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Explore Systemic Racism through the issues below:
Cultural Reinforcement of Racism
Film, music and social media have been used to perpetuate stereotypes and shape perception. Ultimately, media and the arts could be an important means to seek racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd - which was exposed to the world via video on social media.
When it comes to film, casting decisions can expose what might otherwise be hidden racial bias. After rumors began circulating that black actor Idris Elba might be considered to take the role of James Bond, for example, it unleashed an ugly wave of racist pushback online. Historically, white actors would simply take the roles of black people while wearing black face (a practice that has unfortunately recurred up to the present), or the roles of Asian people with cosmetic tweaks - such as in Charlie Chan films.
Meanwhile real black and Asian actors have often been relegated to roles as domestic help or sidekicks, and people of color in Hollywood have generally struggled to receive the same recognition as their white peers.
While ethnic minorities make up more than 40% of the US population, they accounted for 33% of mainstream film roles in 2019, and just 17% of Oscar nominees between 2016 and 2020. One reason cited for this is the predominantly white membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. There have been a number of efforts to belatedly curate arts and entertainment in order to address racism, which have in turn been widely debated. In June 2020, HBO Max pulled the 1939 film Gone With the Wind from its offerings, triggering both praise (it glorifies the pre-Civil War South in the US) and criticism (it is also still popular and resulted in the first Oscar for a black actor).
The arts can help perpetuate systemic racism through the ways that people are dramatically portrayed, and the ways that certain art forms are - or are not - showcased. In France, for example, the official music industry body in charge of distributing royalty payments has dismissed the popularity of rap music, even though 16 of the 19 number one singles in the country during 2019 were of the genre.
No black or Arab rappers in the country were nominated for best album, artist or song at the 2020 Victoires de la Musique, in what some critics saw as a sign of a lingering racial divide.
Racial differences mean unequal access to jobs, wealth and housing
Systemic racism has long resulted in disparate infrastructure considerations and housing opportunities. Across the US, African American communities were decimated by the construction of highways designed with little regard for their impact on once-cohesive neighborhoods. In Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 triggered global protests for racial justice, demonstrators peacefully occupied the Interstate 94 highway in a move freighted with symbolism.
Systemic racism dramatically skews access to employment, income, and wealth. As of May 2020, the unemployment rate for black Americans was 16.8%, compared with 12.4% for white Americans. Statistics outside of the US tell a similar story. In the United Kingdom, the unemployment rate for black people declined from 17% in 2012 to 9% in 2018 - though that was still more than twice the 4% rate for white people.
Racial disparities have also been glaring in terms of income. In South Africa, for example, government data published in 2019 showed that white people in the country were earning three times as much as black Africans on average, two decades after the end of apartheid.
In the US, where nearly one in five black families have debts exceeding their assets, and just 30% of African American households’ own stocks (compared with 60% of white families), Black Lives Matter activists have pressed for a restructuring of the tax code that could more fairly redistribute wealth. More equitable access to credit is also a priority; data published by the Federal Reserve show that black-owned firms are turned down for loans twice as often as their white-owned counterparts.
In terms of housing, the historical practice of “redlining” US cities involved outlining areas with black populations so they would receive a fewer public and financial services. The impact of redlining has lingered; some 2020 US presidential candidates proposed using old redlining maps to identify areas still in need of increased investment. Similar patterns have developed elsewhere.
In Europe, the increased privatization of housing in the 1970s and 1980s increased the segregation of people based on racial background, according to a report published by the Council of Europe Development Bank. And in Brazil, 2019 data showed whites earning 74% more than black and brown people - who, while representing more than half of the population, had the worst indicators in terms of housing conditions in the country.
While virtually no place in the world has been spared from systemic racism, it can take different forms - and have varying negative impacts - depending on location.
In some places, people of color are encouraged to believe that race is a secondary to other forms of identity - and that racism therefore does not (or should not) exist. In 2018, the French ambassador to the US wrote a letter to the comedian Trevor Noah, who had joked that the French soccer team’s World Cup win was a victory for Africa due to the ancestry of many of its members. The letter informed Noah that unlike in the US, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion, or origin - and that referring to players as African denies their “Frenchness.” This notion of color-blind civic assimilation is generally not well understood elsewhere.
