Learning from our past: The ongoing fight against systemic racism

10 News spoke with two experts about systemic racism and how to dismantle it

On the left, is an image from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The photo on the right is from a George Floyd protest during the summer of 2020. (Associated Press)

ROANOKE, Va. – In George Floyd’s final moments on May 25, 2020, he had his face pressed to hot concrete as he gasped for air, pleading for his life as former officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

The 46-year-old’s last words, “They’ll kill me. They’ll kill me.”

That summer, as many collectively grieved another Black life taken too soon, millions came together to demand justice in the face of systemic racism in policing. Their cries for change would all carry the same message: Black Lives Matter.

In this June 24, 2020, file photo, Antonio Mingo, of Washington, right, holds his fists in the air as demonstrators protest in front of a police line on a section of 16th Street that's been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Systemic racism goes beyond an individual’s own prejudiced beliefs and instead, takes a more outward view as it examines how discrimination against an ethnic minority group can become embedded in major systems, institutions, ideologies and social forces in society.

Dr. Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech, said systemic racism can be difficult to grasp.

“We live in a society that emphasizes individualism. We are far less likely to investigate and far less likely to understand how systems of inequality work. Instead, the totality of racism gets reduced to individual prejudices and individual behaviors. Systemic racism is difficult to understand sometimes, but it is present in all of our institutions and organizations, our laws and our policies,” said Faulkner.

UCLA professors Gilbert Gee, Ph.D., and Dr. Chandra Ford wrote an article published in 2011 in the “Du Bois Review” that uses an iceberg analogy to depict the complexity of racism, stating that the tip of the iceberg represents acts of racism such as cross burnings, while structural racism—or systemic racism—is the portion that lies beneath the water. The study noted that structural racism is more dangerous and harder to uproot given that it often goes unnoticed.

It affects the education system, health system, criminal justice system along with housing and even technology within a society.

While progress has been made in the fight for racial equality, Black Americans have faced systemic racism from the moment Africans from Angola were stripped of their humanity, forced onto slave ships and brought to a new world where they were viewed as less than human.

When John Rolfe wrote about “20 and odd negroes” arriving on American soil in 1619, all men were not created equal in the eyes of English colonists hungry for cheap labor.

Even when slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, racial discrimination against Black Americans continued to persist in the U.S. well after the Civil War with Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and other attempts to prolong their oppression.

Here's a look at the history of racism in the U.S. (10 News)

Systemic racism continues to be prevalent today, 68 years after the 1954 ruling by the Supreme Court that ended racial segregation in public schools.

Multiple studies show that the effects of systemic racism impact ethnic minorities both mentally and physically.

A 2015 analysis that pulled data from 293 studies reported in 333 articles published between 1983 and 2013, showed that racism is associated with poorer mental health including depression, anxiety and psychological stress.

Racism is also tied to disproportionate morbidity and mortality rates in racial minority groups in comparison to white Americans. For instance, Black Americans, ages 18 to 49, are two times as likely to die from heart disease than their white counterparts, and Black Americans, ages 35-64, are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than white Americans, according to research from the CDC.

In addition, CDC research indicates that Black women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than any other demographic, a statistic that may be worsening due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, has researched how the mind and the body work in tandem with one another when responding to triggers, traumas and fears that may arise when someone is constantly exposed to what their body may interpret as a threat.

She referred to a scholarly article published by the Journal of Adolescent Health and stated that when Black Americans are continuously on alert, whether that be from repeatedly seeing news about racial violence, such as the George Floyd footage, or if they’re a part of the experience, it can result in two things: desensitization or hypersensitivity of the sympathetic nervous system [SNS].

“If [your sympathetic nervous system] continues to get triggered, we’re wearing down the ability of our body to regulate itself normally and to function normally,” said Anderson. “And that can happen in one of two ways. One is that it can happen so much that we don’t engage in that response and we don’t have any detection now—we’re desensitized to it—or for other people, it can be hypersensitivity. So your blood pressure is increased, your heart rate is increased.”

She cited the “constant eroding or weathering of our ability to function” as one of the reasons for health disparity in the Black community.

Despite countless empirical and anecdotal data proving otherwise, Faulkner noted that it is not uncommon for people to deny that racism is prevalent.

“It is deeply embedded in the American philosophy that we should be a color-blind society,” she said. “So it is very difficult sometimes to get people—especially those who aren’t directly affected by racism—to understand the experiences of other groups. But we’re talking about two things at the same time: beliefs and an opinion. So certainly people can have an opinion about racism and whether it exists, but that’s separate from the facts that we have. People will always deny racism.”

While uprooting racism from America’s foundation won’t be an easy task, Faulkner said it begins with “centering the voices of directly-affected communities.”

She also said that it’s important to note that the work doesn’t stop at having uncomfortable and productive conversations with one another and should transition into what she called a “movement toward policy-oriented solutions.”

“We have to be mindful of the ways in which [systemic racism] plays out in society,” said Faulkner. “We have to be mindful of the Black experience in America and understand that we don’t all share the same common experiences. We have to move beyond this individualist perspective into a whole-systems perspective.”

About the Author:

Jazmine Otey joined the 10 News team in February 2021.