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Underlying America's unrest is structural racism

Underlying America's unrest is structural racism
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The senseless and horrific death of George Floyd has sparked protests and unrest across America. Some individuals have tried to undermine otherwise peaceful protests by injecting violence and thereby distracting public attention from the core issue at hand. That issue is structural racism, which goes back to slavery but remains ingrained in America’s civic fabric. It is structural racism that creates an environment in which a white police officer can put his knee for nearly 9 minutes on the neck of a black man, who is accused only of using — perhaps unknowingly — a counterfeit $20 bill, until he dies. It is structural racism that normalizes the behavior of the accompanying police officers who held George Floyd down or did nothing to stop his death.

Structural racism, which is the historical and ongoing racial discrimination and segregation of African Americans in particular, is typically instigated or sanctioned by government. It creates inequality in every aspect of life and puts black people on the lowest rung of the racial hierarchy ladder, sometimes not even considered human. It has played a fundamental role in where we live, through federal redlining and other discriminatory practices, where our children attend school, what access we have to healthy food, jobs and health care, among other things — and even whether we deserve to live or die.

The focus of the unrest in major cities gives the impression that it is largely an urban problem, but structural racism is a national phenomenon. It is just as firmly ingrained in our suburbs and smaller or rural communities. 

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Levittown on Long Island is considered the model for America’s suburbs, and it was designed exclusively for returning white veterans of World War II. Black veterans returned from fighting for America abroad and could not share in that dream at home. Levittown homes even came with racial covenants prohibiting white homeowners from reselling their homes in the future to people who were not Caucasian. The exclusion of blacks from this housing was instigated and enforced by the federal government. 

Today, Long Island is one of the 10 most racially segregated metro regions in the nation. Its two counties have 125 school districts that mirror the residential segregation — a design that ensures segregated and unequally resourced schools — and segregation is on the rise. According to ERASE Racism, in 2017, dramatically more black and Latinx students on Long Island attended segregated schools than 12 years earlier. Statewide, New York has the most segregated schools in the nation.

In the 1930s the federal government began the practice of redlining, a notorious example of structural racism. Under this practice, the government drew red lines on a map around neighborhoods with African American residents, preventing home mortgages and depriving those communities of much-needed investments. 

With the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, housing discrimination based on race became illegal (even though it continues today), but the implications of redlining remain indelible. As the National Community Reinvestment Coalition reported in 2018, most of the neighborhoods (74 percent) that the federal government redlined eight decades earlier are low- to moderate-income communities today. They are in areas with high levels of economic inequality, and many are majority minority and within regions of hyper-segregation. 

The implications of redlining are illuminated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted low-income neighborhoods and African American and Latinx communities. 

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It is structural racism that has marginalized communities of color and their residents to this day. Structural racism has repeatedly allowed police officers to kill unarmed black men and women for no apparent reason other than that they were black — and typically permitted the officers to suffer no consequences. It is structural racism that is at the center of all these unfathomable deaths.

The anger and despair across America were triggered by the tragic, senseless killing of George Floyd. But the unrest is a response to more than that. It is a response to even more than the litany of outrageous deaths of black people at the hands of police officers. For many Americans there is finally a realization that unaddressed structural racism will guarantee that this same scenario of events will be ongoing, playing out at various times in various places.  

Our nation must come together in a deliberate, concerted effort to eliminate structural racism in America. Only by turning on its head the norm that black lives don’t matter will we see reduced desperation and reduced violence.

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, a regional civil rights organization based on Long Island, N.Y.