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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Local View: Systemic racism exists here

By Clayton Mosher
Published: July 12, 2020, 6:01am

More than 50 years after the conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Commission that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one Black, one white, separate and unequal,” we must consider some sobering statistics.

A whole host of social and economic, health, education, and criminal/juvenile justice data provide compelling evidence of the deleterious and pervasive effects of systemic racism. While acknowledging that systemic racism impacts all communities of color across numerous domains, I will focus here on what are arguably the institutions that play the most significant roles in the oppression of people of color — our criminal and juvenile justice systems. And while all communities of color are subject to the injustices of these systems to a greater or lesser degree, I will focus here on African Americans.

In 2017, Blacks, who comprised 12 percent of the U.S. population, were 33 percent of those incarcerated in federal and state prisons. For Black males, the 2017 incarceration rate was 2,336 per 100,000 population (or 1 in 43), compared to a white male incarceration rate of 397 out of 100,000. For juveniles, while 14 percent of youth under the age of 18 are Black, 42 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls held in detention facilities are Black.

Although some (many?) will deny that systemic racism exists in Washington state and Clark County — the data tell a different story.

The most recent available data for Washington show a white (adult) incarceration rate of 392 of 100,000 compared to 2,372 of 100,000 for Blacks. While Blacks comprise 4 percent of the state’s youth population, they constituted 14.8 percent of juvenile detention admissions in 2018. And while Clark County has among the lowest rates of detention admissions of Washington’s counties, in 2018, Black youth were 3.9 percent of the county’s youth population but 17 percent of detention admissions.

How do we explain these (and numerous other) racial differences in outcomes? It is vitally important to stress that they have absolutely nothing to do with biological or cultural “deficits” of Black people, nor are they necessarily the result of decisions made by individual racists within these various systems.

Instead, they are the product of systemic racism, which is manifested in the policies, practices, and procedures of several intertwined societal institutions that directly or indirectly, consciously or inadvertently, promote, sustain, or entrench differential advantages to people of certain races and ethnicities.

And while systemic racism has its origins in the beliefs and actions of individual people, it is capable of continuing even after individual racism has largely disappeared — it does not require that individuals in positions of authority and power harbor racial biases (either explicit or implicit).

At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge that the actions of individual racists (whether these are white supremacists, police who wrongfully kill Black people, or presidents), are supported by our racist institutions which fail to adequately address such actions. To deny the existence of this systemic racism and to justify such denial by asserting that “none of the people I know are racists,” is at best naive and ignorant, but also dangerous.

Recent editorials in The Columbian have correctly pointed out that in order for us to begin to ameliorate the deleterious effects of systemic racism, we need to admit that the problem exists. It is time for all of us to educate ourselves and each other and to reflect on systemic racism in our community.

Clayton Mosher is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Washington State University Vancouver whose research has focused on crime and deviance.