The Systems of Racism That We White People Buy Into

Author: Eli Wallach, Johns Hopkins University  ____________________________________________________________________________________

This past Monday, as the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson smoldered in the aftermath of a grand jury statement that set Officer Darren Wilson, killer of black 18 year-old Michael Brown, free of criminal charges, the US was forced to confront a harsh yet often ignored reality: America has a race problem.

Discussion of racism intermittently appears in mainstream media, but its roots and present severity are rarely fully addressed. The death of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson adds to a long succession of deaths in the black community that has gained the global spotlight—a decades long series that includes Emmett Till, Rodney King and, most recently, Trayvon Martin. But while these events generally attract media attention for about as long as the ensuing fires, the realities that they expose do not disappear when the cameras turn away. As a matter of fact, it is critical to understand that my ability this Thanksgiving to tune out the realities of predatory racism in this country and enjoy light conversation with my family is what many social critics label “white privilege.” While Thanksgiving for me will consist of a joyful reunion with relatives, for too many in the black community, this Thanksgiving will be marked by grief and fear for the future of their dark-skinned children.

Being in 2014 however, it seems that the situation in Ferguson has the potential to be different. The Internet has burst with helpful tips of what we can learn from this event, promoting widespread social action and progressive rhetoric from people of all ages and races.

But too often the debate around racism in the US is focused on the notion of individual acts of racism. These exist. Everyday there are instances of overt racism that white people commit. This can be seen when looking in the depth of internet literature revolving around micro-aggressions. But the notion that the issue of racism is one of individual bias is flawed. One can not overlook the larger issue of macro-aggressions. Macro-agressions are systemic, resulting in the actions of groups not individuals, and they largely operate more covertly than their micro counterpart. For this reason, as a white person, merely putting a picture on Instagram saying #BlackLivesMatter may well mean that you are not individually a racist, but by no means implies that you are abstaining from racism in this country.

In order to really acknowledge that black lives matter, we must confront and fight against the systems of oppression that diminish black dignity and reproduce the dire conditions that we can see in Ferguson today. To the ordinary Internet-user, these systems are largely beneficial. From prison-labor creating cheap clothes for Macy’s to the cool cheese shops now available in your local gentrifying neighborhood coming at the expense of a public housing project, these systems that are key in reproducing race relations in the US are much closer to us than we think.

And yet, once again, Internet users are quick to revel in the injustices of an instance without critiquing the timeless systems that create them. Fighting against these systems is certainly a much more inconvenient task for Internet users than posting a clever hash-tag online. But let’s be clear: in order to make real progress, we must stop attacking the players and start critiquing the game.

When looking at systems that reproduce racial inequality in American society, there are a seemingly endless amount of systems that one can examine. In this piece, I choose to focus on two major systems that profit from the tagging of young black men as criminals and second-class citizens, two systems that most of the Internet-community, whether aware or not, buys into: prisons and housing.


In 2010, civil rights litigator and professor Michelle Alexander came out with a book that made quite a splash among those interested in race relations in the US. Through detailed analysis, Alexander published an idea that, for most people, was not very hard to see: that racism didn’t end with the civil rights movement. Smartly titled “The New Jim Crow,” she goes over how mass incarceration of black people in America has created an unjust two-tiered system in America for blacks and whites.

As a starting point for analyzing post-civil rights racism in the US, Alexander points to the “War on Drugs,” which Reagan began in 1982. This act saw a rise in policing inner city neighborhoods, which in turn, resulted in an explosion of America’s prison population, increasing four-fold between 1980 and 2013, with drug-related charges causing 51% of convictions in 2013. Today, America’s prison population represents 25% of the whole world’s prison population, exceeding that of China, a country with five times the population. The effects of this are serious and grave. Due to regulations that make it almost impossible for former criminals to find employment and integrate into “White America,” the fact that, in many black communities, the proportion of black men with criminal records often reaches 80% effectively creates what Alexander calls “a growing and permanent undercaste.”

