Sunday, October 16, 2016

Learning About Systemic Racism

Yesterday I hosted a group viewing in my living room of the new documentary, 13th, now available on Netflix and in select theaters. It is a powerful, expertly made film about how the current system of mass incarceration in this country is the modern iteration of black subjugation and white privilege. 

Taking the themes laid out in Michelle Alexander's 2010 New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 13th presents the compelling case that although the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, it did so with the caveat that Americans could still be stripped of their liberty and enslaved if they commit a crime. 

Over the past three decades, under bipartisan political efforts to restore "law and order" and get "tough on crime," the prison population has skyrocketed, with the majority of inmates being people of color who have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for non-violent offenses--often without due process and too frequently for pleading guilty to crimes that they didn't commit. Even after they serve their time, these "criminals" are then branded and denied access to a whole host of privileges, including the ability to get jobs, housing, driver's licenses, an array of social services like food stamps, and even the right to vote. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and one of the prominent speakers in the film, explains that he often hears people ask how Americans tolerated slavery and then the lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, and police brutality that followed its abolition over the following century. He makes the piercing point that this is still happening and we all are tolerating it. 

13th is a must-see film. 

I am just beginning to educate myself on these important topics, and the systemic--often hidden--racism that pervades our society. I have known for some time about the school-to-prison pipeline, in which high levels of suspensions and zero tolerance school policies label children early on as troublemakers and problems, and then funnel them swiftly into the larger criminal justice system, thus perpetuating inequality and poverty. According to U.S. Department of Education data from 2013-2014, 6,743 children who were enrolled in public preschool received one or more out-of-school suspensions--with black children far more likely to be suspended than white children. Monique Morris's new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools describes this pipeline in greater detail. 

But the larger issues of black subjugation, systemic racism, and implicit bias were topics I had only peripherally understood. I recently read The New Jim Crow for the first time and was ashamed that I hadn't heard of or read this book in the last six years since its debut. I can blame it on a busy, full, sleep-deprived life with littles that often kept me out-of-touch with media and current events, but the truth is that there is no excuse for not reading about, learning about, and acting upon these ugly injustices. I am just beginning to figure out what I can do, in some small way, to impact change. Educating myself is an important and necessary first step; collaborating with others in this shared effort is another. But perhaps the biggest thing I can do is to help my children understand how the legacy of American slavery endures and how people of different colors remain unequally treated in this great country. 

As I have been reading and learning and watching, I have let my children in on all of this. To them, growing up with an African American president and living in a diverse (although sadly still segregated) city, slavery and inequality and racism seemed like historical relics. I, too, thought that today's colorblindness was a sign of progress and I was ignorant of how the system of mass incarceration creates and perpetuates a massive undercaste along racial lines. I am now much more intentional in sharing these injustices with my children in our daily conversations. As I was reading The New Jim Crow, my nine-year-old asked about it and we had a long, deep discussion about these issues. Now, whenever another unarmed black person gets shot and killed by police, I say that it's very likely that wouldn't have happened if the person was white. On a walk to the park recently, my five-year-old asked out of the blue: "Mama, why did they slave them just because they had black skin?" We then talked openly about the horrors of slavery and its continued effects on inequality and injustice. And we all have been reading children's books from the library that touch on these topics in age-appropriate ways.

It's a start. I will continue to educate myself, confront my own implicit biases, join the grassroots efforts to bring these important issues to the forefront of American policy dialogues, and I will use this space to write about them. But perhaps the most important thing I can do, the most important impact I can have, is to help my children to think about and understand that people are still treated very differently in this country based on what they look like. And that must finally end.

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