The One Book Explaining Systemic Racism I Wish Every Other White Person Would Read Right Now

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Today has been the “great un-muting” of people all over social media. Hello, here I am, unmuted with a very long post. Over the last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can add, if anything, to this conversation. As you know, this is a wellness and mental health blog, and I can’t think of any bigger factor in mental health than systemic oppression and inequality. In fact, nearly all trauma and mental health issues are correlated to these things, so what we are witnessing in America isn’t just social upheaval long overdue, it’s also a significant mental health crisis. (I want to talk a lot about that in the coming days.)

It’s been interesting to see so many white people, especially on Instagram and in influencer-land, who have never spoken out about race or social justice, finally starting to. You could say this is a bandwagon, but I’d rather see people on that particular bandwagon than off. It has bothered me to see all of the “ally policing” by other white liberals. Accusations of “performative allying” or “virtue signaling” rarely come from people of color, and almost always seem to come from other white people. I believe these people are motivated by maintaining their own status as “best ally” and want to start pissing matches for who gets to call themselves the most “woke”. In my opinion, it’s serving no one but themselves. I see no reason to criticize people who are, genuinely, trying to educate themselves and do better. There is no “final achievement level” in being an ally, although lots of white liberals accusing others of being “performative” seem to think they’ve achieved it. I don’t really think now is the time to shut down people who are finally ready to leave their bubbles and do something.

The message right now is that it’s not enough to not be racist, you have to be anti-racist.

There are many, many white folks out there who are “not racist”, but also just waking up to the fact they are still part of the problem and complicit in white supremacy. When you don’t share someone else’s experience, all you have is empathy. Empathy is a starting point, and it means you are always learning, always listening, and always open to making new connections. As a white person who has come along way from my conservative white Evangelical upbringing to now, and who is still realizing there are many things I don’t know, I can only encourage other white people to not just apologize and bask in your white guilt, but to really, truly educate yourselves. 

Before I started going to school for social work, I thought I knew a lot about “not being racist”–and even the history and theory of racism itself. I believed all that reading of Frantz Fanon and postcolonial literature in undergrad got me pretty “woke”. Nope. One policy class my first semester of grad school blew my mind and made me realize just how little my arrogant white liberal ass knew about anything. I still don’t know enough. I never will. It’s okay to not know anything as you keep asking questions and you keep trying to learn. And you aren’t asking people of color to do the educating for you. Please don’t do that.

I honestly think there are a lot of white people who don’t know where to start and feel like they need a PhD in political science to even enter the conversation. The phrases “systemic racism” and “systemic oppression” are everywhere, but these are complicated ideas with an expansive history. I’m writing this post because in my humble opinion, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a damn good place to start. There are so many excellent reading lists on black authors and about black issues out there right now, so I am by no means saying this is the definitive piece of education needed. (In fact, let me take this opportunity to direct you towards Rachel Cargle’s reading list. )

Lots of us are on board with fighting it but really can’t connect the dots or visualize what systemic racism actually is.

Or, rather, we have trouble visualizing how it has played out in our country and how it still is. This is the racism we don’t see. This is the racism that isn’t just about slurs and lynching and To Kill a Mockingbird. And I believe understanding the this is the only way to take all our good intentions and turn them into action. Because while obvious racism may be about people’s feelings, systemic racism is about policy. This means we can’t separate ourselves from it. Racism isn’t something that happens “over there” or that we are somehow immune to participating in just because we don’t say certain words. The system we live and engage in every day is part of upholding racism, and until we can look at it honestly, we aren’t really doing anything.

This book is not just about mass incarceration, although it is probably the most visible example of systemic oppression’s current aberrational form. It demonstrates how deeply rooted white supremacy is in our policy, legislation and government at both the federal and local levels. Racism isn’t just the KKK or a “few bad apples”- it is woven into the fabric of our history and our laws. We cannot possibly fight this problem until we understand it. 

Systemic racism was something I thought I understood when I went into a career as a social worker. I didn’t. Even as a person who has taken an ethical oath in my profession to work against oppression, I will never truly know the beast I am fighting because that beast will always be someone else’s enemy and not my own. As a person of privilege trying to work for those who have less privilege, that is sobering and humbling. 

All we can do is learn and listen to the people who DO understand. Anti-racism requires opening our eyes to the disparities in our country to which we are experience-blind. It requires diving into the hard truths of what our society has been built on. It requires more than just saying “Well I’d never use the N word.” That isn’t good enough.

There are points Alexander expands on, which I think are absolutely essential to understanding how racism has been baked into the criminal system and our society as a whole.

  • Drug crimes were actually declining when America’s racially motivated war on drugs was declared.
  • The end of slavery was the beginning of legislation and policing that prevented blacks from gaining social equity and control.
  • Segregation laws were an intentional way to drive a social wedge between poor whites and blacks to maintain elite power structures.
  • The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a breakdown in “law and order” was used to criminalize the black community, starting a political movement that embedded racist policy and practice into the criminal justice system.
  • Our country has flouted and eviscerated the 4th amendment to allow profiling with regards to search and seizure.
  • Excessive prosecution of minor drug crimes have created a society where black people are still kept under social control and kept from influencing the justice system–Did you know felony exclusions for jury duty means that 30% of black men are banned from serving on juries?
  • Studies have shown time and time again police stop and search in a racially discriminatory manner.
  • The stereotype of black fathers being absent is false–black fathers not living at home are more likely to keep in contact with their children than any other ethnic group.
  • Mass incarceration has fractured black families to the point that a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents today than during slavery.
  • Discriminatory policing of black people has created a “racial caste” system, where those with felony convictions or other criminal histories no longer have the same access to housing, student loans, education opportunities and employment. 
  • Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of black men with felonies rose from 13% to 33%. Nearly all of those felonies are non-violent offenses.

That last statistic should make you furious. It makes me furious. We have destroyed generations of families, of communities. Do you see why they’re pissed?

All of that is only a part of why people are protesting right now. There’s so much more to that iceberg. This isn’t just about George Floyd. It’s not about a “few cops” or a “few incidents.” It’s about 400 years of this bull shit.

Alexander points out that it is easy to believe black people have achieved equality in our society when you see one become the president. But in reality, for the vast majority, things are not better.

These problems were not “fixed” in 1968, despite what your junior high history teacher told you. We must keep learning. We must also listen to the lived experiences of the black individuals in our lives without asking them to do the labor for us. Black people aren’t our encyclopedias of racism or social justice. If you think these problems don’t affect your black friends, it isn’t because they don’t. It’s because our black friends probably just want to go out and enjoy a beer without having to spend 3 hours giving a thesis defense to every white person who has suddenly wondered if racism is still a thing. It’s time for us to figure this stuff out ourselves and be the ones who act.  

There have always been people in America who have maintained the beautiful and elusive vision of equality. but America itself has never lived up to it. We celebrate ourselves as though we have anyway.  It’s a hard pill to swallow. You can love your country and still want it to be better. True patriotism is fighting for its ideals, not letting a nation silently abandon them. To do this goes against everything we’ve ever learned about our society and ourselves. It forces us to dismantle our belief system and examine our pride. It demands we look at the actions of our ancestors and be accountable for their legacy. It also requires us to commit to doing a lot of work.

When black Americans march or take a knee during the national anthem, they are not protesting the America white people live in–they are protesting the America they live in.

That America is very different. For everyone to thrive in a country that lives up to its promises of freedom and equality, we have to fundamentally change the way our society has organized itself on the backs of non-whites for hundreds of years. It will be uncomfortable, but we can’t stay asleep forever.


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