A couple of weeks ago, we witnessed a racially charged demonstration on the grounds of a premier American University at Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists, Klansmen and Neo-Nazis marched with torches spewing hatred. To most Americans, the march was an abomination to the ideals this country holds dear. Charlottesville was but a flash point that drew national attention. If you were surprised by what you saw and heard at Charlottesville, then you have not been paying attention to the systemic racism that undergirds American democracy at many levels.
White supremacy simmers brightest in the uneven hand of justice. “People of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system,” says Edwin Grimsley, Innocence Project Case Analyst. An analysis on 297 exonerations where DNA evidence helped in overthrowing convictions found that 70% of those proven innocent belonged to minority groups, with African Americans forming 63% of those exonerated.
When justice is unevenly applied, lives are lost. You probably have not have heard of Kalief Browder (1993-2015) profiled in a New Yorker article for having spent three years in Riker’s Island prison without being convicted of a crime. Jennifer Gonnerman wrote, “He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times.” When he got out, he tried to turn his life around but committed suicide in 2015. And, the initial crime that he was accused of? The theft of a backpack. A backpack.
How many minority men and women are being incarcerated in our country’s prisons for crimes they never committed? All the studies in the world can never pinpoint the exact number. In that number you can see white supremacy.
White supremacy is alive and well elsewhere in our school system. Schools today are more segregated now compared to a few decades ago. In 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators found that from the 2000-2001 to the 2013-2014 school years, both the percentage of K-12 public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly African-American or Hispanic students grew significantly, more than doubling, from 7,009 schools to 15,089 schools.The percentage of all schools with so-called racial or socio-economic isolation grew from 9% to 16%. Researchers define “isolated schools” as those in which 75% or more of students are of the same race or class. Such schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who are held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled. Overall, investigators found, Hispanic students tended to be “triple segregated” by race, economics and language.
This is what we have to pay attention to—the systemic undercurrents of racism in society which have a debilitating chokehold on our country. When we rob a generation of students of hope, based on their skin color, we are setting ourselves up for flash points big and small years hence. When justice is denied or delayed based on skin color, we are going against the principle of equality under the law.
By focusing our collective energies in only thinking about Charlottesville without addressing racism in our schools, criminal justice system and healthcare delivery, we risk confronting yet another moment of racial insanity.
Our thoughts should be filled with combating the far more sinister, everyday pernicious racism that exists and flourishes around us.