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Reflecting on Racism: A Look Into History

Those of us working in the field of homelessness know firsthand the insidious impact and history of racism. African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the people we serve. This is but one impact of the racism that pervades American history, indeed, all of Western history. To understand how we arrived at this point, it is important to look at that history.

Social constructs around race can be traced back as far as the 1400s but race, as we know it in the 21st century, is a social construct that was developed during the European colonization of Africa in the 1800s. The construct rests on the biased idea that the white race is above the others and can, therefore, rule the other races. This is based on pseudo-science of the time. This body of work aimed to establish white superiority through a comparison of physical and intellectual attributes, all somehow putting whites above members of the other races. By extension in some countries, this led to the development of white supremacy as an ideology.

Convenient studies were conducted to support this idea. The materials created to support these erroneous allegations are sad visual reminders of how scientific endeavors have sometimes been used to sway the public opinion in order to allow one group to assert power over other groups. The same method was used by the Nazis in the 20th century.

Going back to the roots of this phenomenon is important because race relations supporting modern economic systems rest on this and because most people who benefit from these systems or, even, promote them, could not say how this whole thing got started: through an intentional effort to demonstrate, using erroneous scientific findings, that one race is somehow above the others. This was scientific racism, not science in the true sense because from the beginning the process was a foregone conclusion. Science gets to the truth through honest exploration. This was merely meant to be a demonstration. The scientists knew what the findings needed to be from the beginning to support the system. Rather than scientific exploration, it was merely a process of justification for political and economic goals.

The politics of race relations in the world had already devalued black lives through the institution of slavery and other forms of exploitation, but now this new body of works made the whole thing appear legitimate.   

In fact, this development gave predominantly white European nations the moral authority to take over lands and resources on the African continent and, eventually, in parts of Asia.  This mindset had disastrous consequences well into the 20th Century. The US manifested the results of these fake studies to not only excuse slavery but also to justify the removal and immoral treatment of Native American and Latinx people.

Early voices spoke against colonization in Europe and in the colonies, but they were brutally suppressed. The economic interests were too great. Nations were thriving on it. Black radical thinkers have referred to the intermeshing of economic interests under capitalism and racism as “racial capitalism.”

Franz Boas, the German-born American anthropologist, hailed as the founder of modern anthropology, was among them. In “The Mind of Primitive Man,” a short book published in 1911, Boas asserts that all civilizations are different and that none of them is above any of the others. They are simply entities of their own deserving respect as such and not to be ranked. This went against the grain at the time as colonial Europe was convinced of its superiority.

The history of race relations in this country has been marred by struggle which often had economic roots. Control of land, housing, and resources have been at the core of the struggle. Building ideology around this process made it into an institution: a set of laws dictating behaviors like the separation of races.

In the 1896 decision Plessy vs Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation and established “separate but equal” as a principle. We now know that “separate” was accurate to depict accommodations specific to each group but “equal” certainly did not follow. The legal segregation that ensued became a norm supported by institutions for more than half the 20th century.

In 1954, Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka desegregated the public schools, starting the desegregation process, at least in the law.

For all this, the struggle was not over. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 to outlaw discrimination and guarantee the right to vote for African-Americans. 

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 also became law under the Civil Rights Act of the same year. It was established to protect people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 broadened the scope of this legislation, attempting to strengthen its impact.

So, what has happened since?

With these new laws, you might expect that discrimination would have been dismantled in order for African-Americans to gain access to education, housing, employment, and healthy and safe environment.

But the reality was that opponents to these laws were relentless and continued preying upon black communities. In fact, segregation, now legally defunct, was perduring in towns and cities around the country, underpinned by policies like redlining which limited access to bank loans and the emerging suburbs to communities of color. The limits were not just spatial. They were also economic—since Americans acquire wealth in a large part through homeownership.

The laws had changed but the system did not follow. In many ways, separation continued in minds and in geography.

This is the reason systemic racism lives on to this day. People of color still face employment and housing discrimination and bias still impacts Black lives. Every major election comes with reports of local barriers to the ballot for communities of color in some states. The average household income among African-Americans is significantly lower than among Whites while the group is also disproportionately experiencing homelessness. School desegregation has not addressed the issue of school funding, resulting in an uneven public education system. Our police and justice systems give jail and prison time to people of color at an unfair rate.

And, we’re now seeing the COVID epidemic affecting African-Americans and other people of color in a disproportionate way.

Systemic racism is often overwhelming to fathom. The accumulation of resources promoted for one group at the expense of the others is a threatening thought. But race, as we understand in the 21st century, cannot be taboo. We have to tackle it.

Limiting people’s potential and access to resources strictly based on the color of their skin might well be the greatest injustice this society has ever created. This thought is a threatening one for a lot of people.

I think it is important to note that, despite segregation, there have always been members of both communities assembled in groups seeking to end systemic racism. There is a strength in us that no biased law or belief can stop, no matter how powerful the system they rest on, and this innate strength allows us to think independently, to resist, and to create change. The human spirit always prevails in the end and moves the system toward equity and justice.

White privilege has been reinforced in layers of our institutions and mores, with the ability for federal and local leaders to make biased decisions blocking people of color from needed resources. This is where white guilt and white fragility come from in part. We are humans endowed with a sense of conscience which allows us to function in social groups and society at large. This very sense of conscience also tells us that a system allowing one group to benefit at the expense of another is unfair, and for most of us, conscience comes with a sense of fairness. Fairness is deeply rooted in us. It is an intrinsic value. The mere thought of the injustice carried over from generation to generation creates an emotional precipice in us. People simply don’t know what to do with this feeling. The unfairness is so deeply unsettling that it becomes overwhelming. When we feel overwhelmed by a thought, our response is often to put that thought aside or, even, to bury it deep so we don’t have to face it again. But, buried thoughts do have a way to surface up. That’s the tricky part about conscience.

So, why not let all the thoughts and feelings come up so we can finally face the problem for what it is?

While the conversation on race is a difficult one for a lot of people in this and other countries, some of us are having it and this is a very good thing. Dialogue has always been the way for humans to solve issues so we could live together and share the planet. Now we also need to go from dialogue to action.

There is a deep sense of hope in this as we seize the moment in our society and all over the world.

My hope is that more of us will learn to celebrate diversity for all the wonderful things it brings us. Diversity has brought me some of the best experiences I have had in life. We cannot undo history but, as we look at it through an honest and courageous lens, we can move forward and create a more equal society where bias, exploitation, and systemic racism are things of the past–remembered for the hard lessons they’ve taught us, but never to be revisited.

Tips on antiracism:

  • Reflect on hate and oppression: racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, and homophobia are fear- and hate-based
  • Reflect on yourself and your culture
  • Reflect on white privilege, white guilt, and white fragility
  • Purposely seek out and engage groups of diverse people
  • Purposely incorporate diverse voices and opinions into your everyday life
  • Read works directly written by African-Americans and other scholars of color
  • Call out racist attitudes and actions by friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, and people you meet
  • If you are in the position to do so, consider financially supporting anti-hate and anti-racism groups.
  • Love thy neighbor

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