Guest Post: Root Out Racism

By Miriam

Miriam is finishing her PhD at the University of Oregon and is en route to the University of Memphis where she’ll be an Assistant Professor of Criminology starting in August 2022. She lives with her husband and three girls.

Let’s flashback to just over two years ago. I had recently started writing my PhD dissertation which uses a Critical Race Theoretical (CRT) lens to focus on the School to Prison Pipeline (the idea that marginalized kids are more likely to be suspended or expelled unfairly which puts them at risk for adult incarceration). Back then, few people outside of academic circles knew what CRT was.

When the 2020 viral video footage of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer led to one of the largest worldwide protests, our public rhetoric changed. You remember it. We got emails from institutions like our car insurance companies, our yoga studios, our employers, and our healthcare providers denouncing racism in our communities. President Nelson, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, encouraged members to “root out” racism. Social media posts, discussions with neighbors, and dinner table conversations focused heavily on the problem of racism.

The topics I was studying suddenly became something everyone was discussing. I was hopeful. People were discussing systemic racism and ready for deep change.

However, as the months passed, pushback against the new rhetoric built. Donald Trump declared CRT anti-American and, as of today, 7 states have banned the teaching of CRT and 16 more are considering a ban. Followers of this right-wing ideology often say that racism is about a few bad people, but it isn’t systemic and teaching it to kids as systemic is morally wrong because it just makes the kids feel bad unnecessarily. I also hear people counter that right-wing ideology and say things like, “Calm down, kids aren’t being taught it anyway, so what’s the problem?”

I’m here to counter both those sides. Teaching racism as anything but systemic is morally wrong as it cannot lead to real solutions. And I want to further say that we can’t dismiss CRT as something elitist that kids aren’t being taught – we should be teaching it to our kids and we need to be teaching it to them young!

CRT scholar Charles Lawrence III suggests looking at racism as both a crime and a disease. The crime part is usually easy to detect – atrocities against a subgroup. For example, statistics show that there is racial inequality in education, healthcare, the workforce, housing, criminal justice, and religion. These are crimes that are hard to deny. However, some people look at those statistics and think it comes down to a few bad cops, a few bad teachers or a few bad doctors. This is where it is necessary to examine it as a disease – and this part is a little trickier. When we’re talking about racism as a disease, we have think about the systemic nature of the disease. We note that everyone in society is affected by this disease. Even solutions to the disease are contaminated by the disease itself. If we want to follow that prophetic call to “root” this out, we have to know where the “root” is. We have to acknowledge the disease, talk about it, teach it, and start thinking of solutions. So, let’s start by talking about the “root” of it in our society today. From my dissertation:

According to Critical Race Theory (CRT), racism exists in the U.S. not as an unfortunate occurrence that can easily be corrected by law, but rather as a foundation on which the U.S. was built (DeMaske, 2009). Many scholars argue that the very foundation on which the Constitution was written was racist due to the manner in which the U.S. was formed and developed; a process which involved, among many atrocities, the forced resettlement and massacre of Native Americans and use of slave labor of Africans (e.g., DeMaske, 2009; Hannah-Jones, 2019; Wallis, 2007). Though the Civil Rights movement made progress in combatting racism, the main goal of the Civil Rights movement was to change laws (not the foundation of the U.S.) and according to CRT theorists, merely changing laws is not sufficient to fixing the problem of racism (Greene, 1995). Often laws aim to create “neutrality” or “equality,” but they define neutrality using a White lens (Crenshaw et al., 1995). Rather than being truly neutral, individuals are forced to conform to the dominant White culture (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Graf, 2015) which disenfranchises, demeans, and erases Black culture and Black experiences (Crenshaw et al., 1995). This creates a form of “silent genocide” where, instead of creating equal opportunity for all, citizens of the country are expected to conform to the dominant culture to succeed (Peller, 1995).

The country has a very deep-seeded root of racism. Just removing a couple bad apples isn’t going to get rid of that root. Time to talk about it, time to admit it, and time to start thinking of real solutions that involve everyone in our society.

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18 Responses

  1. Beth Young says:

    The best explanation (WITH citations!) that I’ve ever read. Thank you, and please know that I will be sharing this a lot. A. Lot.

  2. Ben Barrowes says:

    One problem for me in this discussion is that I don’t understand what people mean when they say “racist” or “racism” anymore. I prefer to think it means that a person consciously thinks that one race is better or worse, superior or inferior to another race. And since the only way to know what another person is thinking is through their words and actions, looking at a person’s words and actions is the only way to understand whether a person is “racist”. Nowadays people seem to use the word “racism” in many other ways.

