Are you feeling overwhelmed by the racial tension in our country? Why is there so much hatred and polarization right now?
You are not alone. It can be confusing to sort out how we ended up like this. How did we land here in this moment in this country?
We often think of racism as something one person does to another person—a racist act. However, racism is actually baked into how things work in the United States. Racism was a premise on which the United States was founded—and this premise has helped people in power to sustain power. And while things are changing, for a long time—and still today—most of those people in power have been White men.
Since Europeans landed on what they named “American” soil, 86% of the past 400 years have been a period of slavery or segregation. The first slaves landed in Virginia in 1619.1 In 1661, it became illegal for different races to marry.2 In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery,3 but for another 100 years, segregation was the law of the land. The 1965 Voting Rights Act4 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, but we are still grappling with significant disparities resulting from our long history of slavery and discrimination. It was less than a generation ago that blatant discrimination was legal.
Some ask, why is there so much focus on Black lives? Can’t we let bygones, be bygones? Don’t all lives matter?
Of course, all lives matter.
The problem is that Black lives have been dismissed for far too long. New tactics, like voter suppression,5 gerrymandering,5 and provision of more resources to predominantly White neighborhoods than to predominantly Black neighborhoods during elections6 discriminate in ways that disproportionately affect Black lives. For example, in 2004, Ohio’s Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, intentionally provided more voting machines to sites in majority White areas to influence the election.6 He was successful by creating longer wait times to vote for Black voters, causing some voters to abandon the voting booth. Those in power redrew district lines to ensure they would maintain power in key districts5 (this is called gerrymandering, and both parties do it).
Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes how the 1980s “War on Drugs” disproportionately targeted poor, Black men through differential imprisonment policies for crack versus cocaine. In short, both crack and cocaine are chemically the same, but crack is much cheaper. Mandatory minimum sentences passed in 1986 required that a person be in possession of 500 grams of cocaine (a drug preferred by Whites), but only 5 grams of crack (a drug more often used by Blacks) for a minimum 5-year sentence, a 100:1 difference.7 In 2010, President Obama reduced sentencing for crack, but the crack versus cocaine gap is still 18:1.8
Our long history of discrimination has resulted in vast economic and health inequities for Black Americans and other people of color. In the 1940s and 1950s, our government was still refusing to insure loans for aspiring Black homeowners. Insured loans (that only white people could legally get) were cheaper than uninsured loans available to Black homeowners. Temporary housing projects were built for Black Americans looking for work in urban areas who could not afford expensive home loans. This government move created generational wealth for White homeowners without giving Black families access to the same benefits.9
Several very recent studies have shown that employers remain biased against Black candidates for jobs, even among organizations that have pro-diversity images and policies.10 Several recent studies have shown that even with equal or superior education, Black candidates were less likely to be called for interviews and were sometimes treated worse than White interviewees.11
What about immigrant lives? Recently, the White House proclaimed that undocumented immigrants should not be counted in the US Census.12-13 If we think about our history, this is ironic, because the colonists who landed on this soil in the 1600s were undocumented immigrants who declared that the rights of people already here—Native Americans—no longer counted. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which declared that colonization and seizure of property was legal if the people living on the land were not Christians.14 This doctrine was used to justify colonialism and the act of taking land from Native Americans and assigning them to reservations through the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851.15 One hundred years later, the federal government tried to move Native Americans off of reservations to avoid needing to financially support the reservations.16
A shocking fact: Did you know that in the Declaration of Independence—still today—Native Americans are referred to as “merciless Indian Savages”?17 This language was used as propaganda in travel letters and history narratives, because of the Doctrine of Discovery. As long as colonists were trying to tame pagans and convert them to Christianity, any resistance on the part of Native Americans was legally seen as a justification for subjugation.
In short, the systems set up by the Doctrine of Discovery, colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow (segregation) are still disproportionately benefiting White people today. That does not mean that every White person is to blame: most of us had nothing to do with creating, implementing, or maintaining these inhumane and discriminatory policies. However, this is our history: We have an opportunity to acknowledge the history of our country and try to correct past wrongs.
