting in poorer food selections which can impact health. The best health care providers do not work in these districts and access to quality health care and treatment are more limited as, again, many Black Americans are forced to rely on public transportation to get to clinics or other health care facilities. The clinics in these areas are often more poorly supplied, backed up and/or are full, leaving many without treatment. Many Black Americans cannot afford quality health care, given the current wage disparity.

Systemic racism shows itself in other ways as well. Take for example the current wage gap in the U.S. Wage inequality has worsened in the past 20 years. According to a study done earlier this year, after controlling for age, gender, education and region, black workers are paid 15% less than white workers. Another survey reported that Black men earn $0.87 for every dollar that a white man earns.

Black Americans are over represented in the criminal justice system. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, and The Sentencing Project and Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthier prison sentences. Black adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. As of 2001, one of every 3 black males born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime compared to one of every 17 white boys.  And 1 in every 10 black men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. In addition, less focus on rehabilitation and re-education is given to Blacks in the justice system. More about the disparities in our criminal justice system will be covered in a future newsletter.

Systemic racism has created an inequitable society – a great divide between “haves” and “have nots” – shorter life spans, reduced quality of life, and increased mental, physical, and emotional stress, among others.

In my next newsletter, I will share some of the more recent legislation that has worked, sometimes unsuccessfully, to change the impacts of this history.

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