Blatant racism is easy to confront; try tackling the subtle systemic kind

Blatant racism is easy to condemn; the subtle, systemic version takes real bravery to defy.

Last week, James MacArthur, better known as the Baltimore Spectator, chronicled violent and racist comments posted on a Facebook for residents of the Bowleys Quarters community of Baltimore County. The online exchange began when one resident posted that she was alarmed by three "aa males" (African American males) whom she could not identify walking around in the mostly white neighborhood. Several of her neighbors expressed anxiety and suggested shooting the young men before they "stick first."

After Mr. MacArthur posted screen shots of the conversation onto his blog, Twitter went into an uproar. Disgust and condemnation spread across the Internet like prairie fire. The Baltimore Sun picked up the story, and we learned that one of the posters, identified as a middle school and community college teacher, may face professional discipline for his comments. The incident came on the heels of the widespread release of a video of students from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma chanting gleefully that "there will never be a [n-word] in SAE," and how they would rather lynch a black man and hang him from a tree than let him into their fraternity. After the video aired, the young men were kicked off of campus, and the fraternity chapter was shuttered.

In the era of YouTube and social media, we are able to share in great moments of righteous indignation when people do racist things on camera or online. We wag our proverbial fingers, we shun the perpetrators up and down the Internet in the newspapers and on cable, and then we pat ourselves on the back for how evolved we are by comparison. Yet something about these moments of collective catharsis feels shallow, empty and even self-serving. Simply condemning racism as naked and blatant as these instances without deeper exploration lets us all off easy.

The harder thing for us to do is to challenge the more insidious kind of racism that is structural and rooted in our institutions — evidence the recent Department of Justice report detailing the systemic and unconscionable way police officials in Ferguson, Mo. used black people as human cash cows to fill their municipal coffers through petty arrests and citations. Some might have forgotten that we had a similar scheme here in Baltimore during the early 2000s, called "zero tolerance policing."

The harder thing is acknowledging that residential segregation has been built into our city's DNA. Our original charter in 1915 had separate housing tracts based along racial and religious lines — whites here, blacks there, Jews somewhere else altogether. When the Supreme Court deemed such a practice unconstitutional, neighborhood associations formed "housing covenants" that banned homeowners from selling to black people. Then after World War II, the Federal Housing Administration "redlined" areas with a concentration of black people to dissuade banks from lending there. This kind of structural racism is not just history book fodder. Several banks have recently paid huge amounts to settle claims they participated in predatory lending schemes that left many minority borrowers in massive debt.

These policies, among others, are a primary reason why the neighborhoods in Baltimore that have experienced the greatest growth and prosperity are overwhelmingly white. Conversely, neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, which suffered from years of disinvestment and neglect — and where we currently spend $17 million per year incarcerating people — are overwhelmingly black.

Racists and bigots caught in the act, whether on camera or the Internet, should be dealt with. That's a given. But the vilest racism doesn't always involve the juvenile slinging the n-word or neighbors posting stomach-churning comments about shooting "aa males" for sport. More damaging is the racism that is imbedded in our public policies and that has led to mass disparities in wealth, health, education, transportation, housing, criminal justice and so much more. It's a racism that is born out of power, privilege and intergenerational theft. It seems nearly impossible to confront because it is so deeply enmeshed in every facet of our lives. But if Baltimore is to become a truly world class city, we will need to stare down our demons, build inclusive communities and address the type of injustice that cannot be captured on a 10-second YouTube video or a moment frozen in time in a screen shot.

Zeke Cohen is executive director of The Intersection, a program that teaches high school students civic leadership and a former teacher in Sandtown-Winchester. He is a candidate for City Council in the 1st District. His email is Zeke@zekecohen.com.

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