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If I had to choose just one word, I would say this summer is one of uncertainty.
People are reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, still at full strength, and the economic devastation in its wake. Unemployment rates recently climbed higher than at any time since the Great Depression—an era now almost entirely beyond living memory. The impact of the health and economic crises combined is, as we often hear, unprecedented.
On the other hand, the murder of George Floyd by people whose taxpayer-funded job is to protect civilians was a sharp reminder of something that is far from unprecedented: the deadly results of systemic racism, particularly anti-Black racism, in the United States. Many non-Black Americans had not grasped the fact that police killings of African Americans are shockingly common, generating fear that is a daily reality for millions of people.
Peaceful public demonstrations against police brutality, if not unprecedented, have been the most widespread, steadfast, and representative of recent years. Protesters in more than 400 U.S. cities and towns were joined by people on five other continents, in countries from the U.K. to Japan and New Zealand. Hopefully, the sustained momentum will translate into long-term structural change.
The past few months have also been a time for Bread for the World and its staff to deepen our understanding of the profound and wide-ranging impacts of systemic racism. This issue of Institute Insights features personal reflections by several Institute colleagues that, in addition to examples from everyday life, also include details from history or U.S. policy that help explain anti-Black racism.
For several years, one of Bread’s main messages has been that ending hunger absolutely requires racial equity—which means dismantling the policies and structures of systemic racism and white supremacy, particularly as it affects Black people. Bread has emphasized the need to understand how to strengthen racial equity so that African Americans and other people of color are not at higher risk of hunger, food insecurity, poverty—and now, death from COVID-19 as well.
Among the most recent Institute resources is the Racial Equity Scorecard, a short piece that identifies and illustrates straightforward steps to make legislation, policies, or programs more racially equitable. An initial step, for example, is to ensure that experts of color and people from the most affected communities are included as full participants from the beginning—not after key decisions have been made or plans are underway. Another recent resource is a series of fact sheets on how COVID-19 has affected specific communities of color thus far.
Bread for the World focuses on finding solutions to the root causes of hunger and food insecurity. One of the most significant of these causes is structural racism, which has meant a disproportionate number of people of color in jobs that do not pay enough to feed a family and offer little job security as well as the segregation of people of color, particularly Blacks, into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that offer little access to affordable healthy foods. These are among the problems that must be top priorities for anti-hunger advocates.
Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.
By Karyn Bigelow
It is hard being Black in America right now. This is not new, but rather a reminder of the trauma threaded throughout the African American experience in the United States. While I’m following the advice of experts to remain home and keep social distance, it is frightening and devastating to see people who look like me dying from COVID-19 and police brutality at alarming rates. For many of us, it feels like a gut punch to see headlines and social media posts about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others.
Although COVID-19 and police brutality may seem unrelated, what connects them is structural racism, which plays a large part in the lived experiences of African Americans, from what our neighborhoods are like and what we eat, to the air we breathe and every other aspect of life.
Hearing George Floyd say, “I can’t breathe” was not the first time I heard those words. I have heard those words throughout my life.
As a Black child growing up in Washington, DC, I heard “I can’t breathe” frequently as a student in predominately Black public schools. Many of my classmates were asthmatic or had respiratory problems that required them to carry rescue inhalers or do breathing treatments. I recall moments in the fifth grade, sitting at my desk in Ms. Brown’s class, when out of nowhere, a classmate would raise her hand and ask to go to her locker to retrieve her inhaler, because suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Other times, a classmate in gym class would be gasping as he sat on the bleachers, waiting for his inhaler to help him catch his breath and saying, “I can’t breathe.” Asthma attacks were so frequent amongst my classmates that I thought asthma was as common as having seasonal allergies.
In general, African Americans are more likely to live in areas with high levels of smog, also called ozone pollution, which can cause breathing problems, increased risk of respiratory infections, and cardiovascular effects. The same respiratory illnesses put many African Americans at high risk of dying of COVID-19 if they contract the virus.
The people most likely to experience respiratory problems are the same people as those most likely to live with hunger and poverty in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Poor African Americans are five times more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty, which have 20 percent, 40 percent, or even more of their residents living below the poverty line, as poor white Americans.
