Conversations for Change: Professor discusses the challenges of combating systemic racism

Conversations for Change

Community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement and health advocates discuss race inequities in our region in a live special at 7 p.m.

DAVIS, Calif. (KTXL) — The white supremacist who walked into a South Carolina bible study and shot nine Black worshippers now sits on death row for a federal hate crime.

While this individual act of racism is contemptible, University of California, Davis history professor Justin Leroy says confronting it is relatively straight forward.

“It’s usually a little bit easier to get people to understand how a racist belief led to a racist action and that it’s wrong,” he said.

But another form of racism, systemic racism, is more referenced as of late but is less understood. 

“Systemic racism occurs when the social, political, economic and legal structures of our society advantage white people and introduce harm and unequal outcomes for people of color,” Leroy said.

Systemic racism, also referred to as structural or institutional racism is not simple to explain, pinpoint or prove.

“Systemic racism is a lot more subtle than individual racism because we can’t often identify a specific individual who caused or perpetrated it but that doesn’t mean that systemic racism is any less harmful,” Leroy said.

Leroy points to COVID-19 as a timely example. Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as whites, and almost five times as likely to be hospitalized.

“One of the most insidious things about systemic racism is that even if we identify certain inequality as a problem, when we begin from the points of blaming people of color by calling at the results of some sort of cultural deficiency or lack, then we’ve already started at a very difficult place to get out from,” Leroy said. “People of color, maybe, are less likely to stay home but if we start to scratch the surface we might see that they’re less likely to stay home because they have jobs that they cannot work remotely from.”

While individual racist behaviors can and do contribute to systemic racism in areas including employment, housing, policing and education, Leroy notes it’s not enough to simply get rid of so-called “bad apples” because systemic racism can exist without any actual racists.

“As with the language of the bad apple and if we get rid of all of the bad apples then a system will operate as it should be. With systemic racism, is that even when something is operating like it should, maybe especially when it’s operating like it should, we still have disproportionate and unequal outcomes,” Leroy said.

Leroy points to the criminal justice system as an example, with Black people making up 12% of the country, but 33% of the prison population. And that’s the lowest rate since 1989.

“You might say that’s because Black people are more poor and poverty produces crime, even if it’s a crime of necessity. If that’s your analysis, you started by blaming Black people and your solution will be to change their behavior rather than looking at how policing occurs and how arrests happen,” Leroy said.

When faced with what he describes as a subtle, pervasive and centuries old problem, how can we address it?

“Because systemic racism is so ingrained in our society, there is no simple easy fix but I think the place to start is to look at all areas of society where there is racial inequality and start to ask why that is that you should be very critical of the urge to blame disadvantaged people,” Leroy said.

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