Beyond creating an antagonistic relationship in many black communities between the police and the people, mass incarceration in black communities also perpetuates the image that all men with dark skin and sagging pants are criminals. This claim holds little grasp on reality. While many point to misogynistic and drug-related elements in hip-hop culture as indicators of the black community’s struggle with crime, few take the effort to reflect this analysis on themselves, looking at how Wall St. culture also promotes misogyny, drug-use as well as a general disrespect for the law. Do we stereotype all men who wear a suit as fitting into this backwards culture? No. Furthermore, this is statistically not true. Proportionally, America’s white population is most likely to do drugs. This proportion, however, does not hold when looking at who is serving jail time for drug-related crimes.

But while many people acknowledge the racism that exists within the hyper-policing and mass-incarceration in black communities, much fewer examine why this system came about and why it still persists. It is easy to blame this on America being inherently racist, but that is a gross oversimplication.

Political activist Angela Davis examined these questions when analyzing the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex in 1997. She writes:

Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages. Prisons thus perform a feat of magic.

Davis goes on to show the structural racism this force promotes. It should come as no surprise that the Native American community makes up the largest amount of the prison population when looking per capita. Writing over 15 years before Ferguson, Davis points out the unsustainable nature of a society in which five times as many black men are in prison than are enrolled in universities. Meanwhile, America continues to build more and more prisons.

But what allows this phenomenon to persist? One answer is the rise of private for-profit prisons. In the 1990s, as Clinton cut federal employment in jails during an unprecedented rise in prison population, private prisons were called upon to fill the gap in the market. These private prisons are able to profit off of mass-incarceration through receiving money from the government per prisoner These profits are so secure and reliable that many reputable banks and financial advisors have backed them with investments. Their share of the prison population is continually increasing.

However, private prisons and the banks that invest in them are far from the only groups who are benefitting from this mass-incarceration. Private companies and the US Government have found that it is easier and cheaper to use prison labor than to use Chinese or Mexican labor, prompting the Centre for Research on Globalization to note:

Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.

The list of companies that use or have used this prison labor is long. For a more complete list, you can check out this article. Some household names include Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Target and Microsoft.

At the end of the day, these companies are profiting off of nearly-free labor made available through mass-incarceration in the US. We, as consumers, benefit from this in cheap prices for goods while America’s black community suffers from a criminal-image unfairly placed upon them. That’s market economics for you.


As mass-incarceration shaped the face of black communities around the US, the black community also had to deal with the realities of mass-evictions. In 1992, the government enacted HOPE IV, a program aimed at improving the status of housing for low-income Americans by replacing public housing projects with mixed-income housing developments. The results were the exact opposite.

Between 1992 and 2004, HOPE IV made way for the demolition of 49,828 units of public housing. A study from the Urban Institute shows that, in this time, only 21,000 new units had been built to recover the loss of housing for low-income tenants.

While this squeeze of public housing occurred, a new trend of moving back to the city simultaneously took root, driving up speculation and housing prices in America’s urban centers. To allow for developers to maximize their profits from this preference shift, tenant rights and city budgets for affordable housing were reduced to a minimum.

So, over the last 25 years, cities have seen a massive change in the demographics. As housing prices in cities skyrocketed and as public and affordable housing became increasingly marginalized, many low-income Americans were forced to move from cities to the suburbs. This can be seen in almost every major city in the country. Mexicans have been pushed out of the historic Mission neighborhood. Black people are no longer the majority in Harlem. This migration adds another layer of severity, as the removal of poverty from the city makes the city more attractive to speculators, further driving up housing prices in the city.

While, from the point of view of the person who benefits from the influx in investment into these cities, this process is just the natural process of “gentrification.” To the families that are pushed out of their homes, this is no different than colonialism in a 21st century urban setting. The fact that the vast majority of displaced people are people of color only adds to this view.

It is important to note that urban development does not require gentrification. Many hands and minds have worked tirelessly to push for the construction of more affordable housing in cities, only to be trumped by the interests of large developers who do not see a profit in creating such infrastructure.

Unfortunately, housing activists in St. Louis were not able to counter the market-driven displacement, giving rise to the situation in Ferguson. According to a report from Al Jazeera America, Ferguson went from a suburb that was 25% black in 1990 to one that was 67% black in 2010. Significant increases in poverty and homelessness followed. Meanwhile, St. Louis city went from 28.1% white in 2000 to 49.2% white in 2010. The migration in the St. Louis metro area is just a picture of the national trend. By 2008, US suburbs saw their portion of poor people grow at double the rate as that of cities, with suburbs for the first time housing the largest share of the country’s poor.

