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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.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: A systematic look at ‘systemic’

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: July 19, 2020, 6:02am

The concept can be difficult to grasp, even with its current prominence in the national discourse.

“Systemic racism” likely generates one of two reactions — either a knowing nod of the head or a dismissive roll of the eyes. Neither reaction should be ignored; both warrant discussion. And as the issue bubbles beneath the surface of protests demanding racial justice and calls to rethink policing and questions about how we treat minorities in this country, it remains difficult to define.

And so we turn to Clark County Councilor John Blom. Now, Blom is not a sociologist, so far as we know; he’s a real estate agent and a public official who is seeking reelection. But during an interview last week with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, Blom and the other candidates were asked about systemic racism. And his response was particularly insightful.

“When you look at the impact of housing, and years and years of discriminatory lending, redlining, those are things that just because they are fixed now, it’s not about the actions of individual people today,” he said. “It’s about what are the repercussions of 20 years ago, 30 years ago? If you were a Black man, if you were a Hispanic man, a Hispanic family, wanting to buy a house and your agent at that time steered you into a particular neighborhood, that doesn’t end at that moment. That impacts where your kids go to school, the access to health care that you have.

“That is what systemic racism is. And if we can’t say, ‘Yes, it’s an issue and we need to deal with things that happened in the past because they create an injustice today,’ we’re never going to be able to take those actions needed to address the problems.”

Blom also talked about what councilors learned from Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer, following a request from the local League of United Latin American Citizens to declare systemic racism a public health threat.

“We asked Dr. Melnick to bring us the data on that, and it was three pages looking at things like life expectancy if you are born in Clark County and you are Black, if you are born in Clark County and you are Latinx, if you are born in Clark County and you are white. You are more likely to live longer if you are white. … That has to do with access to health care, access to healthy foods. We need to address those things on public health.”

Much of the discussion about systemic racism has focused on criminal justice and police brutality. That certainly is a piece of the issue — an important one, but only a piece. Because racism is not only about the actions of rogue officers who get captured on camera, and it is not only about virulent racists who wave their bigotry in the air. It often is about the things we don’t see or the things that white America take for granted — like a fully stocked grocery store nearby.

Those grocery stores are most likely to be in fairly affluent areas inhabited largely by white people. That has to do with poverty as much as race, but when multiple studies find, as Harvard University wrote, “African American and Asian job applicants who mask their race on resumes seem to have better success getting job interviews,” the issue becomes self-perpetuating.

Now, all of this is likely generating a few eye-rolls. You, after all, are not racist. Your family is not racist and your ancestors never owned slaves and no living Blacks in America were ever slaves and we all should just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. That position is understandable, and it can be difficult for those of us born into privilege to empathize with others’ experiences. We’re only human, after all.

But as self-described “non-liberal” columnist Megan McArdle wrote for The Washington Post: “This could happen even if the people making discriminatory decisions have no particular animus toward black people. All it takes is a slight preference for people whom they perceive to be ‘like me.’ ”

Which, I suppose, is the point of the whole discussion. Even as we struggle to grasp it.