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What Systemic Racism Means And The Way It Harms Communities


Individual or interpersonal racism is pretty easy to explain. It's name-calling. It's the white kid on the bus who doesn't want to sit next to the Black kid. It happens with adults, too. Systemic racism, though, is bigger, and it's more complicated, and there's more skepticism about whether it really exists.

Yesterday I called up the writer Ijeoma Oluo. She wrote a book called "So You Want To Talk About Race." We talked about how systemic racism works.

IJEOMA OLUO: The framing around racism has always been there is a white person who doesn't like people of color or a Klan member or someone, you know, who's making their hatred and ignorance very obvious. But what's actually been impacting our lives are systems that rely on subtle and not so subtle biases against people of color to disempower us and put us at risk. And so we've been fighting for job opportunities, for safety from violence, for equal education, for freedom from medical racism. And that is upheld not by how you love or don't love people of color but by how you participate with our systems.

KING: So one of the stories that Americans always tell ourselves is the story of Rosa Parks, this brave Black woman who refused to go to the back of the bus. And I think when we're taught that story in school, it's like, she refused to give up her seat. There were some mean white people on the bus, so she stood up to them. What is the system at play there?

OLUO: This is how I was taught, too, in school, right? I was taught that, you know, Rosa Parks just had a tough day and was tired and didn't want to (laughter), you know, go to the back of the bus...

KING: Yep.


OLUO: ...Without recognizing that this was actually a planned protest, you know, that organizers had gotten together and decided, what are some areas where we can start breaking through and targeting white supremacy in action? And they decided on the bus boycotts. And this was a planned protest working with the NAACP and other activist groups, flexing the economic power of the Black community to really bring transportation to a standstill, to say no, we really need equity here.

KING: Let's say there's a United States of America where there is no systemic racism. There is racism. There are still white people who don't like Black people, but there's no systemic racism. Is it a better country for Black people?

OLUO: Oh, absolutely. And I would say far better than if the opposite were true, where there was no interpersonal racism but still systemic racism because that would be an area where I can walk down the street and no matter what someone feels about me, no matter what they think about me, what they assume about me, if my - I can send my sons out to go play and not worry someone's going to think that they're robbing them and then be able to call the cops and have my children shot, right? I can go in for a job interview, and if someone doesn't like me because they don't like Black people, it means I have recourse. It means that they know that perhaps acting upon that is too dangerous for the success of their business because we have anti-racist laws in action that prevent that from happening. It means that medical industries where doctors may have racist ideas about people of color and their ability to feel pain or the legitimacy of their complaints would be weeded out by a system that really takes seriously the disparities of how people of color are treated and remove them from the job and says, you're not fit for that. You know, same for schools and all the other places with which systemic racism rears its head.

It also means that the ability for people to pass down their interpersonal racism from generation to generation is limited because they don't have the systemic support. So you may think what you think, but when you go to school and your schools are reinforcing anti-racism, when you go to work and your work is reinforcing the anti-racism, perhaps what your parents thought about people of color loses its validity, whereas right now it's reinforced.

KING: George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. And all of a sudden, this term, systemic racism, it seems to be on everyone's lips. What happened?

OLUO: What shocked many people, especially white people, was seeing four cops participate in this killing. It wasn't one bad apple acting against a Black person. It was one man taking the life of a Black man and three other officers of various races helping. These cops felt confident enough in their actions to work together in the murder of a Black man in front of cameras, in front of live bystanders. And that's when you say there's something bigger here.

KING: We are seeing changes in ordinary Americans' willingness to accept that systemic racism exists. On the other hand, a couple weeks ago, President Trump's top economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters, quote, "I don't believe there is systemic racism in the U.S." And to make his case, he said, we elected President Barack Obama. Attorney General Bill Barr believes there is no systemic racism in policing. There used to be, but the laws have changed. It doesn't exist anymore. Is it worth trying to convince people who are unconvinced and seem unconvincable (ph) that systemic racism is real?

OLUO: (Laughter) I don't think we have time to be dragging people reluctantly from Step A 400 years into this system. I think that we push forward, and we change the system and let the other people catch up. I think that it's much more important right now to be activating the people who know that something is wrong. There are plenty of people who can say everything right, who can say systemic racism is a problem, and that's all they do. They make a Facebook post, they put a Black Lives Matter sign up in their window, and they consider their job done. I would rather do the work of getting those people to go to city council meetings - right? - to go to their school boards, to start activating for real change. We still haven't fully activated the people who are already here.

KING: What would it take to end systemic racism? I understand that is a very big question, but if there were a couple things that you could point to in - say, in 25, 30 years, to make this country less racist in its - at its core, in its systems, what would you point to?

OLUO: I would say that by then we would have defunded the police force and come up with a new system of prevention and of building community that reduces crime in a positive manner. I would see an overhaul of our mental health systems that doesn't criminalize mental health issues. And I would see a overhaul of our educational system. I would say those are some good places to start, you know, but we could just keep going forever honestly.


KING: Ijeoma Oluo - I wish we had more time - author of "So You Want To Talk About Race," thank you so much for being here.

OLUO: Thank you for having me.