One of the welcome, but unexpected effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is that more White people want to know what it is like to be Black in the United States today. Whites are beginning to listen and some of us are trying to learn the effects of anti-Black racism on Black lives.
The Lancet is one of the most prestigious medical journals in the English-speaking world and beyond. It recently contained a long article that showed that in any state of the US where police shot and killed a young, unarmed Black man, large numbers of Black citizens suffered in their mental health. (The Lancet, Volume 392, July 28 – August 3, 2018,) They were more depressed, anxious, fearful. Their sense of themselves, their self-esteem suffered. They felt more uncertain about their position in their social world.
The murder of unarmed, young Black men and women, the article also showed, did not have the same effects on White people. The murder of unarmed, young Blacks by police had very specific, deleterious mental health effects on the victims of structural racism. It was felt particularly vividly by Black mothers, and by Black women expecting a child.
The article made use of what is now a familiar concept, the concept of “structural racism.” Racism, this term implies, should not be understood primarily as the prejudiced thoughts and feelings and behavior of individual Americans. When we talk about racism in America we are not just talking about this or that person who has mistaken beliefs about Black people – beliefs that ascribe defects to Black people that they have no more than any other group in our nation.
Instead the concept of structural racism suggests we are supposed to think of racism as consisting of social systems, of structures, instead of as the prejudices of individual persons.
This is an important insight, but it must be understood correctly. Structural racism is often understood as saying “racism does not consist of the beliefs or actions of individual White people. Racism is perpetrated and perpetuated by the system or the social structure.”
Many White people like to talk about structural racism because, as they understand it, individual White people are not responsible for the existence of racism, for the murder by police of unarmed, young Blacks, for the inequality in opportunities for jobs or education between Whites and Blacks, etc. So, individual White person do not have to feel responsible. I should not feel guilty because it is not what I do or say that injures Blacks. It is the system.
But that is, of course, a complete misinterpretation. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was killed by a specific policeman. It was a specific grand jury that decided not to indict that policeman. Police who shot black persons, if they were indicted, were absolved by specific juries. Racist acts are committed by specific White persons.
Black persons recounting their experiences over and over again experience the same indignities and assaults from different White persons. Talk about structural racism rejects the notion that there are just a few White people who are racist – “a few bad apples” – the startling and destructive fact is that different, totally unconnected White people will denigrate Black persons in the same ways as other White people. (For more on this point see, Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness [New York: Convergent, 2018]. White people should read that book!) More or less all White people will at times act in racist ways towards African-Americans – and of course against other persons of color, against other people who are “not really White” or whose whiteness is somewhat marginal, as for instance Jews or, in Europe, the Roma, or Native Americans in our country.
That is what makes racism structural. It isn’t just this or that person being mean or perhaps just ignorant and self-involved. It is all White people, all the time, with very few exceptions. Some of these White people are trying really hard not to be racist but even those of us who try hard, fail sometimes.
One of the astonishing facts about structural racism is how it pops up in the most unexpected places. Several years ago a TIME Magazine reporter looked at the calls of umpires in different sports and found that White umpires tended to make calls against Black athletes more often than against Whites. (Katie Rooney, “Are Baseball Umpires Racist?” TIME, August 13, 2007)
Structural racism plays out even in sports and it plays out in two ways. It plays out in the acts of White umpires and it plays out in the silence of the White public that does not protest these injustices.
In part they fail to protest because they don’t know what is going on. But more and more White people are learning about the structural – that means ubiquitous, inescapable — injustices done to members of Black communities but they refuse to do anything. They may deplore the acts of brutal police. But they do not speak up when the police officer is not indicted.They do not protest against the disproportionate number of Blacks in prison. They do not swing into action when a decent education is withheld from Black children. The racist acts of some Whites are ignored by most of the other Whites.
White people stick together and protect each other even when their racism is illegal or blatantly immoral. Racism is structural not only because it is everywhere but because it consists of an unspoken White solidarity against the suffering of Blacks. White police who killed Blacks can feel pretty safe because of the Whites who will protect them. Prosecutors who indict Blacks and judges who send them to prison without reliable evidence will be reelected by their White supporters. So will school boards where schools for Black children are seriously deficient.
It is like Catholic priests who abuse children can feel assured that their bishop will protect them. It is like men in commercial or political organizations who sexually harass women. Until very recently they could be sure that other men would protect them.
Structural racism means that all Whites, regardless how well we mean, are responsible for the maltreatment, for the injustices done daily to African-Americans because we commit overt racist acts, that we may not even recognize, or we refuse to protest those done by others.