A guest post by my husband, Mike Boyle.
I am writing this story on systemic racism in America as a thought provocation in recognizing that it still exists in many forms today, and as a discussion of the path forward.
I am 75 years of age and grew up in Chicago on its south side in a primarily Irish Catholic neighborhood. Back then race integration didn’t occur; even heritage mixing was non-existent. Blacks lived with blacks, Irish with Irish and the same for Spanish, Germans, Poles, etc., etc. It was even frowned on marrying outside your heritage, much less marrying outside your race. Likewise, religious isolation was prevalent. This neighborhood is a Catholic neighborhood, and that neighborhood was a Jewish one. First responders, in fact all city workers, were always white. And for most of these positions you had to know someone to get put “on the job.” Positions were handed down within families, or from alderman and ward commiteemen. They were considered great jobs; put in your 20 and retire with a pension and medical.
As populations grew in the black and brown neighborhoods, with no geographic expansion possible, they became ghettos with higher crime, poor schools and high unemployment. Services were held to a bare minimum and the cycle of systemic racism was flourishing. “Those people” needed to be controlled and contained.
Right-on-time revolution was standing by to help foster change. Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement (primarily in the south), and it fostered governmental changes of equal rights for all people. In principle, it leveled the playing field for minorities to have equal and not separate rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for all. Unfortunately, it didn’t change systemic racism. Unwritten laws or social norms take more than edicts to be eliminated.
A great example of these unwritten rules was a process called “Red Lining.” This was a systemic racist practice of real estate in Chicago of not showing homes to blacks using hidden lines on a map to exclude homes within those boundaries. As black households improved their financial abilities, they wanted to improve their family, get out of the ghetto and move to a neighborhood with better schools. This process of “Redlining” slowed or stopped this progression to a better life for black people. Over time “Redlining” became illegal and made getting out of the ghetto possible.
Newton’s Law says for every action there is a reaction. Opening up real estate markets by mandate didn’t reduce racism, it created a phenomenon called “White Flight.”
A minority moves into an all non-minority neighborhood and within weeks and over months the white homeowners all try to sell because they don’t want to live next door to a black family. The white homeowners burned crosses on the lawns, which made the real estate prices drop resulting in even more sales to minorities. This systemic racism spread throughout the neighborhood. Schools became integrated with great disruption. White businesses began to close, and eventually services diminished. This resulted in the ghetto expanding, and crime increased. This trend repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood until there were only a few white enclaves filled with those same first responders I spoke of earlier who could not move as a requirement of their employment.
My neighborhood was one of these ”white flight” locations, and I watched the incredible process take place in real time. We were literally the last white family to leave, and although we speak of systemic racism as a white phenomenon, it exists in minorities as well. More times than I can remember I was in a fight or flight mode on the streets of my neighborhood with blacks challenging me as to when I would be moving out – this was their neighborhood now. Truth was we were too poor to move until there was no choice. Suffice to say, I spent the better part of my pre-teen and teen life in a black neighborhood.
I include this commentary to highlight that we’re speaking today of white systemic racism, but do not delude yourself that removing this racism alone will fix “Systemic Racism.” It is a multi-racial syndrome.
As I grew older I joined the Marine Corps, and I saw systemic racism in the Corp as well. It was different in that it was suppressed by both the discipline imposed and our reliance on each other for survival. This superseded any in-your-face racism, but it was there, if more subdued perhaps: bunk assignments, barracks assignment, or it may have been the bars you went to. What we knew as a collective group of Marines was that we wouldn’t survive, wouldn’t come home, without each other. That was more important than racism.
In 1968 the civil rights movement continued. MLK pushed for more civil rights until his assassination. I was out of the military when Dr. King was killed working on a car repo team in the ghettoes of Chicago. My black partner, Clyde, and I roamed the streets in the dead of night pulling cars as if nothing was happening. Clyde and I were close; he covered me, I covered him. We worked as a team and found a very close friendship. I was proud of him and he of me.