    People are inherently and primarily responsible for their own choices, and only secondarily and indirectly responsible for other people’s choices. Therefore, it doesn’t seem right that someone calls another person a racist if that person’s conscious choices are not racist. Many more individuals in society were more racist in the past, and there are systemic disadvantages to groups of people because of that, but that doesn’t unequivocally mean that a person living today that is not in that group of people is a racist. That would amount to punishing one person for the actions of another person. That person living today may not have made conscious choices based on racist thinking. Being disadvantaged because of past actions and racism does not necessarily mean that any individual living now is racist or not.

    Dr. Martin Luther King had the right idea: the only way out of these difficulties based on race is to demote the importance of race in the minds of people of ALL races, we need to treat each other based on the content of our character, not based on the past, not based on other people’s characters, not based on race, but on each other’s current character.

    • Miriam says:

      Hi Ben! I think Rebecca (below) gives some good insights. It looks like you are wanting to use racism instead of other words like “bigotry.” Unfortunately, you can’t “prefer to think” it means something that it doesn’t.

      I know I think it academic ways – since I’m an academic. And perhaps in the circles you run in, it’s okay to use “racism” how you do. However, there are no race scholars that I know of who would agree with your definition of racism and it becomes problematic if we do use it that way because we end up perpetuating systemic inequity that needs to be changed now. It’s not just about things that happened a long time ago. People in our society continually feed the racist systems and that continues to harm Black individuals.

      • Ben Barrowes says:

        It is useful for us to think about these definitions, I agree. And I am glad you are willing to discuss this respectfully, which is what I am trying to do as well. I am what you might consider an academic, although engineering is my chosen field. So, from a non-expert in your field, I must confess that I still don’t understand your definition of racism. And according to every dictionary online that I can find, my definition is the working definition in the English language. All of the definitions I found mentioned antagonism toward a race which is a choice by the individual, not a choice by the group one is a part of. Or the definitions mentioned beliefs of superiority/inferiority based on genetics.

        It does seem like people such as yourself in some academic environments are trying to redefine what racism means. But your definition ends up meaning everything and nothing all at once. It means that everybody is racist, and therefore ceases to have any efficacy or meaning as a word. Your definition of racism seems to mean that people are racist based on their group, not on their choices or character. This definition seems to embrace discrimination: treating people based on the characteristics of their group, not based on the content of their character. By expressly rejecting the test of a person’s individual character, you’re embracing discrimination it seems to me. And furthermore, it offers no hope to a “nice” person to try to not be racist, with the only slight hope being if they exactly agree with your point of view.

        We must realize that no person is equivalent to another person in every single way, and no system is going to result in equal outcomes to every group or individual. There’s too much individual variability, and systems are far too complicated to ensure equal outcomes for all participants. In fact, if the outcome was guaranteed to be the same, that would tend to restrict people’s potentials and decrease freedom for everybody, not allowing one to naturally follow their talents and interests. People are equal in the sense of adding up everything about them including the fact that they are human, then their worth and potential is equal to everyone else’s, but every individual is not equivalent in every single way: their height, their finger length, the strength of their ligaments, their ability to digest certain foods, their allergic reactions, their upbringing, their parents economic circumstances, their proclivities for different subjects in school, etc., none of these are going to be exactly the same between people, so the it is not a rational expectation that the outcome for each unique individual through a unparameterizably complicated system should be exactly the same. And certainly, labeling unequal outcomes as crimes and people who don’t agree with you as criminals is inaccurate and unhelpful.

        Is the NBA racist because there is racial disparity in the outcomes of who becomes a professional basketball player? Does that make Michael Jordan an active criminal? Are all cities and states racist because they do not have the exact same percentage of residents from every racial group? Are all job categories racist because they don’t have the exact same percentages of every racial group? Saying that unequal outcomes is a result of all of society being racist in this way is unrealistic, fails to account for each unique personality, and is unsupportable by data and research.

        Again, the only way to reconcile different outcomes and recognize our unique characters is to follow Dr. Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas and do our utmost to assume the good in people, work to ignore race in the present, and concentrate on each other’s character. That will solve racial problems going forward. If there is racism in a person’s actions and words (and there will be, in some people, unfortunately), let’s as a society try to address it in concern for that person, after the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. If there are unequal outcomes based on choices or due to inertia from past racist choices (like the federal loan programs from the 30’s and 40’s as one example), then let’s try as a society to address it in a systemic way in good faith. Presuming racism and blaming current unequal outcomes on individuals with no racist actions or words by saying that those individuals are racist due to past racist choices of other people does not help anyone involved, of any group.

