Black History Month: On Race and Intersectionality

FEBRUARY 2020 | BLACK HISTORY MONTH

February is Black History Month. The nation focuses on famous black inventors and leaders of the past yet typically ignores the fact that the promise of equality for all of America’s citizens is woefully absent. The most fundamental human rights that some people take for granted are not extended to all people here in the land of the free. The single most glaring factor that separates those who enjoy freedom from those whose freedoms and whose very lives are limited is race – closely followed by ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, ability, and other factors that have been demonized by those who hold power. 

It’s hard to figure out where any single factor ends and a different one becomes the principle cause of oppression. Is my freedom limited because of my race or is my gender the biggest issue? Is a given person poor, or miseducated, or a victim of police brutality because of skin color or is it due to his religion? Was that woman beaten because of her gender or could it be because she’s trans? Or is the answer “all of the above”? 

You cannot tease out a single thread from this tangle and name it the causative factor in the oppression of a person or a group. This interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, creates overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. It is a more accurate and analytically valid way of examining and understanding the nature of oppression and of finding remedies to overcome it. 

The primary nature of racism and the other oppressive systems that intersect with it is that they are systemic, not personal. They exist regardless of any individual’s desire to perpetuate or dismantle them. They automatically favor the favored and harm the disenfranchised. They are so firmly rooted in the American experience that some folks feel that protesting bias is protesting America. Most folks bristle at being called racist or sexist but calling America racist is like calling a fish wet. It simply comes with the territory.

White people in America benefit from racism. This is true even if they struggle with other “isms” such as gender, class, ethnic, ablism or religious discrimination. It is true even if they personally hate racism and work to end it. Bias in favor of whiteness and against blackness is implicit in American society from birth to death. 

  • Black women are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth. A black woman with an advanced degree and above-average income is more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman on public assistance. This has been attributed to differences in treatment by medical personnel based upon race. 
  • Black babies are 2.3 times more likely to die than white children for the same reasons that their mothers die at higher numbers. 
  • If you’re black, your life expectancy is 75 years; it’s 79 years if you’re white. Stress caused by racism has been identified as a direct cause of rapid cellular aging.
  • The median wealth of white families sits north of $100,000, while black median wealth hovers around $10,000, and for many families in poverty is negative. 
  • Of every 100,000 people in the USA, 2207 black people, 966 Latinx people, and 380 white people are incarcerated

These discrepancies based upon race exist in every aspect of American life. Many are invisible unless you take the time and effort to investigate them. Your black coworker who earns the same salary, has the same education, likely has just one-tenth of the familial wealth that you enjoy. Her parents may have had to take out a payday loan to pay her student fees when she started school. When her folks die, she may have to pay for their funeral, as opposed to receiving money from their estate. This is the product of years of Jim Crow that closed doors to decent education, employment, housing. This is the result of redlining that denied black people the ability to own property or charged them exorbitant rates for mortgages. This is the result of generations of being the last hired, the first fired. This is what racism looks like. 

Aside from the gross injustice and the enormous pain it brings, racism represents a gross waste of human potential and a drain on the social, spiritual, economic and political integrity and wellbeing of the United States. 

How do we fix this?

As the people in Alcoholics Anonymous say, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. America’s race problem cannot be cured by people of color. Black and brown folks bear the weight of oppression but lack the power to change it. If change is going to occur, it must be done by people who enjoy the privilege of immunity to racism and have awareness of the damage it does to this nation. 

In order to lead to meaningful change, any attack on structural racism must be situated as part of a much larger conversation about how current inequities in our institutions came to be, how they are held in place, and what our role as leaders is in perpetuating inequities despite our good intentions.

Each of us, in our daily lives, our work, our social relationships, our community involvement, must root out the implicit bias in what we think, what we say, what we do. Our success in creating organizations, institutions, and communities in which everyone has access to the opportunities they need to thrive depends on our willingness to confront the history and impacts of structural racism and oppression, learn how bias (both implicit and explicit) operates, and take action to interrupt inequitable practices at the interpersonal, institutional and structural levels.

As leaders for equity, we have to examine, unpack and mitigate our own biases and dismantle the policies and structures that hold inequity in place. We have to lead from the inside out. We have to confront oppression EVERY. TIME. WE. ENCOUNTER. IT. Because the people on the receiving end do not get to take a break. Because freedom is precious, and so are the people who seek it.

 

Camille Landry is a writer, community organizer, and human rights activist. She is the co-owner of Nappy Roots Books, Oklahoma’s only Black bookstore, which is a gathering place for a wide assortment of grassroots organizations, an incubator for progressive programs, a provider of academic, cultural, literary and social programs for children and adults, and a center for literacy and learning in OKC’s Black community.

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[i] https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why

[ii] https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=23

[iii] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/new-study-shows-racism-may-shorten-black-americans-lifespans-n1128351

[iv] https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html