Three major challenges exist that perpetuate racial tension in the United States: myopia, mistrust, and defensiveness. First myopia (or taking a short-sighted view of things) leads us to falsely pit one disparate group against another, or see the pain of one group as less important than another. In Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, he demonstrates how addressing racial equity without addressing class, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other ways we collectively describe ourselves, is futile.18 Trying to fight for the rights of one disenfranchised group without considering the rights of other disenfranchised groups assumes that we, as people, only identify based on our race, class, sex, etc. Efforts toward equitable health and opportunity cannot be successful if one group subdues another—we simply repeat the lessons of inequality. Another myopic view is thinking that all Black people are anti-racist and all White people are racist. Ohio’s Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, is a Black man who knowingly took action against Black people. Kendi claims (and I agree) that any time we ascribe characteristics to a population rather than a person, we perform a racist (or sexist, or classist, or anti-LGBTQI) act.
Second, Black and Native Americans do not always trust White Americans—for all the reasons described above and more. A very recent example that justifies the anger and mistrust of people of color: just this month a study was published showing a disproportionate contribution of Black female and White male genes to the American gene pool—a shocking corroboration of narratives that report the rape of Black women by slave owners.19 This is a fact most of us probably know, but to see this new genetic evidence sheds new light on the inhumanity on which the United States was founded as a nation.
Third, White Americans may become defensive: I could say, for example, I was raised in a small town in a rural area in a very White state. I paid for college completely on my own. I did not have any inherited wealth or obvious privileges. (All true.) So why should I bear the brunt of decisions made by people in power 400, 200, and 55 years ago? My answer is: I am not to blame for our history, but I am responsible for myself and how I interact in the world. I can self-reflect and try to contribute to a better America that truly shows that it values all people, not just people who look like me. I do not need to feel—in fact, I should not feel—guilty for being White. Doing so prevents me from being able to actually hear my Black, immigrant, and indigenous friends and be part of the solution.
I have an obligation to myself and my fellow Americans to work toward health equity. This is not a charitable act. It is one of survival and self-interest: we are all hurt when there is discrimination—physically (eg, COVID-19), mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Would you like to learn more about how our past has led to our current reality and how to be part of the solution? For an overview of past discrimination in healthcare and research and what you can do to counter this history of discrimination in healthcare, access the TEAM Training at gwccacademy.org. Here are also some great books to get you started—they are available in print or as audiobooks:
- Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist
- Lisa Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
- Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
In honor of the late Congressman John Lewis, I will leave you with his words:
“You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.…You have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all. You can do it. You must do it.”
-John Lewis, Commencement Address to Bates College (2016)
Mandi L. Pratt-Chapman, PhD
Associate Center Director, Patient-Centered Initiatives & Health Equity, GW Cancer Center
- Austin B. 1619: Virginia’s First Africans. Hampton History Museum. December 2019. https://hampton.gov/DocumentCenter/View/24075/1619-Virginias-First-Africans?bidId=
- Williams GW. History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. Vol 2: Negroes as Salves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens. New York City: Firework Press, 2015 [first published 1891].
- The House Joint Resolution proposing the 13th amendment to the Constitution, January 31, 1865; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.
- An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States and for other purposes, August 6, 1965; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.
- American Civil Liberties Union. Block the Vote: Voter Suppression in 2020. 2020. https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/
- Berman A. Ohio’s Secretary of State Subverts Voting Rights. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/ohios-secretary-state-subverts-voting-rights/
- American Civil Liberties Union. Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law. 2006. aclu.org/drugpolicy/sentencing/27181pub20061026.html
- S.1789 - 111th Congress (2009-2010): Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
- Rothstein R. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Company; 2017.
- Kang S, DeCelles K, Tilcik A, Jun S. Whitened Resumes: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market. Administrative Science Quarterly. 2016. https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839216639577
- Bertrand M, Sendhil M. Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. American Economic Review. 2004;94(4 Sep):991-1013.
- Wang HL. Trump Sued Over Attempt to Omit Unauthorized Immigrants from a Key Census Count. NPR. July 24, 2020.
- Wang HL. With No Final Say, Trump Wants to Change Who Counts for Dividing Up Congress’ Seats. NPR. July 21, 2020.
- Indigenous Values Initiative. Doctrine of Discovery. https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/what-is-the-doctrine-of-discovery/
- History.com Editors. Indian Reservations. 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/indian-reservations
- National Archives. American Indian Urban Relocation. 2016. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/indian-relocation.html
- ConstitutionFacts.com. The Declaration of Independence. 1776. https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/read-the-declaration/
- Kendi IX. How to Be an Anti-Racist. New York: One World; 2019.
- Micheletti SJ, Bryc K, Esselmann SG, et al. Genetic consequences of the transatlantic salve trade in the Americas. AJHG. 2020. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2020.06.012