Voices: Why do Americans tolerate racism?

By Teja Tirunelveli

Black Lives Matter movement calls for fundamental changes to end racism.

As an Indian living in the US during these unprecedented times, I was left disturbed by a recent article suggesting that protests sparked by a reignited Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are an excuse for violence.

In my view, author Ravi Shanker Kapoor’s suggestion that there is no evidence of “systemic racism” in the US paints a misleading picture of race issues prevalent in American society.

Black people have faced these conditions for hundreds of years in the form of racism, slavery, and in today’s world, a system that was built to oppress them.

Racism in America has been around in two forms — systematic racism and systemic racism. Systematic racism is the unaddressed racism in society while systemic racism indicates the laws in American society that oppress Black communities.

To understand systematic racism we can take the example of the Confederate flag. This flag, which has an obvious tie to racism, is normalized within the country, so much so that it was a part of the flag of the State of Mississippi till recently.

People in many states use this offensive flag which symbolizes slavery as a way to “show their patriotism” to America. These acts of plain hatred towards the Black community are swept aside in the name of freedom of speech or, alternately boxed-in as examples of “just a few bad apples.”

The question is why America continues to tolerate these vile acts? Why is it that America, the world’s oldest democracy, cannot condemn these acts the way others have acknowledged their past mistakes and wrongdoings?

In Germany, displaying a Nazi flag is illegal by law and can result in a three-year jail sentence. In the US, however, blatant hatred towards a community is justified under the guise of free speech. As a minority in the US, it has led me to question the moral underpinnings of this society.

While systematic racism continues to be a problem in American society, systemic racism is a notable and arguably a more damaging form of racism against the Black community.

Systemic racism is not racism present in society, but rather perpetrated by the government and other powers. It is better described as a form of oppression that is seen from the presence of a legal system that fails Black communities.

In fact, the legal system has failed to support Black communities with disturbing regularity. According to  Vox  an average Black male worker is paid $891 per week while a white worker is paid $1,128 for the same work.

This racial pay disparity contributes to systemic discrimination and results in Black people having lesser opportunities and resources otherwise available to others.

This has resulted in Black communities living in neighborhoods and attending schools that are underfunded.

Another aspect of systemic racial discrimination in America is that Black people arrested for small crimes such as  possession of marijuana and shoplifting are given disproportionately higher prison sentences of up to fifteen years.

Going back to what rekindled the BLM movement  — the murder of George Floyd — it was another case of the legal system (in this case the police) failing its Black citizens. In the Floyd case, a Black man was suffocated by those who were sworn to protect him.

It would be foolish and ignorant to say that his murder was an anomaly or an accident given the dreadful track record of police across the US  when confronting Black citizens.

The matter of police brutality is a direct example of systemic racism Black Americans endure. To not acknowledge this fact and address this pressing matter puts more Black lives at risk.

As we have seen racism is a complex issue that requires honest discussion and introspection. I believe that one of the best ways to tackle racism would be to start conversations about its history.

Unfortunately, America seems hell-bent on ignoring these issues and events that have shaped American society by casting these important discussions aside.

As a student who studies an American syllabus, I have spent almost a whole semester learning about the World War ll and its atrocities while only spending a chapter on the deeply rooted issues of slavery in American history.

Even then, as this study indicates, the lessons on slavery taught in school are often “fragmentary, without context, and sanitized.” It’s important to teach students uncensored lessons on slavery the way World War ll is taught to them.

This will help eliminate and minimize false interpretations of the horrific acts that Black people have endured. An example of schools sanitizing American history would be them leaving out important moments in Black history such as the celebration of Juneteenth.

Similarly, the Jim Crow era, which was a dark period for Black Americans in which they were discriminated against by federal law, is rarely ever discussed in depth at schools.

We study history to learn from past mistakes but by suppressing important periods that have shaped society today, we will and have been continuing to make the same mistakes.

While schools play the important role of educating the youth, the media has an incredible responsibility in informing the people.

However, it seems the media focuses on big stories that sell and often disregards smaller yet just as important events. For instance, in covering the Black Lives Matter movement, all mainstream media outlets rushed to show the riots while seemingly ignoring hundreds of peaceful protests.

And when the riots subsided and protests became more peaceful, media coverage became sparse even though protests are still going on. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that all protests had an element of violence which takes away the conversation from BLM movement.

The coverage of the protests is just one example of the media providing biased reporting of BLM events. For change to occur, the media needs to responsibly represent all sides of the issues as ground realities and facts are important.

Otherwise people tend to form uniformed opinions leading to a dangerous game.

For decades there have been similar movements in various forms. Yet each time we seem to move on without making changes like the ones called for by the BLM movement.

These can be instituted only by building public opinion, educating ourselves, addressing issues within ourselves and community, not tolerating ignorance and racism in any situation.

And above all voting to make sure that we have leaders who will make the necessary changes. As Martin Luther King said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

Let our generation be the last that tolerates ignorance and the first that causes change.

(Teja Tirunelveli, 15, of Keller, Texas is a Grade 10 student of Indiana University High School.)


What do I have to do with Black Lives Matter? (June 20, 2020)

Black Lives Matter: Are Indian Americans guilty of silence? (June 10, 2020)

A message to the Southeast Asian community regarding the Black Lives Matter movement (June 2, 2020)

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