In the US, for example, racism was a fundamental element of the nation’s politics and economy from the beginning - when its founders inserted a clause in the Constitution making slaves equal to three-fifths of free people for the purposes of congressional representation, as a compromise aimed at encouraging southern states that had built their economies on the buying and selling of black people to join the union.
Systemic racism pervades just about every country on Earth, but in distinct ways. In parts of the Middle East, for example, the anti-racism protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US in May 2020 focused in part on the “kafala” system that has long bound an estimated 23 million migrants, often from less-wealthy Asian and African countries, to a single employer. The system has been described as a racist form of exploitation that makes these workers vulnerable to abuse - and is rooted in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.
In India, meanwhile, racism can manifest in the form of an obsession with a light skin complexion. Negative feelings about dark skin in the country have informed advertising for cosmetics, fueled racist attacks on African residents, and led to the public ridicule of an actress on a popular TV show in 2016. In Myanmar, intolerance and bigotry have taken more sinister form in an ethno-nationalism that led to violent attacks on the Rohingya and other Muslim communities.
Access to Justice & Mass Incarceration
Demands for racial justice include calls to re-direct funding from police to health and education services. Around the world, racial injustice has led to disproportionate numbers of black and brown people being imprisoned. That in turn has had a corrosive effect. In the US, for example, a “coercive mobility” that returns convicted felons with limited social mobility to poor communities of color is believed to increase crime in these places.
More than a quarter of all the people in prison in England and Wales are from a minority ethnic group, according to the Prison Reform Trust, and the economic cost of black, Asian and minority over-representation in the system is estimated to be £234 million a year. In addition, black men are 26% more likely than white men in England and Wales to be remanded into custody, according to the organization.
Meanwhile in Brazil, the advocacy group Conectas estimated in 2017 that 64% of the prisoners in the country were black or mixed-race, though this group represented 53% of the country’s overall population. And in the US, the incarceration rate for black people was 2,306 per 100,000 as of 2010, compared with 831 per 100,000 for Latinx people, and 450 per 100,000 for whites, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
In May 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered outrage and demands for racial justice around the world. The killing was only the latest of a black person either in direct confrontation with US law enforcement, or effectively condoned by authorities. A few months prior to Floyd’s death Ahmaud Arbery, another unarmed black man, was murdered in Georgia by two white men who were not arrested until video of the crime was made public months later.
These tragedies and the many that preceded (and continue to follow) them have had a devastating psychological impact on communities of color. They have also prompted calls to fundamentally reform police departments, and to re-direct funding from police to social services like mental health care and education. These efforts come after black people accounted for 24% of those killed by police in the US in 2019 despite being 13% of the overall population, according to data published by Mapping Police Violence, and as inordinate amounts of city budgets across the country have been directed towards police rather than programs that may better serve people of color.
Access to Leadership Opportunities
Efforts to combat systemic racism have advanced thanks to heroic leadership and responsive governance. There have been many remarkable efforts around the world to confront systemic racism, albeit with mixed results.
A series of remarkable individuals have succeeded at mobilizing people to seek racial justice, and have often effected enduring change. In the US, Martin Luther King Jr. persevered through arrests, the bombing of his home, and other personal abuse to lead successful, non-violent efforts to desegregate public facilities, register black people to vote, and create a “coalition of conscience” before he was murdered in 1968. Meanwhile Malcolm X provided a combative balance to Dr. King’s work by mobilizing black Americans to more actively question and confront systemic racism. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela organized efforts to dismantle the racist apartheid system before being imprisoned for 27 years; in 1993, Mandela was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa. More recently, a new generation of leaders and organizers has come to the fore. The three women who founded Black Lives Matter, for example, have developed a largely community-centred, collective leadership model that has helped transform the movement into something that a majority of American voters supported by a 28-point margin as of June 2020, according to the research firm Civiqs.
A number of advances have been made in terms of forward-looking rules and regulations. In Australia, for example, the country began implementing a series of “anti-vilification” laws in the late 20th century, which have a simple but powerful aim: to embrace diversity by forbidding the denigration of someone based on who they are (as opposed to what they have done). In Europe, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 introduced the power within the European Union to combat discrimination based on factors including race and ethnicity. At the international level, in 1993 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights created the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism - intended to intensify international efforts to combat racism, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. These scourges not only persist, they are continually assuming new forms, the UN has said. In the US, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law roughly a century after the end of the Civil War, in a bid to finally guarantee the equality of all races in the country.