Unless our country confronts and dismantles systemic racism, Black people and other people of color will continue to be the first and worst-affected by climate change and environmental crises. We must approach the work of climate change and hunger using an equity lens that measures not only the outcomes, but also changes in the root causes of racial inequities.
Karyn Bigelow is research associate with Bread for the World Institute.
By Marlysa D. Gamblin
The slaying of Black bodies is not new. The recent lynchings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more holds up a mirror to our nation’s original sin. But it also reinforces the reality that much has not changed—rather the forms they take on have only mildly shifted.
I have many words to say—more than what my lifetime’s worth or 400 years of racial oppression can fit onto a page. But nonetheless, I will attempt to start.
As a Black woman, I know firsthand that the racism I experience is different than the racism faced by other people of color. Unfortunately, this truth is no longer surprising to me. Looking at the history allows me to make sense of why this is the case and how this is still full-strength reality, functioning more than 600 years after Europeans first set foot on the continent of Africa to profit from the exclusive chattel slavery of Black bodies.
What I find surprising is that many white people and other people of color have not yet understood that this is the reality. That as a result of my Blackness, the racism I experience will also be different, and in many ways worse, than the racism that other communities of color encounter.
The reason for this is anti-Black racism.
Anti-Black racism is the name of the specific kind of racial prejudice directed towards Black people. Anti-Blackness devalues Blackness, while systematically marginalizing Black people, the issues that affect us, and the institutions created to support us. The first form of anti-Blackness is overt racism, which is upheld by covert structural and systemic racism that categorically predetermines the socioeconomic status of Blacks in this country. The second form of anti-Blackness is unethical disregard for Black people, as seen in the cases of police, or civilian, brutality against Black bodies.
Back in the 1400s when the Portuguese enslaved only Africans, they coined the term “Negro.” This word was translated as “Black” and used to describe the people living in Africa. At that time, people did not see themselves as belonging to the same race as all others in the sub-Saharan region. Of course, they also did not see themselves as belonging to an inferior social group. The Portuguese, however, described the people living on the continent as “uncivilized” and attempted to map this lie to the physical attributes of their Blackness. And while the term “white” was not formally named at that time, the Portuguese and other European colonizers later became identified under the umbrella of “white” and “civilized” by virtue of not being labeled “Black” and “uncivilized.” This justified the transatlantic slave trade of Black people, a history that is still with us today.
In short, Blackness is the antithesis of whiteness. The definition of “white” during the period of U.S. chattel slavery went so far as to specify that a white person did not have a drop of Black blood. So, it would make sense then that the direct opposite of whiteness is Blackness, and the policies designed to uphold white supremacy have also been the very policies that sought, and in many ways still seek, to harm Blackness. The suppression of Black people directly maintains the privilege, “purity,” and power of white people. This is one of the reasons that, on a spectrum of white to Black, people generally experience more power and privilege the closer in proximity to whiteness they are, and less power and privilege the closer in proximity to Blackness they are.
This is also seen in the construction of systemic racism, whereby policies were deliberately designed to oppress Black people while centering and upholding whiteness. This was the case with U.S. chattel slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow policies, New Deal legislation, redlining, the separate but equal doctrine, over-policing and mass incarceration, employment discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and many others. These policies were anti-Black, meaning that they were designed to target the Black community and center whiteness. And while they certainly negatively impacted all communities of color, it makes sense that the people hurt most by these policies are Black—at their core, these policies were anti-Black.
More than 400 years of unresolved anti-Black policies is the reason we see the Black community experiencing the highest levels of police brutality. Perhaps the most brutal form of anti-Black racism is the historical lynching. Lynching is defined as someone being put to death without court or legal sanction. As I sit here writing this, I acknowledge that my own body, a product of Blackness, is all too susceptible to this very same violence in this country today. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized Black people throughout the country. Lynching took place in the United States well before the Emancipation Proclamation, but it increased sharply during the period 1880 to 1940 as African Americans sought freedom. It was largely tolerated by state and federal officials. Historically, police were complicit with lynching, whether by participating themselves or by allowing the violence to take place. In fact, as many as 75 percent of lynchings have had the direct or indirect assistance of law enforcement. And we see police involvement and complicity in killings today.
