Systemic Racism

by Vielka

There is something that I’ve learned from being in college access for such a long time: we don’t understand systemic racism.  For community organizers, this might seem obvious but as I move through different spaces in venture capital and education, it’s clear that we don’t really know what it means.  

Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

As a history teacher, I can say that students are quite receptive to enslavement and Jim Crow as being really clear examples of racism.  For them, it doesn’t make sense that someone like Colin Kaepernick is protesting racism because they don’t see the parallels with enslavement and Jim Crow.  That’s because they aren’t seeing what of enslavement, Jim Crow, and police overstepping is the actual racist thing: it’s that there were systems in place to allow, and benefit from, those acts of discrimination.  Enslavement was legally permitted and the US reaped huge financial benefits from the institution. That’s racism. The violence on the plantation was not the racist part; it was that there weren’t any laws to punish the perpetrators.  

Another way to measure the differences between prejudice, discrimination, and racism is to consider the outcomes of each.  In racism, we see outcomes that continue to perpetrate a model that supports the prejudice or discrimination. Education is a racist institution because it continues to graduate students of color at lower rates than non-white students, for example.  As a person of color, I can work within that system, but I am also limited in how much of that system I can change. In this example, because a pretty advanced degree is required to be in the position to enact change, the limited number of students of color graduating from college means lower odds of those students being put in a position to make the change that caused the circumstance.  It’s cyclical. And that’s systemic.

Just to be really clear: I’m not saying that White people are inherently racist.  This is the crux of why we aren’t making progress in this area. We hire, support, and promote what we know.  The more we understand and have empathy for other people, the more we may consider their needs and can hire, support, and promote their needs too. 

But, we don’t live in a system that rewards empathy. And that’s racism.  

In the midst of an election and a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about other things that are racist that we just keep talking around the actual racist part.

  1. The Democratic Primaries: While the Democratic party began with the most diverse pool of folks running for the nomination, it ended with two old White men, one of whom will run against another old White man.  Here’s why that’s racist: Everyone did have a shot and the same rules. But we are really focused on polling to determine who goes to the debates. That polling determines who gets the donations and name-recognition.  So it’s already looking for who is most popular. Joe Biden was in the Senate for twenty years already before that pink wave hit in 1993 with a whopping four women entering the Senate at once. Honestly, had it not been for the treatment of Anita Hill in 1991, we probably wouldn’t have seen that many.   So these polls are really important and the polls focused on the first two primary and caucus states: Iowa and New Hampshire. So White. So so White. Again, not saying that White people are incapable of considering other people but how would they do that if those folks are not living near them? And better yet, why not just ask those other people?  Imagine what would happen if all the states had primaries at once, or if we went to states such as Michigan, California, and Florida first.  

The other thing that kept me thinking is that people have two different answers for Who do you want to be president? And, Who do you think can beat Trump? This is troubling because we are only raising the second question because we have enough people in this country who care so little about other people as long as they get a little extra in their bank accounts, as long as the abortion they wouldn’t get anyway is not an option for someone else, and as long as someone other than them is scapegoated, that they’re fine.  A system that allows that to happen is racist.  

A few weeks ago, I listened to a talk from the founder of the 1619 Project.  The project is remarkably profound.  Full stop. And listening to the creator talk about the motivations behind it, really underscored its impact.  She said something that night that really highlighted what the project is all about: Because of the Voting Rights Act, Black people just about my age are the first generation born in this country with full citizenship rights.  And if we consider that people are fighting voter ID laws right now, we really haven’t seen full citizenship rights yet. If you’re not quite sure that’s a big deal, watch this clip from MSNBC’s What’s Eating America that aired a few days ago.

Again, a system that allows all of that to happen is racist.


2. Reaction to Coronavirus: A virus certainly isn’t racist, but the reaction to it can be.  And wow, the amount of racist systems revealed during the spread of the disease is astounding.  Take a look at the wonderings:

  • What will happen to hourly workers who can’t afford childcare/time off/sick time/company closures/healthcare?
  • What will happen to young children whose only meals come from the free lunch at their schools when the schools close?
  • What will happen to people who can’t afford supplies especially since people are stealing even those that are supposed to be free and available? 
  • What are people supposed to do if they can’t afford a coronavirus test?
  • What will happen to college students who can’t afford to go home when their campus has closed? 

It’s fascinating to me that we didn’t seem to care about the cost of healthcare until there was a global pandemic that is causing the stock market to crash.  That’s the lack of empathy that fuels racism.

My wheelhouse is access to education.  It’s essentially where I’ve devoted my life.  In the last seven years, I’ve entered the venture capital space because it’s a space that has the capacity to solve problems at scale.  But it’s frustrating because while there is so much capacity, the people who have access to the tools, funds, and resources are people who have benefited from the systems I describe above.  So their worldview is located in this lack of empathy space with the additional need to generate revenue. It’s like hoping for an election or pandemic to get people to pay attention.

But in many ways, we have this opportunity now.  What would an election look like if everyone had access to a quality education?  I don’t mean the myth that a college degree is just about reading books. I mean what really comes with a college degree: research skills; the ability to question; resilience and tenacity, and even empathy.  What would a global pandemic look like if we all had access to the above? If all of our systems worked in a way to ensure everyone is getting access to a quality education because we are concerned about how other communities thrive? Imagine that.



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