My dear friend, Jean, sent me this postcard, with words from the song written by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller in 1955. The words “let it begin with me” resonated.
Over this past year, I’ve been sensitized to racism in our country in a way I never was before. A long overdue awareness. When I think about combating racism, I'm inspired by the words "let it begin with me.”
I see two levels of racism working simultaneously in our country: the immense systemic racism and individual/interpersonal racism.
First two definitions:
Systemic Racism (also called structural or institutional racism) - racism that exists across a society within and between institutions and organizations.
- The complex interactions of large scale societal systems, practices, ideologies, and programs that produce and perpetuate inequities for racial minorities. These macro-level mechanisms operate independent of the intentions and actions of individuals, so that even if individual racism is not present, the adverse conditions and inequalities for racial minorities would continue to exist.
- Examples: housing discrimination, social segregation, racial profiling, predatory banking, lack of access to healthcare, hiring/promotion practices, criminal justice inequities, educational disparities.
Interpersonal Racism (also called individual racism) - occurs between individuals, and is what many people think of when using the term “racism.”
- These are the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism.
- Individual racism refers to an individual's racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviors that stems from conscious and unconscious, personal prejudice and can be active or passive.
- This form of racism can be intentional or unintentional. Examples include telling a racist joke, believing in the inherent superiority of white people, crossing the street to avoid passing a Black man, etc.
EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMIC RACISM
- In 2010 Black Americans made up 13% of the population but had only 2.7% of the country's wealth.
- The median net worth for a white family was $134,000, but the median net worth for a Hispanic family was $14,000, and for a Black family it was $11,000.
- The median wealth for a single white woman has been measured at $41,000, while for Hispanic women it was $140, and for Black women, $120.
- For the last 60 years, Black unemployment is always about twice as high as white unemployment.
- Black college graduates are still almost twice as likely to be unemployed as white college graduates.
- And if you apply for a job with a white sounding name, you're 50% more likely to get a callback than with a Black sounding name.
Legal segregation and decades of pervasive racist housing policies still, to this day, disadvantage Black people in almost every aspect of life. Where a person lives can decide everything from how safe you are, to what food you eat, to the quality of your health care, to the kinds of jobs you can get, to the forms of transportation to get to your job, to the quality of your children's education.
- Racism fuels racial disparities in imprisonment.
- In the 1980s there were less than half a million people in the US prison system. Now thanks to the war on drugs, there are more than 2 million.
- Out of every 100,000 Americans about 700 are incarcerated, but out of every 100,000 Black men over 4,000 are incarcerated.
- Combined with felony disenfranchisement laws, this means 13% of Black American men are denied their right to vote.
- Blacks make up less than 13% of the nation’s population, but nearly 42% of those currently on death row are Black.
- Over 40% of drug arrests are not for selling any drugs but rather for possession of marijuana. White and Black Americans are about equally likely to use marijuana. Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it.
- Even if Blacks don't get convicted of a crime, that arrest can stay on their record and affect their chances at good jobs, housing and bank loans for the rest of their lives.
Do you believe that children are our future? Unfortunately, our education system does a disservice to people of color, denying them adequate knowledge and skills for a 21st century job market.
Funding inequities exist in our schools. This means fewer resources available to students, less experienced teachers, and more crowded classrooms. In 2013, the number of high poverty schools had increased by about 60 percent to one out of every five schools in 2011 from one out of every eight schools in 2000. In the most recent federal report, covering the 2016-17 school year, one out of every four schools in America was classified as high poverty.
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Racism is embodied in policymaking that affects Black people. And who are the policy makers? Those we elect to office.
Our federal, state and local governments have historically played a central role in creating and maintaining policies, measures and laws that segregated, excluded and disenfranchised Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. Undoing systemic racism in organizations, institutions and governments starts with each of us.
We can bring appropriate remedies to institutions so they conform to the norms of justice and civility. To transform unjust institutions we must bring pressure to bear on city, county, state and federal officials to bring about change.
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SYSTEMIC RACISM - WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. Write to the US Sentencing Commission and ask them to:
- reform the career offender guideline to lessen the length of sentences.
- change guidelines so that more people get probation.
- change the criminal history guidelines so that a person’s criminal record counts against them less.
- change guidelines to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.
