Holly Richardson: Systemic racism is baked in to the U.S. from top to bottom

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessy Salas with Black Lives for Humanity sports a handmade mask from the Mayes family. Black Lives Matter supporters and Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement members march from the Capitol to Washington Square on Monday, August 31, 2020 calling for justice for Jacob Blake who was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23rd.

This has been quite a year, hasn’t it? One of the defining issues 2020 has been the many conversations about race and racism that have and are occurring.

When Vice President Mike Pence said at the debate earlier this week that systemic racism and implicit bias don’t exist, he was repeating something he’s said previously. And. He. Is. Wrong.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Systemic racism is baked in to the history of the United States. It still permeates our country from top to bottom.

This country was built on the backs of slaves from the earliest days when “20 and odd Negroes” from Angola were kidnapped, brought to Jamestown and sold to white settlers in 1619.

Systemic racism was built into a medical profession that believed that Black anatomy and physiology were fundamentally different than white anatomy and physiology. It’s not just a thing of the past. Recent news stories highlight the continued danger: In the United States, Black babies die at birth three times more often than white babies. That rate is cut in half if their doctors are Black. Black mothers die at a rate 2.5 to 3.3 times greater than white mothers giving birth in the U.S.

Systemic racism is baked into education, employment, access to voting and a path to wealth creation. It’s been codified into state and federal laws for many, many years.

To get his New Deal through Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt “overlooked” any sort of equitable treatment for Black Americans. Domestic and farm laborers (almost exclusively Black) were excluded from minimum wage laws, regulated work hours, union representation and Social Security. Under the guise of local control, Congress let local agencies administer the programs, without federal oversight, thus continuing the explicitly racial policies of the South and the implicitly racial policies of the North.

After World War II, the Fair Deal continued in the same vein, with federal dollars going to increase white wealth by disenfranchising Black Americans and limiting their ability to generate wealth. The G.I. Bill that was used by returning soldiers to get a college education was substantially less for Black veterans than it was for white veterans. Home mortgages were harder to obtain and buying a home in new suburbia was substantially harder for Black Americans because of the legalized racism being perpetuated throughout the real estate system.

Systemic racism exists in environmental racism, with communities of color located close to hazardous waste sites and cleanup is slow, delayed or nonexistent. It is evident in criminal justice practices, where Black people are arrested more often, shot more often, receive harsher sentences and where slavery is still legally allowed (Amendment C is on Utah’s ballot this year to remove slavery from our Constitution. Vote yes.)

I know white people get offended when talking about racism. “But I don’t see color!” they say. “I love all people.”

Please let me say as clearly as I can: When we, as white people, minimize or dismiss the lived experience of our brothers and sisters of color, we perpetuate white identity.

Instead of getting offended, might I suggest that we ask ourselves what we are missing? Whose voices have we not invited to the table? How do we get “proximate” with people who are different than we are? How do we learn to listen and respect people with different experiences from our own? And how can we begin dismantling the structural racism that disadvantages Black, Indigenous and other people of color in this country?

There is no way to go through hundreds of years of baked in racism in a 600-word column. There are many places you can go to learn more. I suggest starting with the 1619 Project by The New York Times, the “Letstalk_sis” Instagram account of sisters Alexis Bradley and Chante Stutznegger, books “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson, “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet Washington, “Tightrope” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, “The Color of Money” by Mehrsa Baradaran and “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram Kendi.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is a white woman trying to be a better ally.