Perhaps the main difference today is that a fraction of these injustices has been filmed and posted on social media for millions to see. Per the definition of lynching, none of the killings were connected with a judicial proceeding or court order. They were examples of public acts of torture of Black bodies. This shows that anti-Blackness is not simply the racist actions of a white person, nor is it systemic racism alone. As scholar Nicholas Brady explains, it is also “the paradigm that binds Blackness and death” where “one cannot think of one without the other.”
What the recent protests and conversations have taught me is that many people and institutions don’t yet understand these realities. Many people, even those with good intentions, are perpetuating the same non-acknowledgement of anti-Blackness, which only reinforces the denial of my lived truth and my community’s historic reality.
Marlysa D. Gamblin is senior policy advisor, racial and gender divides, with Bread for the World Institute.
By Todd Post
The experience I’m about to describe took place about 10 years ago. I was at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, one of those typical staid events to launch a new Hunger Report on who knows what aspect of hunger. At the time, of course, no one thought there was anything unusual or risky about being together in a crowded room.
On the stage sat four distinguished panelists from the DC milieu of nonprofits, federal agencies, embassies, and so forth. The moderator asked one of them, the ambassador from Kenya, about how much impact government corruption has on slowing progress against hunger and poverty. The ambassador explained that corruption in his country is a problem, and then added matter-of-factly that it is a problem in all governments.
One of the other panelists, the head of a U.S. organization, turned to the moderator and said in a matter-of-fact tone of his own, “There’s government corruption right here [in the United States].”
The room went silent, the moderator paused. It’s hard to describe the awkwardness of the next few moments. There were some bemused smiles around the room. After what seemed like a long pause, the moderator said rather abruptly, “… Okay then.”
I share this scene to illustrate a side effect of American exceptionalism. We seem to have no trouble identifying corruption in other governments, but when it comes to our own, we have the hardest time equating what we see in other countries with what happens here.
Consider Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd in broad daylight. It was all captured on a cellphone video. Chauvin is shown staring straight ahead in brazen indifference to the surrounding crowd, full of people pleading for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. Yes, it is about racism, and more specifically, it is about anti-Black racism, which targets and devalues Black people as disposable in many ways. Perhaps the most egregious displays of anti-Black racism, including, the killing of George Floyd, are those committed by law enforcement, because here the devaluation of Black people results immediately in brutality and sometimes death. The hashtags #sayhisname and #sayhername show that George Floyd’s death was not unique.
This systemic anti-Black racism flourishes because government corruption gives it license. I can’t fathom the impulses of a killer like Chauvin, but it’s clear he wasn’t concerned about accountability. From the time of U.S. chattel slavery to the present day, there have been countless cases of governments excusing violence, protecting police officers, delaying arrests, covering up evidence or refusing to release it, and justifying the killing of innocent Black men and women. Many killings are not even recorded as cases of suspected misconduct, and of those who are, few police officers are charged and even fewer convicted. Worse still, the full extent of the problem cannot be uncovered, and repeat offenders or patterns of police brutality and other misconduct often cannot be detected, because there is no national system of reporting and tracking police misconduct despite years of advocates pressing to have one established. If that isn’t corruption, what is?
At one time, I had believed—for far too long, I’m ashamed to admit—that the difference between government corruption in the United States and in low-income countries was that in other countries, corruption is far more “in your face.” One reason I bought into this is that I have been in countries with higher levels of poverty where I witnessed or experienced corruption directly.
For instance, I was in Uganda several years ago, visiting development projects in the countryside. My Ugandan colleague was driving, and I was in the passenger seat. We weren’t speeding, but we were stopped by a police officer standing outside her vehicle on a road where few other cars were passing by. As the police officer approached the driver’s side window, I could see my colleague tensing up. I thought for a moment, “This can’t be a shakedown. I’m in the car and my white privilege will shield us.” Well, it was a shakedown, and white privilege didn’t prevent it.