- review the impact of parental incarceration on minor children. With more data, the Commission could modify the sentencing guidelines and allow judges to take this factor into account when sentencing individuals for non-violent crimes.
- determine whether the Bureau of Prisons is following the Commission’s encouragement to file a motion for compassionate release whenever “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist.
- consider amending the guidelines to reduce sentences for first offenders.
2. Write to your state legislators to end cash bail. Cash bail means that a defendant can be released pre-trial because of their wealth, not how much of a flight risk they are. It puts more people in detention (which tax payers pay for) and affects a defendants’ ability to maintain employment, access mental and physical healthcare, and be in communication with their family and friends, etc. Housing the approximately 500,000 people in jail in the US awaiting trial who cannot afford bail costs US taxpayers approximately $9 billion a year.
3. Attend town halls, candidate meet-and-greets, etc for political candidates and ask about their positions on ending mass incarceration, reducing mandatory minimum sentences, reducing or ending solitary confinement, decriminalizing weed, ending cash bail, divesting from private prisons, etc.
4. About 90% of the US prison population is at the state and local level. Call or write to your state legislators and governor to support state-wide criminal justice reform including reducing mandatory minimum sentences, reducing sentences for non-violent drug crimes, passing “safety valve” law to allow judges to depart below a mandatory minimum sentence under certain conditions, passing alternatives to incarceration, etc.
5. Research your local prosecutors. Prosecutors have a lot of power to give fair sentences or Draconian ones, influence a judge’s decision to set bail or not, etc. In the past election, a slew of fair-minded prosecutors were elected. We need more.
1. Write to your federal legislators in support of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2019, which will invest $100 billion over 10 years in fixing America’s public schools. Investing less in incarceration and more in education will go a long way. Because of limited education funding, schools desperately in need of renovations need to compete against each other to be next on the list for the renovations.
- The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a part of the Department of Education, reports that in 2012–2013, “21 percent of schools were in fair condition, and 3 percent were in poor condition.” But 3 percent of schools is millions of American children. Millions. The NCES also reports that “the building systems/features were rated as being in fair or poor condition in their permanent buildings in 14 to 32 percent of the schools.” This article gives examples of school facilities in poor condition across the country. Our kids deserve so much better.
2. Vote for representatives for your school board who will work to reduce the educational disparities between White and Black students.
3. Attend school board meetings to encourage members of the school board to work to ensure Black students aren’t closed out of gifted programs. Using test results instead of White teachers’ recommendations can influence a Black student’s education.
Urge your employer to sign up to the Global Compact on Business and Human Rights.
Ensure that HR recruiters judge resumes on the basis of qualifications rather than on biases. Cross out applicant names on resumes prior to consideration.
Ensure non-discriminatory work places including equal pay for equal work, family-friendly policies, and working conditions that enhance professional growth.
INTERPERSONAL RACISM – WHAT CAN WE DO?
Confront your biases
Developing awareness of and changing our implicit biases were the topic of my August 16, 2020 newsletter.
Here are additional resources to help you tackle implicit or unconscious bias:
- Racialequitytools.org pulled together this comprehensive list of resources focused on implicit bias
- Northwestern University’s list of resources on unconscious bias
- Nine resources for teaching about unconscious bias
- Resources to fight racism and bias from the nonprofit organization RespectAbility
I also recommend reading Overcoming Bias by Dr. Tiffany Jana. It does a fantastic job pointing out the complexity of bias and shares helpful exercises and activities to help people counteract the bias we all have to intentionally work to overcome.
By proactively working to recognize our biases, we can be more conscious about the decisions we make.
Commit to lifelong learning about racism
Seek different perspectives through reading the writings of authors of other races or ethnicity. Watch documentaries and videos, listen to podcasts. A list of resources can be found here.
Additional resources for understanding the history of racism and its ongoing impacts:
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
- New York Times Magazine 1619 Project - created to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of our national narrative
- The PBS Series: Race — The Power of an Illusion
- The PBS Series: Unnatural Causes… is inequality making us sick?
- Season 2 of the SceneOnRadio podcast is an eye-opening exploration of Whiteness in America. This Peabody-nominated podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University features sound bites from one of the Racial Equity Institute’s trainings.
Speak out when another’s rights are at risk or under attack.
- If you see someone being harassed, bullied or ridiculed on the street, on public transportation, while shopping or at school, stand with them. Steps to safely intervene when you see someone being harassed or bullied are here.
