“Race as a Lived Experience” by TJ Arnold
Magnificat, April 2022
Racism in the United States not only exists, but it persists. Despite the best efforts of those trying to quell this problem in our society, there are still outlets in existence for it to thrive, in both the individual and structural level. In fact, they present in a cyclical nature, where the existence of structural racism encourages the behavior from individual racism, and the behavior from individual racism enforces the pre-existing structural racism. It is a dark cycle that feels impossible to break, and one that affects people of color harshly and dangerously.
Structural racism deeply affects most parts of society. From jobs to education to housing, it has a longstanding grasp on America. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist with a focus on cultural, social, and political issues, talks intensively about the reparations Americans can make to repay the years of structural racism that African Americans have faced. One specific instance he details is the problem with housing and redlining. In the development of cities and loans, banks often felt as though it was a higher risk to give loans to people of color, and so they were often left out of the housing market and forced to find other, more predatory ways to gain a home (Coates, 2014: par. 18). One of these predatory tactics that many African Americans fell victim to was housing contracts, which was similar to renting, but with all the struggles and responsibilities of home-ownership. This was the result of structural racism relating to housing and finances in America. There were barriers set up to prevent them from advancing with the rest of society that have been reinforced continually. Housing, however, is not the only barrier that people of color are facing in terms of structural racism.
Angela Davis also talks about structural racism with regard to the prison system in the United States. Davis is a political advocate who focused her life on speaking out against racism in the US. Built off of decades of history, the prison system has been effectively called the ‘prison industrial complex’ due to the relationships formed between governments and people in positions of wealth and power (Davis, 2003). The longtime targets of the prison industrial complex— people of color. Due to the length of time that the prison system has existed in the United States, and the laws that it has lived through, there are many spaces for structural racism to exist: the war on drugs, ‘race-blind’ laws, and suspect profiling (Davis, 2003: 245). None of these structures exist in a bubble. Rather, they feed off of one another, encouraging the persistence of individual racism as well.
The structural racism within the prison system is fed by the forced poverty of African Americans, a result of structural racism within financial fields and housing limitations. Poor communities of people of color exist due to the job inequalities. Job inequalities focus on stereotypes of people of color thanks to the structurally racist profiles of criminals from the prison system. It is a cycle that feeds itself. As individuals, we do no better in resolving it.
Robert Merton, an American sociologist, presents two types of individuals that enforce racism in different ways: the fair-weather liberal and the all-weather illiberal (Merton, 1976: 122-123). The fair-weather liberal is an individual who does not hold any prejudices towards people of color, but might not have the footing to enforce those beliefs, and rather, conforms to the structural racism set out in front of them (Merton, 1976). For example, following the housing situations previously mentioned, a fair-weather liberal working in a bank might not allow a person of color to receive a loan, despite meeting all qualifications, simply because of the structures set in place. While this is an act of individual racism, it feeds directly from the structural racism set out for it.
The all-weather illiberal, however, is the perfect combination of individual racism and structural racism (Merton). No matter the structures set in place, they will enforce racist ideals and beliefs, stemming both from what is in place in the structures they are involved in as well as their own personal biases and prejudices. This individual is the prime subject for the continuation of the racist cycle in America.
Like a terribly perfect recipe, all of these aforementioned facets come together to create the experiences we face today. As a white person, I am fortunate enough to say that I have not had to face the worst ends of these structures and systems. In fact, structural and individual racism combined tend to favor white people, offering them the opportunities and experiences that they are actively denying others. I have been able to go to higher education schools, experience internships, jobs, gifted education programs, to the benefit of my skin color as well as my abilities. Unfortunately, people of color with equal—or even greater—abilities, tend to be denied these experiences simply because of the structures set in place to force their struggles (Coates, 2014). Despite the seeming impossibility of dismantling structural racism, and by proxy, the allowance of individual racism, learning about these instances over the course of my life has pushed me to change my behaviors and advocate for others when possible. This system listens to my voice. I am a white person with the privilege of a voice in society, and though I alone am not a catalyst for change, I can uplift the voices of those that matter in an effort to dismantle this system of structural and individual racism.
Davis, A. 2003. Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry, McGraw-Hill, New York. 244-251.
Merton, R. K. 1976. Discrimination and the American Creed, The Complexity of Race Relations. 118-127.
Coates, T. 2014. The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/