Speakers at NYSBA Forum Call Racism a Feature and Not a Failure of Critical American Systems
Key systems of American life such as education, the economy and health care were built to harm Black people.
To think of the damage done by those systems as a failure is simply incorrect—the harm done was a feature built in by the system’s founders. That harm continues to this very day despite incremental change over the centuries.
This was a key message delivered by Syracuse Law Professor Paula Johnson at Monday night’s forum hosted by the Task Force on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law.
Johnson’s remarks crystalized a thematic constant for the evening’s speakers–that the systems that now fail people of color were founded on racist principles.
How it started
Johnson set the stage for the first hearing by narrating the history of the oppressed in the United States and the systems that keep them that way. She detailed how slavery morphed into a system of segregation and abuse from which Black people could not effectively escape thanks to the government’s failure to provide quality education, purposeful impediments to employment, home ownership and modern healthcare.
Johnson said Blacks, Asians and other non-white groups had to fight either literally or through the court system to attain citizenship. She described how Black families were driven out of the South by the legal code of Jim Crow that saw them tormented and murdered, only to find more discrimination and brutality in the North.
The courts only served to protect racist laws that codified the idea that Black people were worth less than whites. Johnson pointed to Plessy vs. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court ruled segregation laws did not violate the 14th Amendment.
This played out in cases like Lum vs. White, where the parents of a child of Chinese descent sued a Mississippi school board for classifying their daughter as “colored” and putting her in a Black school.
“This illustrates how plaintiffs often sought to vindicate their rights by arguing that they were white or legally should be regarded as white,” said Johnson, noting that Plessey argued that he was entitled to sit with whites not under some notion of greater equality, but because “he was seven eighths white.”
Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, examined systemic racism in education. Gripper argued that a common topic of conversation in education circles “the achievement gap is really a distraction from what’s really upholding systemic racism in education, which is the opportunity gap. Systemic racism primarily shows up in inequitable school funding for our public schools.”
Gripper detailed the long legal fight in New York for the state to equally fund schools. She noted that school districts in well-off neighborhoods do better, pay teachers more, have smaller classes and offer more extracurricular activities. “The state is supposed to act as the equalizer and fund the low-income communities with lower property values to make sure everyone has access to an equitable education and that is not what’s been happening in New York State and honestly it’s not what’s happening in states across the country,” said Gripper.
Would public school vouchers be a good solution for Black students? Gripper responded vociferously, “To say, we all have to go someplace else… that is not a solution for transforming education, the goal that we all should be striving for is that, no matter what community you live in, no matter where you are, no matter what your parents make, despite the immigration status of your family, despite their religion, you can walk to your neighborhood public school and get a quality education.”
Health care disparities
Dr. Daryll C. Dykes, professor and chief diversity officer at SUNY Upstate Medical University and orthopedic surgeon at Upstate Orthopedics, introduced the topic of inequality in medicine with the story of Frederick Hoffman a statistician and insurance actuary whose work became prominent near the turn of the 20th Century.
“What Hoffman postulated is that it was not the conditions of life, but rather race traits and tendencies of Blacks in which we find excess mortality. So, in other words the mortality and excess health disparity that was seen around the turn of the last century was inherent to race, rather than any other factor,” said Dykes. “And despite multiple decades of solid evidence-based research by WEB Dubois and others, including Booker T Washington who identified issues like sanitary conditions, education and economic opportunities as the most prominent role for disparities, Hoffman’s theories really prevailed for much of the first three decades of the last century.”
Dykes also detailed how federal hospital funding bills during Jim Crow allocated only a fraction of monies to institutions serving Blacks. Recent government studies have identified inequalities in healthcare for Blacks despite their economic status. He noted that these inequalities, quite predictably, not only continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic but were more pronounced.
Professor Samuel K. Roberts, associate professor of history, sociomedical sciences, and African American studies at Columbia University, took off from Dyke’s points on inherent inequalities in the medical system by noting just how ingrained these inequalities are.
“My understanding is that one thing that has confounded our ability to address structural racism is that usually the test of racism in a court is, you have to show racism in intent, not just in results and structural racism, by definition, you really don’t have that smoking gun, you don’t have the memo that says, you know I really don’t like black children so I’m going to give them all lead poisoning. You know that you’re not going to find that memorandum, but we all know that Flint Michigan was all about structural racism,” said Roberts.
Roberts said that he sees some systems where inequality is extremely stark as only being functional because one group of people is being underserved and hurt.
He pointed to a government study of the conditions facing Black residents of Ferguson Missouri. “I think the line that they used was that the Ferguson police department had been treating the local black community as its personal ATM machine, meaning that if you were black driving around Ferguson, you’d get pulled over for basically nothing and be given a fine and the whole police department was balancing its budget on that. And a lot of ways that’s what structural racism does. You can’t have the conditions that produce ill health in one population without having other means to ensure better health in another. You can’t have the type of prosperity that often gets artificially supported in this country through the extraction of people’s property or their labor value and without ill health consequences to ensue.”
About the task force
Created by President T. Andrew Brown in September, the Task Force on Racism, Social Equity and the Law is co-chaired by Taa Grays and Lillian Moy.
Though its six working groups, the task force is developing recommendations on how to dismantle those structures of systemic racism and provide equitable outcomes for all. It takes on this task with the backdrop of the extreme push back against the teaching of critical race theory, and a concerted effort to undermine voting rights across the country. It will examine how changes to law and public policy in these areas can transform society by dismantling systemic racism.
“It is no question that this is a historic task force, focused on perhaps the most important social issue of our time and perhaps throughout American history, the entrenched and brutal effects of racism on our communities, our citizenry, and the true achievement for all Americans to have equal justice under the law,” said President Brown. “We are here not just to review the issues but also to begin to address and propose solutions.”
The next public forum hosted by the task force will take place in early December and focus on criminal justice, housing and environmental justice.