- Use social media to stand with people who are facing reprisals for defending human rights e.g. activists, indigenous leaders, environmentalists, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, etc.
- Promote stories on your social media about people you know who have stood up for the rights of people of color.
Initiate uncomfortable conversations
Many whites avoid talking about race because they fear being seen as prejudiced or they simply lack the skills to have difficult conversations around differences. No one has the perfect words to address racism in our society. But it is our responsibility to try – to convey caring and concern for targeted groups. At work, in school, around the dinner table, help someone whose voice is rarely heard to share their views.
To create a trusting environment that will enable thoughtful and open conversations, please review this list of actions you can take from my newsletter of August 30th. This is one small way to make a difference.
The words of Dr. Martin Luther King remind us: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Let's face it: It takes money to fight poverty, racial discrimination, educational disparities, homelessness, and to help others. Non-profit organizations and charities rely on donations to fund their missions and pay for essential supplies, technology, and people power. Every donation adds up, especially when there are many who give.
- Donate to organizations that fight for racial justice such as your local Black Lives Matter Chapter, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the Southern Poverty Law Center, United Negro College Fund, Black Youth Project 100, The Sentencing Project, Families against Mandatory Minimums, A New Way of Life, Equal Justice Initiative, and Dream Defenders. Join some of these list-serves and take action as their emails dictate. Additional organizations can be found here.
- Inspire others to give. Instead of giving gifts for birthdays, holidays and other celebrations, ask others to make a donation to one of these organizations in honor of the occasion.
- Organize a fund-raiser to generate money for these organizations.
Acknowledge the aggressions and microaggressions that people of color have endured
More and more stories of Black folks encountering racism are being documented and shared through social media — whether it’s at a hotel, with the police, in a coffee shop, at a school, etc. When you see such a post, call the organization, company, or institution involved to tell them how upset you are. Then share the post along with the institution’s contact information, spreading the word about what happened and encouraging others to contact the institution as well. Whether the company initiated the event or failed to protect a person of color during an onslaught by a third party, they need to hear from us.
Anyone can take small steps to exercise greater compassion and initiate action that provides needed support and promotes racial justice for Black workers as well as others who are marginalized.
Enlist organization leaders
Employees value words of understanding and encouragement, but leaders’ and organizations’ actions have a more lasting impact. We have witnessed some courageous steps, such as Franklin Templeton Investments firing executive employee Amy Cooper after her interaction with Chris Cooper in Central Park.
What can you and your organization do in your community? What would promote equity and justice and activate meaningful change? Whether you are a senior or junior leader, how can you advocate for such action?
Racism isn’t just Black people’s problem; it’s everyone’s problem because it erodes the fabric of society. Leaders at every level must use their power, platforms, and resources to help employees and communities overcome these challenges and build a better world for us all.
Teach your children
Whether you have children of your own, or nieces and nephews, godchildren or neighborhood school children, we need to raise children who understand race and are comfortable talking about it.
As parents, families, and members of communities, who seek to raise one another up, we must point out and condemn racism, brutality, and indifference to suffering wherever we see it.
Discuss these issues honestly and openly using the list of resources below. Our children will be better able to break this chain of bias and distrust if we give them opportunities to think deeply and talk openly about justice, inequity and humanity from a young age -- and how together we can build a better world.
A few resources for that:
- Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey,
- the NPR podcast Talking Race With Young Children,
- these children’s books
- these resources compiled by the Children’s Community School in Philadelphia and
- the list of children's books from my newsletter on October 18, 2020.
In addition, below is a link to resources for White parents who want to raise anti-racist children, articles to read, videos, films and TV series to watch, podcasts to subscribe to and books to read. And organizations to follow on social media- bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES.
Finally, consider sponsoring school art and writing competitions on racial equality and justice and widely distribute the children's works.
Call on community leaders
Reach out to your local religious, sporting, and cultural leaders to make public commitments to racial equality and justice.
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As we start this new year, I encourage you to think critically about how you can use your power to effect change. The goal of racial justice work has always been to move us toward what Vincent Harding once called “a possible America,” where racial inequities can be eliminated, and we might together imagine and experience a multiracial democracy in which we all can achieve our highest potential. Let us invest the energy necessary to combat the racism that has scarred our nation and let it begin with us.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
~ Mother Teresa