        • Miriam says:

          You’ve written a lot, but I’m still confused by your argument. Perhaps the issue is not understanding what systemic racism is? Perhaps I could explain that a bit better. Would that be helpful?

          • Ben Barrowes says:

            Yes! Maybe that could help clarify the discussion for me.

          • Miriam says:

            I realize I need to take a step back and say the way you define racism is a part of it. However, it doesn’t get to the root. Understanding “systemic racism” helps us better get to the root

          • Miriam says:

            Great! I’ll write more about systemic racism when I have 2 hands to type on my computer and I’m not nursing a baby lol. So stay tuned

          • Miriam says:

            OK, I have a few minutes before the baby will need me again!
            Since you’re an engineering professor reading a feminist blog, you’ve probably given a lot of thought to how being in a sexist society impacts engineering. There are far fewer female individuals in STEM fields than males. Is this because all STEM professors are blatantly sexist? Of course not, that’s ridiculous.

            However, it does have to do with the sexist society in which little boys and little girls are raised. A quick glance through the baby section of any clothing store shows baby boy clothes with dinosaurs and trucks on them – while little baby girl clothes are full of bows and pink. Are the people who designed the clothes blatantly sexist? Of course not. Are the parents who buy the clothes blatantly sexist? Of course not. But, from birth, boys start getting socialized to be a certain way and girls start getting socialized to being another way. At school, boys get rewarded for certain behaviors and girls get rewarded for other behaviors. Teachers rewarding these kids aren’t blatantly sexist. They’re just part of a society that values certain things for women and certain things for men – and this society happens to be sexist, so we’re all a product of it, all contributing to it, and all negatively impacted by it. By the time those little girls get to college, they have likely already accepted and internalized a lot of the sexism they’ve experienced over their lives. Most of the things they’ve experienced have been from loving people who wouldn’t consider themselves sexist. But it still results in inequity. Boys, too, can suffer from this – being pushed in directions that they wouldn’t necessarily want to go to but feeling this societal pressure. I feel like we talk about the gender stuff a lot.

            With racism I feel like the last couple years people have finally started talking about it openly. It was taboo for years to even mention race – but that allowed these systemic problems to persist without shutting them down/off. So Black kids and White kids are growing up in a society that treats each of them differently. This has detrimental consequences for everyone! Trying to erase that by not naming it only hides the problem (rather than starting to provide solutions to the problem). My guess is your university works hard to think about how to attract more women to your major. Why not just say “We need to attract more people of all kinds?” (kind of the argument that you said for calling in ALL). The answer is because by the time kids grow up and go to college, they’ve already had 18 years of living in a patriarchal society that is constantly working toward socializing them in certain ways that make girls think they’re not interested in STEM.

            So, does this mean each person is blatantly racist? No, of course not. Just as each person who tells my little girls they look cute in a pink bow isn’t blatantly sexist. However, we live in a systemically racist society – where our institutions work to continue to make things hard.

            Here’s one example of how systemic racism is perpetuated by tiny biases:
            There was a experiment done (I can give you the exact citation if you want, I’d need to look it up), where preschool teachers were told to watch a video of preschool kids (of various races and genders) playing together. They were told that one of the kids was about to break a rule, and they needed to see if they could identify who was about to break a rule before the rule was actually broken. The teachers were hooked up to a monitoring system that noted where the teachers were gazing on the screen. Teachers in the study mostly focused on the Black boys – waiting for them to break a rule. None of these teachers were awful people. None of them were trying to be mean/racist. But subconsciously, they were waiting for the Black boys to make a mistake. No kids in the video ever actually broke any rules.
            So imagine if you’re a Black boy growing up in K-12 education. You have nice teachers that want the best for their students. But they’re also constantly waiting for you to do something wrong. That’s hard! Because then if you step out of line once, things can get bad fast. Which is why Black students are suspended and expelled 3 times as much as White students (for committing similar infractions). They aren’t surrounded by blatantly racist individuals, but rather in a system that works against them.

            (I could give more similar examples)

            That’s why I say we need to talk about these things and start calling them out. We can’t just hope the problem will get fixed by loving ALL people. Those preschool teachers love all their students. But they need to recognize how their biases are unintentionally harming their students.

          • Ben Barrowes says:

            It must be a busy time getting your PhD and being the mother of three small children. It reminds me of being the father of two small children and MIT in the early 2000’s. It will all be worth it!