Beyond the trauma that accompanies being kicked out of your home to accommodate a new wave of consuming Young Urban Professionals (otherwise known as YUPPIES), this suburbanization of poverty in our country has drastic social effects. Studies have shown that living in a suburb makes it more difficult to access social services. While poverty has moved into the suburbs, participation rates for welfare programs remain significantly higher in urban areas, where access is more available.

Furthermore, migration is a process. When people of color get pushed into suburbs that have historically been white, public institutions are slow to keep up. In Ferguson, black representation in the city council and in the police force has not kept up with the changing demographics. Governance has largely remained loyal to their funding base, which largely consists of the remaining white residents. Influenced by the mainstream narrative of “the black thug,” these residents feel the need for more policing to ensure their security.

The result is a Ferguson police force that conducts 80% of car stops and 92% of searches on its black residents, continuing a vicious cycle of racial antagonisms and bringing us back to our discussion of the Prison Industrial Complex.

While much displacement has already occurred in cities, more is sure to come. According to urban planner Arthur Nelson, by 2030, $30 trillion will be poured into US cities for the purpose of development. He reports that 30 million residential units are in danger of being caught in the crossfire. While we may see urban development as a positive movement, one cannot underscore the importance that affordable housing will play in preventing further displacement.

If anyone reading this feels that they want to enjoy a city but do not want to contribute to the racism that is market colonialism/gentrification, do not worry. You are not caught in a paradox. In every city there are groups that are fighting for affordable housing and long-term solutions. Their goal is to create a city that accommodates the housing needs of its most vulnerable residents, those who have a low-income. In Baltimore, groups like The United Workers and The Right to Housing Alliance are carrying more than their own weight in fighting for a city that provides for all of its residents without displacing its most vulnerable. If you do not want to be part of the problem, do not just put up a hash-tag. Connect with these types of groups. Volunteer your time and effort and help provide an alternate narrative for the future of cities, one that promotes people, not profits.


Since the eruption in Ferguson, I have heard many people question why this response is only evoked when a white officer kills a black person. People like to remind me that “black on black” violence is a much more severe problem in the black community.

There are a few key flaws in this point of view.

First of all, a white police officer killing a young black man is different from a young black man killing another young black man. While they are both killings, they symbolize two very different problems. The latter can be seen as a result of a lack of social mobility.

There is a quote in the movie District 9 that I think resonates with many marginalized groups in the world: “In a society where power and wealth are inaccessible to most of its citizens it becomes infinitely easier to seek these things on the wrong side of the law.”

For the black community, racism, faulty schools and an overrepresentation in the criminal justice system all contribute to the difficulty of finding employment. Furthermore, for those that do find employment, they often confront terrible conditions with wages that often leave employees on welfare and homeless. To get a vivid picture of the terrible conditions of black service workers in home improvement stores, this article is for you.

This inability to further their social status has pushed many people in the black community to turn to selling drugs. Since drug trade functions outside the regulation of the formal market, drug trade is often accompanied by violence, as we have seen by the relatively high murder rates in impoverished black communities. These murders do not go unnoticed. They may not be the front page of CNN but they equally hurt families who spend time and money to mourn and afford a funeral. Furthermore, many groups work tirelessly to stop this violence. As national correspondent to the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, notes:

The notion that violence within the black community is “background noise” is not supported by the historical recordor by Google. I have said this before. It’s almost as if Stop The Violence never happened, or The Interruptors never happened, or Kendrick Lamar never happened. The call issued by Erica Ford at the end of this Do The Right Thing retrospective is so common as to be ritual. It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people.

The killing of Michael Brown is a totally different issue, however. The unrest in Ferguson is not just mourning, it is the eruption of something bigger. It is the accumulation of years of being oppressed by a prison system that makes your clothes, by an urban housing system that is able to displace black communities so that you can live in a “safe” urban neighborhood. It is the black community crying out at the injustices they confront in everyday life, injustices, that, to be frank, we are buying into.

At the end of the day, I refuse to accept that just focusing on instances of micro-aggression will end racism in America. If black lives matter to you, then fight against these systems.


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