The civil rights movement was an empowering yet precarious time for black Americans. The efforts of civil rights activists and countless protesters of all races brought about legislation to end segregation, black voter suppression and discriminatory employment and housing practices.
But the riots after Dr. King’s death led to a larger dialogue on racism and many places around the country implemented structures to support civil rights at local levels – cities, schools, business, etc. More of those good jobs went to blacks. Quotas were implemented to force a percentage of population for black jobs and higher education. You could hear complaints about affirmative action taking jobs and school opportunities from whites, but all seemed safely tucked away until 1992 and the LA riots.
Rodney King was emblematic of the still segregated black ghettos and their relationship with the police. It was a classic “us versus them” on both sides. Black neighborhoods still had fewer services, more unemployment, and higher crime. Neighborhood shopping was not available and the Koreans, Middle Easterners, Indians and Blacks aspiring to the American dream opened stores in the ghettos to fill the void of mainstream national retailers that wouldn’t open in black communities. With no big-box retailer in the neighborhoods, the independent retailers weren’t just grocery stores, they were also the neighborhood clothing store, a place to cash checks, and in many cases the only place black customers could have a credit account. These retailers had a very high cost of doing business. Thefts were high, robberies were high, and all this was reflected in higher prices, which created friction between them and the customers. It was high risk/high reward for the shop-keepers, and their relationship with the community was antagonistic at best.
I experienced it in my own career when I progressed from ghetto repo man to ghetto finance man for a car dealership in the early 70s, and then to owning my own car dealership on the edge of the ghetto in the 80s. Many of my customers were those same merchants that had established their stores inside the ghetto neighborhoods, and more than once I remember them pulling bags of cash from the trunk of their car to pay for a new car.
A ghetto cash economy is the by-product of a systemic racist economy. The unbanked can’t get credit cards or establish checking accounts, and cash becomes king. This suppression of economic availability became a boiling point of resentment and anger and backlash when the Rodney King riots started.
The outrage of the Rodney King attackers’ all white cops getting off with no penalty by a jury finally brought back to the forefront the view that systemic racism was once again the new norm.
But in the aftermath of the LA riots there was more positive progress. National retail chains made commitments to build and hire in black communities. Police departments began community policing programs to build bridges to black communities. The justice department became aggressive in holding police departments accountable for racist actions using consent decrees to change everything from training to hiring. This was also a period of time where law and order and sentencing guidelines were enacted to reduce crime. And it was also the beginning of police militarizations. Departments acquired more lethal weaponry and military surplus supplies. Everyone had a SWAT TEAM.
In the 2000s, we experienced a litany of fresh blowups over police brutality. The deaths of young black men. Police continued to militarize their officers. Community policing was abandoned for the most part and the long-standing blue wall of silence has again made it an “us versus them” reality. Any relevant communication between police and those they were protecting had ended. Systemic racism flourished again.
Today it seems enough is enough. We have all watched a police officer kill a handcuffed black man. His fellow officers spoke softly and took no action to prevent him from murdering this man. We are all outraged. We are all sick to our stomachs and, as the protests have shown, we’re ready for change. What form it will be is to be determined. Sadly though, I know we won’t rid out the systemic racism that flows in our world.
Are we better than we were 75 years ago? For sure, I think yes.
Over the span of my career, I have seen the first female hired in a sales position at Xerox. Black men became executive managers at IBM. And now men and women of all ethnicities hold coveted positions across all industries and government.
Generational racism is diminishing and that’s the way it will be defeated – little by little over each generation until it’s gone.
I had a discussion with my wife about how it could happen sooner. What if we could change the DNA of every child to make them black or white, or name the color. In that one generation could it be possible to eradicate systemic racism? After all, we would all be the same. Silly perhaps, but what if. And would that be the world we’d really want to live in? A world without diversity.
The reality is we all will play a role, some large and some small, in pushing systemic racism to the back of the bus. Our future will be built in small steps where we learn to celebrate and embrace our diversity.
We stand with the protesters and will do our part to eradicate systemic racism in our world. It’s time for more change.