Getting specific about systemic racism

Most of us have heard of redlining, sort of understand how sharecropping operated, and know that “separate but equal” schools weren’t ruled illegal until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Yet while we understand that those are examples of systemic racism, we still may largely think of racism as an attitude displayed by individuals.

Until the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I hadn’t delved into the specifics of systemic racism. Taking to heart BLM’s admonition to white people to educate ourselves, I’ve been reading exposés like Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “What Is Owed” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” From them I learned a lot about how structures and institutions, including government, deliberately kept African Americans subservient. Following are just a few of the revelations that opened my eyes to the extent of systemic racism.

Do you know where the term “40 acres and a mule” originated? In January 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that hundreds of thousands of acres of Confederate land be given to former slaves in 40-acre tracts. But pro-Southern President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, rescinded the order. Newly freed Blacks had no resources to build on and thus fell into the sharecropping system, farming plots for exploitative landowners. States passed laws that made it a crime if Blacks did not sign labor contracts with white landowners or changed employers without permission. During the same time period, whites were benefiting from the federal Homestead Act, which gave away 246 million acres of land in 160-acre tracts to more than 1.5 million white homesteaders.

While realtors and bigoted homeowners furthered residential segregation, it was the US government that first drew the red lines on maps around Black neighborhoods supposedly undesirable for home loans. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (1933) and the Federal Housing Administration (1934) also required that any federally insured mortgage be covered by a restrictive covenant forbidding a sale to anyone but whites. From 1934 to 1962, whites secured 98 percent of federally backed mortgages.

“Lay those redlining maps over any city in America with a significant Black population,” Hannah-Jones wrote, and you will see that the government-sanctioned segregation patterns remain stubbornly intact.”

Largely denied access to government-sponsored home ownership, the means by which whites secured middle-class status, Blacks became the target of predatory sellers who bought homes and resold them “on contract” at inflated prices. Buyers acquired no equity until the entire contract was paid off; one missed payment meant forfeiting the property and all money paid.

When Black soldiers returned from World War II, many of them were locked out of the home loan benefit of the G.I. Bill because they were disqualified by their local Veterans Administration office or banks.

Public housing reinforced segregation; more than 98 percent of the public housing units built in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s were in Black neighborhoods.

Housing is the main driver of the Black-white wealth gap. In today’s Chicago, only 22 percent of housing units in which Blacks reside are occupied by the owner. The Black homeownership rate is almost the same as in 1968. Because of disinvestment in their communities, the fortunate few who own their homes have not built up equity comparable to those in white neighborhoods.

Living in middle-class or wealthier communities, whites could send their children to decent public schools. Most communities in the South, where the majority of Blacks lived, did not have a single public high school for Black students as late as the 1930s.

Black students were denied entrance to Southern colleges, but many universities in the rest of the country were also complicit in limiting Black admission by using quotas.

An admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, I was surprised to learn that Blacks were denied some of the New Deal’s benefits. To get Southern buy-in, the Roosevelt administration excluded farmworkers and domestics, many of whom were Black, from Social Security and unemployment insurance. Sixty-five percent of Blacks nationally and 70 to 80 percent in the South were ineligible for Social Security when it became law in 1935. Black people worked in service jobs because racist practices closed better-paying and union jobs to them.

Considering such officially sanctioned discrimination as the above, the huge wealth gap between Blacks and whites ought not be surprising. Yet I was still blown away by Hannah-Jones’s statement that “the Black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds.” She cited a Yale University study showing that most whites are as ignorant as I was about the degree of economic inequality.

If you’d asked me just a few months ago what racism is, I would have answered something along the lines of believing someone is inferior because of skin color. Now any definition I’d come up with would include the word “policies.”



“Everyone cannot believe what they’re seeing in the US, and they cannot believe the words coming out of leadership.”
—Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University, about the reactions of his worldwide colleagues to the US response to COVID

Leave a comment