Jul 1, 2012

What is Racism?

It started with Martha from momsoap who guest posted here and then went on to write another post that was picked up by BlogHer, "Have I Become Racist Against White People?"  I wondered--is that really even possible? Then I started thinking about how many white people accuse any other white person who writes about racism of being a "reverse racist." My little blog isn't so high profile that I get those kinds of comments often, but it has happened. And the thing that always goes through my mind is that the commenters really don't know what racism is.

I read some posts from my friend Chantilly over at BiculturalMom.com about the Un-Fair Campaign that explain the difference between prejudice, discrimination and racism:

Is it as simple as one person not liking another person because of skin color??  
NO.  That is prejudice.  
Is Racism the act of an individual preventing someone from getting a job or accessing other opportunities based on their prejudice??  
NO.  That is discrimination.
While both prejudice and discrimination play into the system, RACISM is something much BIGGER…it’s a system of unearned privilege and racial supremacy established through colonization and slavery.  It is a system of control that has a deep rooted history in the Americas…a history that I hope to share with you more completely very soon.  It’s a caste system…and it’s many other things too…but it’s not as simple and singular as many may think.  It’s not about saying, “I don’t like X, Y, Z race.”  It’s about something MUCH BIGGER than that.

Chantilly also pointed out this post from Spillerena that begins to explain white privilege:

I’m going to be honest and admit that up until a few years ago, I had no idea what privilege really was. I had heard the term thrown around before, but I never really understood it. I didn’t understand how being white gave me an “unfair advantage” over other people. I didn’t consider myself racist, and like most people in the world, I had a whole boatload of issues and problems that I felt made me far from privileged. My childhood was less than idyllic and I had to work hard to succeed. I suppose I subscribed somewhat to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. 

Read more here in the post "On Being White and Privileged."

Soon after reading Spillerena, I came across a post in my Reader feed from the New Orleans Food & Farm Network. A few things really struck me about the piece, "Undoing Racism in the New Orleans Food System":

  • How many people know that there is racism in the food system--in New Orleans, or anywhere for that matter?

  • Reading about racism in the food system on a blog featuring agriculture reminded me of an interview from The Sun magazine with Dr. Robert Bullard, who according to Michelle McCrary of Is That Your Child? is known to many as the "founder of environmental justice."

The Sun article describes Bullard's motivation,  "of the 9 million U.S. citizens who live within two miles of a hazardous-waste facility, more than half are minorities. 'The people who live closest are oftentimes the most vulnerable populations with the fewest resources,' Bullard says. He has made it his life’s work to help them."

When you look at what racism means in the context of food systems and the environment it kind of changes the usual perspective. As Chantilly pointed out in her post, what we normally think of as racism is really prejudice or discrimination. The definition offered in "Undoing Racism in the New Orleans Food System" really is eye-opening and leaves little room for doubt as to what systemic racism really is. The author says:

"I have been lucky enough to learn a great many things from a former classmate of mine, geographer Ruthie Gilmore. And she has given us a great definition of racism. She defines racism as 'the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies' " (Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California).

Let's put that in some more common language: racism is a government-sanctioned system and/or an illegal means of making and exploiting the differences between people who live in the same political/geographic area result in premature death.

That's right. According to this definition, the consequences of true racism are premature death. Calling someone a name is mean, but does it cause premature death? Not hiring someone based on their skin color--could that lead to premature death? That definition from Ruthie Gilmore really puts things in perspective. Cries of "reverse racism" don't quite have as much weight when you use premature death as the definitive measure of true racism. Much of what we traditionally see as racism is blatant. But true racism isn't always as blatant as a KKK member burning a cross or a young white teen murdering an innocent black man by driving over him in a truck. Premature death can be caused by a society's production of goods or exploitation of people just because they are different from the majority.

There's a Harvard study that spells out what we all need to do to lengthen our lives (in other words--to prevent premature death.) It includes things like eating right,  exercising both your mind and your body, and getting fresh air. If you choose not to do these things you are putting yourself at risk. But what if society makes it very difficult for you to choose otherwise?


  • From the U.S. Census Bureau report on poverty: For children identified as Black the poverty rate was 38.2 percent (4.0 million), twice as high as the rate for White children and the highest poverty rate among the race and ethnic groups presented in this report (Figure 3). It is hard to eat right when you can’t afford to buy food.
  • Despite a higher poverty rate, marketing campaigns for fast food focus primarily on people of color. That's right: people of color have less money, but fast food and junk food retailers want them to spend what little they have on their products. This is a long tradition--check out this 1976 McDonald's ad via The Grio:

It's hard to eat right when you don't have much money and society bombards you with ads encouraging you to spend what you do have "Lovin' It"or "Havin' it Your Way."

According to the Rudd Center study, African-American children and teens see at least 50 percent more fast food ads than their white peers. That is, African-American children see nearly twice as many calories as white children see in fast food TV advertisements each day.  Read more here on The Grio.

According to The President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition:

  • Nearly 40% of African American and Hispanic youth are overweight or obese, compared with 29% of white youth
  • If current trends continue, by 2030, 86.3% of adults will be overweight or obese. African American women (96.9%) and Mexican American men (91.1%) would be most affected.       Read more here.
Exercise helps reduce obesity, but going to the gym costs money. Okay, some exercise is free--walking, for example. But if you live in an urban area, finding a safe place to walk can be difficult. A study from the CDC says that only 1 in 5 households has access to a park or recreation center within a half-mile.

According to government reports about education it's harder for people of color to exercise their minds, too. More white students are proficient on assessment tests than students of color. More students of color are kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons than white students (and it's hard to exercise your mind if you're regularly suspended from school.)

Check out this excerpt from the interview with Robert Bullard in The Sun:

Cowell: What types of environmental hazards do you see most often in low-income and African American communities? Bullard: It’s mostly waste. Everybody produces waste regardless of class or race, but not everybody has to live near where the waste is dumped. We did a study of commercial hazardous-waste facilities and found that more than half of the residents living within a two-mile radius of these facilities were people of color. When you look at two or more of these facilities in close proximity, that number jumps to 69 percent, and it’s likely that there aren’t just two or three but four or five in a single area. When smelters, refineries, and chemical plants are located near schools, the students attending those schools are predominantly low income and minority. And if you live in a community of color, you are two and a half times more likely to live near a polluting facility. That’s part of the reason why zip codes and neighborhoods are consistent, powerful predictors of people’s health.

Your zip code determines your access to clean air, and that zip code is largely determined by your income. Income level directly correlates to skin color. More people of color are in poverty than are white people (see US Census on poverty link above.)

OKAY, so to be healthy and live longer lives we human beings need to eat right, to exercise our bodies and minds, and to get fresh air. Our society makes each of these things more difficult for people of color than it does for white people. That means that people of color are at risk of premature death due to a system of injustice. THAT is RACISM.


How do you combat this system of racism? First, acknowledge that it is real. Second, talk about it. Third, call it when you see it... then toss it out and replace it with something new.  

Food justice movements are trying to do just that. Check this out from the Social Justice Learning Institute--young, urban people of color building a community garden and going door to door to share it with their community. 

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