Recently Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI-7) both stated that systemic racism does not exist in our country. On April 25, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Graham if there was systemic racism in this country, and Graham responded, “No. Not in my opinion. We just elected a two-term African-American president. The vice president is of African-American Indian descent. So our systems are not racist. America is not a racist country.” Graham appears to have no clue what systemic racism is.
Neither does Walberg. At a recent town hall he stated, “I don’t believe our country is systemically racist. I believe there are racists in this country, and I believe there are racist organizations in this country of all the different colors of skin. But I don’t believe our country is systemically racist.” It should be noted that out of 437 members of the House of Representatives, only 53 are Black and only two of those are Republicans. The Senate numbers are even worse with only three Black senators, two of whom are Democrats. Also, according to Legistorm, the Republican representatives employ 60, or 2.0%, Black staffers and the Democrats 624 (17.2%). The senators, who have larger staffs, do even worse with Democratic senators employing only 263 (11.5%) and Republicans employing 39 (1.9%). These numbers do not support Walberg’s argument that the composition of Congress shows that there is no systemic racism.
Both Graham and Walberg are naive at best or just plain ignorant. Let me educate them. Systemic racism, sometimes called structural racism, is a system in which institutional practices, public policies, cultural representations, and other norms perpetuate racial group inequities. It is part of our history and culture that has allowed for white advantages while sustaining disadvantages for people of color. It is not something that individuals or institutions choose to do but is a feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all live. Most people, including many Republican politicians like Graham and Walberg, may not even be aware of it. But psychologists, sociologists, and people who know the facts and use critical thinking skills are aware of the pervasiveness of systemic racism.
Dr. Crystal Fleming writes in her book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race: “The major insight about systemic … racism… is that there is no such thing as ‘a little bit of racism’… isolated from the rest of society. Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive, and embedded within the core of all of our major institutions.”
According to Dr. Fleming, systemic racism has many consequences “from the burgeoning racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and racist immigration policies to microaggressions, racial profiling, racist media imagery and disparities in health, education, employment, and housing.” It affects all minorities, but Black Americans have the longest history. For example, the GI Bill after World War II provided low-cost mortgages to returning veterans and paid their tuition to attend college. Although approximately 125,000 Black service members fought in World War II, they were not eligible for the GI Bill. White service members were able to build low-cost homes that rose in value over time. They also attended college free, which led to higher-paying jobs. They were able to accumulate wealth over the generations that Black service members could not. Now, according to Statista.com, the median household wealth for white families is $171,000 but only $17,600 for Black families.
Part of what maintains systemic racism are the implicit biases that most, if not all of us, have. We are unaware that we have these biases, but they can be expressed in our behaviors; behaviors that contribute to systemic racism. It is different from individual racism in which an individual consciously and intentionally engages in prejudicial or discriminatory behavior. An implicit bias is unconscious and unintentional, but it has effects that contribute to systemic racism. Unfortunately, too many Republicans, even Black Republicans, seem unable to recognize these unconscious beliefs.
After President Biden’s State of the Union address, the Republicans had Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) deliver their response. I find it ironic that they chose their one Black senator to deliver remarks which included much about racism including his statement that “America is not a racist country.” All he must do is look at his Republican caucus in the Senate and see only white faces looking back at him to realize the impact of systemic racism, but he appears not to.
It is even stranger that he gave examples from his own life that are indicative of systemic racism such as “I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason, to be followed around a store while I’m shopping,” but he still claimed systemic racism doesn’t exist. Is he really that naive? What does it take for people, even Black people like him, to realize the insidious nature of systemic racism?
Let’s start with one of Sen. Scott’s examples, being “pulled over for no reason.” Researchers at Stanford University conducted a comprehensive study of nearly 100 million police stops made by state and municipal police. The study discovered that Black people are about 20% more likely to be pulled over by police officers than white drivers. Also, Black drivers were searched about twice as often as white drivers. As Kelsey Staub, Ph.D., co-author of Suspect Citizens says, “‘Driving while Black’ is very much a thing. … it appears to be more systemic than a few ‘bad apple’ officers engaged in racial profiling.”
Where else do we find systemic racism? Let’s have a look. School suspensions are used as a disciplinary method, but suspensions decrease students’ academic achievement on both math and ELA standardized tests. Yet, a 2019 study from Brown University found that Black students get suspended at a higher rate than white students for the same misbehaviors.
A 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily Walsh or Greg Baker) had a 50% greater callback rate than applicants with Black-sounding names (Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones). Yet they all had equally strong resumes. In the sciences, Black applicants are less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with white applicants.
In housing, according to HUD, Black homebuyers are more likely to be denied an appointment with a real estate agent and Black homebuyers are shown 17% fewer homes than white buyers. Lenders have disproportionately steered prime loan qualified Black Americans to subprime housing loans.
In the criminal justice system, Black defendants receive sentences that are almost 10% longer than those of comparable whites arrested for the same crimes. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults. Despite virtually equal usage rates, Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana usage. Black offenders pay higher bail than whites convicted of the same crime. No wonder Black Americans may fear the police.
In their day-to-day lives when people with Black-sounding names try to book an Airbnb they are 16% less likely to be approved. They are also three times more likely to have their Uber rides canceled. And, if you are Black, people are less likely to stop for you at a crosswalk.
Systemic racism is real. Until more Americans and members of Congress start empathically listening to people of color and make the necessary changes, the situation won’t get any better.
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