Understanding Systemic Racism
By Wendy Byrd

As America celebrates the Fourth of July amid an uprising against police brutality, and a pandemic that has claimed 125,000 lives, let us open dialogue about re-imagining what the next 244 years could look like. In order to do this effectively and truly create change, one must know and understand the pillars of history in order to avoid duplicating harmful past practices.

When the Constitution was written in 1787, some of its founders were slave owners. The Constitution protected slavery for three generations before it was amended. Eleven clauses in the Constitution had policy implications related to slavery. Ten of those protected the rights and powers of slave owners.

Police departments, originally called Slave Patrols and Night Watches used “fugitive slave laws” to force discipline on Black slaves and to protect white supremacy. After the civil war in 1865, “black codes” were put in place to deny African Americans the right to vote, attend public schools, or receive equal treatment under the law.

Black codes were dismantled during the Reconstruction Era (1865-77), but the legacy of white supremacy continued due to its embodiments within the original fabric of American culture. Management by fear has been a psychological weapon used to dominate and control Blacks for the past 400 years. Whips, ropes, chains, batons, dogs, hoses, tear gas, guns and tactical maneuvers such as choke holds, and lynching’s were used to dominate and punish. After the Reconstruction Era came the Jim Crow Era (1870) (separate but equal).

The Civil Rights Act in 1964 ended segregation; however, it did not end the ideology of white supremacy. “I AM A MAN” signs carried in demonstrations in the 60s are a-kin to “BLACK LIVES MATTER” signs carried in 2020. Both are battle cries for acceptance, dignity, and respect.

In 1968, The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act made available grants for local governments to purchase military-type resources to use against its citizens. Other laws such as the Patriot Act effectively turned police into agents of war authorized to use militarized weapons to intimidate and suppress.

Various U.S. Presidents continue to use federal laws to preserve racism and white supremacy. The narratives changed from The War on Poverty to The War on Crime, to Just Say No, to The War on Drugs, and now Law and Order. The slogans are different, but the underlying goal is the same as it was 400 years ago, which is to separate, conquer, control, and profit off the backs of Black and Brown people.

Police have typically been the first responders of a multi-billion-dollar industry of mass incarceration. Data from the Prison Policy Institute supports that police stops are still marred by racial discrimination. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by police than Whites, and that police threatened or used use of force against nearly one million people, who were disproportionately Black or Brown.
Data obtained from the Sentencing Project shows a direct relationship between racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system. According to NAACP research, African Americans, and Whites use drugs at similar rates but imprisonment for African Americans are six times that of Whites. Nationwide, Black children represent 32% of children arrested, 42% of children detained and 52% of children whose cases are judicially moved to criminal courts. Imprisonment of African American women is twice that of White women.

ACLU reports explain how twenty years of unjust crack cocaine laws and harsh sentencing patterns dismantled the Black family structure. In 1984, Congress passed several mandatory minimum penalty laws. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 included a 5-year minimum federal prison sentence for having 5 grams of crack cocaine in your possession. While on the other hand, a person could have up to 500 grams (100 times the amount of powder cocaine) in one’s possession for distribution before receiving the same minimum sentence. The cheaper crack cocaine, a highly addictive drug, showed up in all inner-city neighborhoods, while powdered cocaine remained in affluent neighborhoods.

The average federal drug sentencing for Blacks was 49% higher than Whites. Disparate sentencing laws within the criminal justice system disproportionately separated Black fathers from families. This set the bar for high recidivism rates for Black and Brown people.
Systemic racism reaches beyond the criminal justice system. Redlining was a tool used by financial institutions and the real estate industry to further promote segregation and wealth inequality. As a result, African Americans had difficulty securing loans to purchase property. Real estate developers worked hand-in-hand with racist lending policies and covenants that excluded Blacks from owning property or living in certain neighborhoods.

An ongoing local study conducted by Sharon and Dave Froba revealed racial restrictions on deeds of 50% of homes in the Modesto area prior to 1950. It impacted African Americans and people of color from building equity through home purchases in high value neighborhoods. As reported by Newsday, November 17, 2019, 49% of African Americans continue to receive discriminatory treatment in buying homes.

Slave labor, tobacco, cotton, and sugar rest at the foundation of American capitalism. Systemic racism included generational wealth obtained off the backs of enslaved people that was never shared or reinvested back into Black businesses or communities. On May 31-June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, Black residents were attacked from the air by private aircraft and on the ground by a mob of White residents who destroyed their businesses and homes known as the Black Wall Street. 300 people died and 800 were injured. The Black Wall Street never recovered nor were they compensated for their loss.

A town located South of Tulare in CA called Allenworth, was established by African Americans in 1908. Due to a lack of irrigation water that was promised and not delivered, the town could not sustain itself and the residents were forced to abandon their property. The Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is open for tours and special events during designated times of the year.

There are many good people in our city, including police officers willing to work toward changing the culture of policing and other oppressive systems and we have a good multicultural dialog that will help. I invite you to contact the NAACP at (209) 896-9196 or<> to continue our dialogue and partnership in re-imagining Stanislaus County.

Wendy Byrd, President
Modesto/Stanislaus NAACP

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