Institutional racism, or what is sometimes called structural or systemic racism, is what Solid Ground defines as “the distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color.” In that definition, every single person, even kids, are affected by systemic racism. Our society’s history and ongoing practices provide less access to opportunities, services, and items for people of color and has created systems over time that maintain these practices.
Systemic racism is setting people up to fail
Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD has a helpful example that describes institutional racism and how unfair practices can start and continue over time. In her example from her TedxTalk “The Gardener’s Tale,” she talks of a gardener who has two flower boxes – one with rich fertile soil that has lots of nutrients and one flower box with infertile, rocky soil that does not have a lot of nutrients.
The gardener has seeds for the same type of flowers, but in two different colors of red and pink. The gardener likes red, so, she plants the red seeds in the nutrient-rich soil and the pink seeds in the rocky, nutrient-lacking soil. Several weeks later, the red seeds in the fertile soil begin to grow beautifully, with even the weakest seed growing to half the height of the rest. The pink seeds in the rocky soil are not doing well – the weak seeds die, and the strongest seeds struggle to grow to half as tall as the tallest red flowers. At the end of the season, the flowers die and their seeds fall into the same flower box, with a chance to grow again. However, the same thing happened the next year and each year after that with the red flowers in the better soil growing beautifully and the pink flowers in the rocky soil not growing well. After several years, the gardener thinks to herself “you know, I was right to like red over pink.”
In this story, white people in our society are the red flowers and people of color are the pink flowers. Through systems that have been set up, white people have been given better foundations and better opportunities compared to people of color who have not had similar options.
Why it’s important to see the current systemic racism.
There are many examples now and in the past that show us ways that racism happens through health care, housing, criminal justice, education, media, and other institutions that affect our day-to-day lives. These are examples of the rocky soil that impacts the flourishing of the pink flowers and include practices such as redlining, mass incarceration, and more. To know how to stop systemic racism, we have to understand where it’s happening.
Some examples that are especially important to understand here in Kansas City are:
Systemic racism in health care
Historically, white medical establishments have purposefully not given and hidden treatments from Black patients suffering from illness like in the Tuskegee Study. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, white medical establishments have taken blood and copied cells from Black patients without telling them for the purpose of “research.” These studies helped develop helpful treatments and vaccines, but by unfairly treating Black patients. This history of mistreatment can lead to persons of color having understandable some mistrust of the medical system as a result.
Currently, when compared to white patients, Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American patients are less likely to be provided the best choice treatment, less likely to be taught about preventative care, less likely to have their pain managed, and as a result, more likely to have negative consequences from their health problems. While this is not to say that all individual health care providers are overtly racist, this does show that the health care system still does not provide equitable or fair treatment to people of color.
Systemic racism in housing
After the Great Depression, mortgage and credit lending programs were developed to help homeowners avoid losing their home due to not being able to make payments. To determine who to give loans to, many cities in the US were color-coded with green, blue, yellow, and red codes. These codes represented a grade for how likely creditors would be to give loans based on several things, including how many Black, Jewish, and immigrant families lived in the area. Families in higher graded areas (green or blue) were more likely to get loans, while families living in red areas (more likely to have Black families) were more likely not to get loans. This is where the term “redlining” comes from. This policy meant that people of color had a harder time getting housing opportunities and had to stay in neighborhoods with fewer resources.
Over time, this created bigger racial divides and economic unfairness in different parts of US cities, including here in Kansas City. Although these loan programs were created almost 100 years ago and are illegal now, even today there are higher rates of gun violence in areas that were red zones (Benns et al., 2020). People of color continue to be denied opportunities to build family wealth, which is usually best secured through owning property, in today’s economy too. For example, compared to white families, Black and Latinx families were more likely to be offered high-risk, high-cost, subprime home loans, which were most often the cause of people losing their homes after the 2008 economic crisis; banks have now admitted to targeting families of color with these loans in a process called “reverse redlining” (Steil et al., 2018).
Recently, the Kansas City, Mo., Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners decided to rename the iconic J.C. Nichols fountain, a move supported by Nichols’ family. While the Nichols family has made many generous contributions to the metro and J.C. Nichols himself built many important KC neighborhoods, he and other developers at the time used redlining strategies that unfairly denied housing opportunities to non-white Kansas Citians. Many in our community are now calling on leaders to remove or rename monuments that are associated with figures who benefitted from or represent institutional racism.
What we can do to help
An important thing to understand with systematic racism is that it is often invisible. This is largely because there is not one person or even a single group that is responsible. Instead, when it comes to systemic racism, the main issue is the system of rules and procedures themselves. Remember how the differences in the soil quality were not something the flowers had control over? It was simply the structure that was set up for them as seeds. Because it is so hard to change rules and procedures or we do not know how to as individuals, people often do nothing when something needs to be done.
Even though this type of racism tries to be invisible, there are ways you can educate yourselves to learn more, see it for what it is, and do something about it.
Make it visible. The first step is to start having a conversation as a family that institutional racism exists and answer your child’s questions. It’s okay to not have all the answers – in fact, it’s better to say, “I’m still learning” and model for your child that this is a continuous process of learning and growing.
Learn more together. Explore resources as a family and discuss them with your child. There are lots of books, podcasts, movies, and TV shows to help learn more. A good book to check out is “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning.” You can also visit a local historical museum like the Negro League Baseball Museum or attend a special lecture as a family that focuses on telling history or current events from a different perspective.
Advocate for change. As you start on this journey of learning more – identify an area of action that you as a family can take – something you can do or change that can make a difference, change the current system, or advocate for change. Make it doable and specific.
In your child’s education. Ask your child’s teacher, principal, and/or district administration about how they are incorporating education about institutional racism into their history and social studies classes, and whether they are teaching strategies to help youth learn how to stand up for equity or fair practices.
With your elected officials. Ask your representatives how they plan to promote equity and fight institutional racism with their policies and support those that have policies in line with your values.
In your community. Consider whether you have a diverse group of children and parents in your neighborhood, church, sports teams, scout troops, etc. If you notice your groups aren’t as inclusive as you’d like, you can talk with other parents, coaches, and friends about how you might make your community more open and inclusive. Also, support racial/ethnic minority-owned businesses and community events that raise money and awareness for programs that provide fair and needed opportunities for groups impacted by systemic racism.
Feagin, J., & Bennefield, Z. (2014). Systemic racism and U.S. healthcare. Social Science & Medicine, 103, 7-14. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.09.006
Benns, M., Ruther, M., Nash, N., Bozeman, M., Harbrecht, B., & Miller, K. (2020). The impact of historical racism on modern gun violence: Redlining in the city of Louisville, KY. Injury, in press. doi: 10.1016/j.injury.2020.06.042
Steil, J. P., Albright, L., Rugh, J. S., & Massey, D. S. (2018). The social structure of mortgage discrimination. Hous Stud., 33 (5), 759-776. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2017.1390076