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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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Jayne: Admit it, racism a real problem

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

First, the experts say, we need to admit there is a problem. Nothing gets solved through head-in-the-sand denial.

Which brings us to the notion of systemic racism. You might have heard something about this last summer; it came up during protests against police brutality and discussions about economic inequity.

Odds are that you had a firm response to the notion of systemic racism. Some people agree that racism is inherent in many of the United States’ economic and health care and law enforcement systems, and that it underlies everything in this country. That it is not just something to talk about when a person of color is shot by police.

Others deny that systemic racism exists, pointing out that laws have been passed against housing discrimination and other bigotry, and that slavery ended more than 150 years ago. That eventually this issue will go away and be subsumed by the next topic du jour.

Remember, county Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien said, “I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.” She later texted to a Columbian reporter that she does not “condone racism in any form,” adding “from the sheriff’s office and deputies whom I know, none are racist. I know many of our judges in Clark County, I know none are racist. … If all of these people and departments with our county aren’t racist, there is not SYSTEMIC racism!”

Which is probably reassuring to those who hang out with deputies and judges. For the rest of us, not so much.

The point is not to bash Quiring O’Brien, but to mention that she probably found agreement from many Clark County residents. And the point is not to beat a dead horse, but to mention that the need for examining and addressing systemic racism did not dissolve with the end of the protests.

Several recent stories bring this to mind. One was a reminder that a 2016 study found the median net worth of white families in the U.S. was $171,000 and the median wealth of Black families was $17,150. The bigots among us might think that is due to some inherent racial differences; the rest of us will recognize it as a systemic problem.

As the Brookings Institution pointed out last year, the Freedman’s Savings Bank, designed to serve newly emancipated slaves, was mismanaged and left depositors with $3 million in losses in 1874. And Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” was destroyed by white riots in 1921. And the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act exempted domestic service occupations. And the G.I. Bill after World War II was designed to disenfranchise Black veterans. As the report says: “Wealth was taken from these communities before it had the opportunity to grow.”

All of those happened a long time ago. But it seems that comparing the wealth of families is like assessing the result of a 100-meter race when one party has a 50-meter head start.

And while we like to think we have progressed since then, two stories from the past week suggest otherwise.

In one, congressional pandemic assistance for renters will inordinately help small, rural states — which happen to have a large percentage of white residents. Because there is a “small-state minimum” on the assistance, qualifying renters in Wyoming will receive an average of $2,935; in New York, the average is $378.

The bill does not target renters based on race, but it might as well. Wyoming has a Black population of less than 1 percent.

In another story, the Legislature is again discussing much-needed changes to Washington’s tax system. This state routinely is regarded as having the nation’s most regressive tax policies, with poor people paying a higher percentage than in other states. That’s not necessarily about race, but it impacts those who started the race with a deficit — and benefits those who had a head start.

These are the kinds of issues that are buried deep within our society, easily overlooked despite having a daily — and generational — impact.

What are the solutions? It’s hard to say. But we cannot find them until we admit there is a problem.