            There are two assumptions, one about sexism and one about racism, in what you’ve written that I want to focus on.

            The first assumption in your comments on sexism is that inequity is a negative outcome of society. You state that boys and girls are treated differently as they grow up, negatively impacting all of us by the resulting inequity. But this idea that inequity is inherently negative is a broad and unsupported assumption that is both not realistic and not in accordance with human nature. The fact that millions of years of evolution have resulted in males and females being physically different and mentally different is not in question in most scientific circles. Outside of the humanities, psychologists and people who study behavior from an outcome point of view can readily show that males and females are different and consistently so, for example this paper:
            https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00320.x

            The idea that all choices are the result of culture alone, the social constructionist idea, cannot be supported by the evidence and has not been seriously considered for decades. It would actually be quite surprising if there were no interaction between our bodies and our minds. Can we really believe that all the hormones and chemistry going on in our bodies and brains never impact conscious thoughts? Evolution separated the genders in most species precisely because the combination of a male and female was more advantageous than two androgynous individuals.

            Because males and females are both physically and mentally statistically different then, with generally different behaviors and different thoughts, it is natural and realistic that adults use these statistical traits as starting points in how they interact with children. That is an efficient way for different age groups to interact. What can become toxic is when adults engage in force in an effort to ensure certain behaviors, engage in some sort of social engineering when children want to behave in statistically unusual but otherwise innocuous behavior. If a child wants to sit in the corner and think/read much more than the other children playing with blocks, that may be statistically unusual, but innocuous, so it should be allowed as much as possible I would think, even though this would be an “inequitable” outcome. And if 80% of the boys like playing with trucks rather than dolls, but adults decide they want to do social engineering to have 50% play with trucks and 50% play with dolls, this seems to me to be forcing an “equal” outcome in an unrealistic and inefficient way. As per the publication above and many others, the more freely people are allowed to choose, the more their choices statistically align with gender based statistics. In this sense, as an engineering professor and researcher, I would hope for a society where adults encourage children to freely explore their interests, presenting all children with a variety of activities, but would balk at encouraging adults to engineer any certain type of gender-based statistical outcome. If more boys want to be stay-at-home fathers in this unforced environment, let’s allow that. But I do think it should be an unforced environment, unforced in either direction, toward equal or unequal outcome percentages with regard to any given activity/interest.

            Now, how much of this development is culture and how much is biology is an open question, but the conclusion that a large part of our makeup and (at least initial) interests is determined by biology in the formative years up to six or eight years old has broad consensus. Simply because the outputs of the system are not the same for each gender does not guarantee the system is negative/sexist or that society is negatively impacted by these outcomes. Many of these outcomes are efficient, statistically relevant, align with observable human nature, conducive to a happy fulfilling life, and should not be suppressed. This assumption that inequality is identically a negative outcome on your part is something that is hard for me to agree with.

            (another comment on your second assumption on racism to come soon)

          • Miriam says:

            Indeed i made the assumption that since you are a reader of this feminist blog you’d agree with the idea that there are negative consequences of the patriarchal society. My assumption was obviously incorrect.

            It would be great if we lived in a society where all adults encouraged kids do go to any interest. But we don’t. I don’t. As a kid, I’d go to church where I’d have young women lessons focusing on how important it was for me to someday be a stay at home mom. I never wanted to be a stay at home mom. But I was told it was the “right” choice to make. I would feel sick thinking about it. As a young adult in college I struggled to find a major where I felt like I was doing the “right” thing based on what I’d been taught during my life. It was hard!

            I feel like we could go into a lot more detail in a real life conversation, but I’m not sure comments here are going to get us further.

          • Ben Barrowes says:

            Thanks Miriam for the discussion. In the end, I feel we agree more than we disagree!

  3. Rebecca says:

    @Ben Borrowes, the definition you are using for “racism” actually works better as a description of “prejudice” or “bigotry”, which are personal feelings. Racism is deeper than personal feelings or actions. It is systemic. A person can have no active bigoted feelings toward another person, but passively (or actively) support a system (such as school curriculum that whitewashes history) that disenfranchises a group of people. Doing so may earn someone the label of “racist,” even if they are personally “nice.”

  4. Bryn Brody says:

    “The country has a very deep-seeded root of racism. Just removing a couple bad apples isn’t going to get rid of that root.” I’m standing up and applauding. Thank you!

  5. Excellent post and explanations in the comments. Thanks so much for teaching us!

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