People of color remain woefully under-represented in top political and business leadership positions. The founder of the effort, the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, suggested publicly that when it comes to black people in executive positions and on boards in the country, there would be “a lot more zeroes than numbers.” That would not be unique.
A lack of racial diversity at the top can rob organizations of valuable perspectives. This applies not just to businesses but to political organizations and government institutions as well.
In many countries there is a dearth of leadership positions in both the private and public sectors occupied by people of color. In 2019, Harvard Business Review and Deloitte interviewed members of 47 corporate boards in the US, and found that many cited progresses in terms of gender diversity but not on other forms of diversity including race. According to data published by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, as of 2018 just 19.5% of board seats at Fortune 100 companies were held by African Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, Hispanic-Latinos, and “Others.” For the Fortune 500 as a whole the figure was just 16.1%.
In a letter addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June 2020, 120 members of the EU assembly asked that she acknowledge and condemn racism in the EU, including police brutality, and that she publicly condemns any denial of racism in the bloc. In 2019, US voters elected the most diverse Congress ever, as 22% of the incoming members of the House of Representatives and Senators identified as racial or ethnic minorities. Still, that figure remains short of the 39% of the country’s population that is non-white - and Hispanic representation in the House has been particularly lacking.
In Canada, the reaction to the killing of George Floyd in US police custody in May 2020 included a bid to track the number of black people who have attained senior leadership positions - and to draft related targets.
It was not until 2012 that a major political party in France tapped a person of color as a leader, and while an estimated 10% of the European Union’s population is made up of ethnic and racial minorities just 3% of EU MEPs were people of color as of mid-2020 (that figure declined following Brexit and the departure of several British parliamentarians).
COVID-19 has magnified the systemic racism undermining healthcare systems
In June 2020, the United Kingdom’s Equality and Human Rights Commission announced it would probe the “deep rooted inequality” faced by people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities that has come into sharper focus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement came after a report found that death rates associated with the disease were highest among people from black and Asian ethnic groups; people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were found to have roughly twice the risk of death as white British people, while people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, “Other Asian,” Caribbean and “Other Black” ethnicity had between a 10% and 50% higher risk.
The UK is not an isolated example - other countries have also been confronted with graphic evidence that their healthcare systems have left people of colour disproportionately exposed to risk during times of crisis. In the US, many individual states began collecting race-related data as the pandemic spread, and the results were often revealing. In several states, the percentage of reported COVID-19 deaths attributed to African Americans was not only greater than their share of the overall population, but was more than double that percentage.
The causes cited for this disparity include the fact that underlying health conditions putting people at higher risk in the face of the coronavirus - including diabetes and chronic lung disease - are more common among African Americans. For example, the rate of diabetes is estimated to be 66% higher for black Americans than for white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Racism is, at least in part, responsible for the fact African Americans, since arriving as slaves, have had the worst health care, the worst health status, and the worst health outcomes of any racial or ethnic group in the country - according to a report published by the Journal of the National Medical Association in 2001.
By several measures, health outcomes for black Americans have historically been similar to those for people from less-wealthy countries with less sophisticated medical systems and technology. In the UK, efforts have been made to address disparate health outcomes based on race since the 1960s, according to a report published by Social Science & Medicine in 2016 - but inequitable access, experiences, and outcomes continue to be documented.
As a global community, our moral failure to eliminate racial discrimination is a failure against everything we stand for! Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination reaching near universal ratification.
Since the establishment of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, more than half a century ago, the elimination of racial discrimination has continued to elude the international community.
The world continues to see an increase in hate speech, intolerance and racism, especially against minorities — despite the International Convention on the Institutional discrimination and injustice have long torn at the social fabric, and now threaten to derail efforts to implement a post-pandemic reset that could put the global economy on a more equitable and sustainable path. Leaders everywhere are being called upon to respond to this challenge in a meaningful way.
COVID-19 laid bare the systemic racism plaguing much of the world, and the killing of George Floyd prompted efforts to recognize and remedy the situation.