Solving Four Centuries of Institutional Racism in Twenty-Eight Days

by Ariadne Schulz

Each February, during Black History Month, my black friends report getting the same, cringeworthy question: “When’s White History Month?”

The answer to that question is that every month is White History Month — because part of institutional racism is erasure.

Considering February is the one month a year we officially honor black history, last month was especially rough. The gubernatorial mansion of Virginia was roiled by a snowballing blackface scandal that still is not resolved. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA-D) announced her candidacy, but was immediately attacked by white activists for not being black enough.

An Alabama newspaper editorial suggested that the KKK should go on its infamous night rides again, and a member of the Coast Guard, a self-admitted skinhead, was arrested in a plot to murder as many people as possible.

Finally, adding to a long history of racist police behavior in Chicago, Jussie Smollet was arrested for filing a fake police report. Meanwhile, no charges have been brought against the many white people who called police on black people doing things like swimming, trying to return to their apartment, or having a barbeque.

These incidents reveal the ugly truth of institutional racism in America — one that is compounded by the lack of black representation in government. Yes, we have come a long way since the Fourteenth Amendment and near subsequent implementation of Jim Crow laws. The 116th Congress of the United States of America is 12.8% black American. As the population of the US is 13.4% black, according to the Census Bureau, this is a major step in the right direction. However, we have only three black senators. And although 2018 saw the campaigns of three black gubernatorial hopefuls, none of them were elected and we currently have no black governors.

In the words of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Representation matters.” Echoing this, Stacey Abrams explained why identity does, in fact, matter if we are to achieve a truly egalitarian society in a recent editorial in Foreign Affairs. Underrepresented individuals must have positions of power because only they have the lived experience to understand, identify and eliminate institutional oppression.

In the case of black Americans, dismantling institutional racism is literally a matter of life and death. In addition to being targeted by violent terrorist groups like the KKK, suffering higher rates of incarceration, and having fewer educational and economic opportunities, black Americans have higher rates of maternal death and lower life expectancy.

One form of institutional oppression that disproportionately affects people of color is election interference via voter suppression and gerrymandering. In fact, there is compelling evidence to suggest that these issues may have prevented Abrams and Andrew Gillum from becoming the first black governors of Georgia and Florida, respectively.

Gerrymandering explains why although Democrats took only 40 seats in 2018 compared to the 63 seats Republicans took in 2010, despite having taken a larger share of the vote. While Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering (see Maryland), Republicans have strategically gerrymandered along racial lines because non-white individuals are more likely to vote Democrat. (In 2018, 90% of black Americans voted Democrat.)

A racial gerrymander is achieved by “packing” or “cracking” minority populations on the state map so they are relatively underrepresented. In “packing,” lines are drawn such that one or two districts contain nearly all of the minority individuals, confining representation to just a handful of districts. With “cracking,” a population is divided into several majority white districts, so they are effectively denied representation.

We’re not helpless, though. 2020 is the next census year when districts will be redrawn, and before that, it’s possible to sue in states where particularly racial gerrymanders exist and have them redrawn by a non-partisan committee or the courts. Additionally, Eric Holder and Barack Obama have put together the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to fight gerrymandering.  

Since her loss in the gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams is now dedicating her time to the elimination of voter suppression through the New Georgia Project and her newly founded organization, Fair Fight. The ACLU, the LWV, and the NAACP are also fighting to end voter suppression and gerrymandering nationwide.

If you’re looking for a way to have a positive impact on the 2020 elections, supporting these organizations is a great place to start. You can also call or write your Congressperson and recommend they help enact the recommendations outlined in the UN’s report regarding improving humanitarian conditions for people of African Descent in the United States.

In conclusion, as we leave Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month, we should take to heart that the struggles of underrepresented people are internal, external, and year round. Encouraging these voices in our political discourse is a necessity for preserving the very basis of our democracy. This is something we can achieve by supporting diverse candidates, protecting voting rights, and eliminating gerrymandering. But this is also something we must do not just one month a year, but in our daily lives year round. Representation matters, the personal is political, and what affects one of us affects all of us.

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