White people in the United States have a different experience of the government, especially in-person encounters with officials, than people of color, especially African Americans. I don’t know any white males who fear for their life when stopped by the police. Because we haven’t experienced oppression as African Americans have, white people are more susceptible to the myths of American exceptionalism. The history I learned in school, and what most students are still taught today, makes no effort to deconstruct systemic racism, let alone anti-Black racism, and show how it flourishes through the present. In that way, the official history presented to children is yet another form of government corruption.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the growing numbers of chilling video recordings are pointing out what should have been obvious—anti-Black racism is deadly. I hope the systematic reforms that so many are working to achieve will include changes in education that respond effectively to the whitewashing of history. At Bread for the World Institute, my colleague Marlysa D. Gamblin has developed exceptional resources for filling in the critical gaps in knowledge that far too many people have.
My mind returns to that event at the National Press Club. Most of the people in the room were white, as they usually are at these types of events. Years later, in my thoughts, I interrupt the moderator to say: We need to stop right now and discuss the corruption in the United States that is epitomized by state-sanctioned anti-Black racism, because our arrogance and ignorance allow it to persist.
Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.
By Michele Learner
At Bread for the World, we continue to advocate for lasting solutions to hunger and food insecurity, including jobs that pay enough to support a family. Of course, Bread is also calling for prompt and sufficient assistance for families struggling to meet their essential needs, whose numbers have exploded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of structural racism, both parents who are low-wage workers and those who have lost their jobs are disproportionately people of color, particularly Black women. Black children are at far higher risk of living in food-insecure families than white children.
The economic and health inequities that Black families continue to suffer are compounded by institutionalized forms of direct violence, including police brutality and mass incarceration. The injustices seem so intractable that I wonder whether I am impossibly naïve to think that there could be meaningful change. Naïve or not, I have been on the lookout for genuine signs of hope, partly in the knowledge that becoming too discouraged to be an effective advocate won’t help anyone.
Perhaps one hopeful sign is the greater inclusiveness of the more recent public protests and national conversations about racism, particularly anti-Black racism, and what will be needed to end it.
This may reflect a more holistic understanding of the problem. For example, along with #sayhisname, activists are promoting the hashtag #sayhername to draw attention to the fact that, as social justice scholar Monique W. Morris put it, “Protests are often in the name of men and boys, and we forget that so many girls and young women … are disproportionately impacted by the same state-sanctioned violence.”
People who are transgender are often marginalized within both the LGBTQ community and the Black community. That is why the Black Trans Lives Matter rally, held June 14 in New York and attracting at least 15,000 participants, was such a departure from the past. The demonstration was a first both because it was so large and because of the participation of many people who are neither LGBTQ nor Black. Systemic racism certainly plays a role in the fact that a disproportionate number of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, particularly murder, are against transgender women of color, particularly Black women.
The Black Lives Matter movement and its allies are also identifying more specifically what racism may look like among different groups of people. For example, the racist and sexist idea that any type of violence against Black men can be justified by “defending the honor of white women” has led to white women, sometimes deliberately and sometimes through willful ignorance, playing the role of “damsel in distress.” Internalized racism in Black communities can carry real consequences as well—for example, the potential for Black police officers to feel that using violence will “prove” that they are different from the “criminals” who are also Black.
In a thoughtful piece entitled "Why Be a Model Minority When You Could Dismantle White Supremacy?" Dae Shik Kim Jr., whose heritage is both Korean and Black, looked at some of the many factors that may make it difficult for Asian Americans to overcome anti-Black racism. These range from the ideal in some Asian cultures that individuals should not speak out in disagreement with the larger group, to the fact that Asian immigrants may believe the popular American adage that anyone can succeed if they work hard. This may be, in part, because they have heard little about the historical, political, and other barriers that make it difficult for Black Americans to move forward. After all, these things are far less often mentioned than the American Dream version of U.S. history.
Michele Learner is managing editor with Bread for the World Institute.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith.” These words from Colossians 2:6 remind us of the faith that is active in love for our neighbors.
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