Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism

Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism

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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a critical race and gender scholar at the City University of New York

The United States thrives on being a multicultural and diverse society that guarantees individual freedoms and rights to all its citizens. However, even though the brutal institution of slavery and the era of racial segregation are a thing of the past, there are indications that systemic racism hasn’t gone away and still haunts American society.

In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to probe the causes of the 1967 race riots and come up with recommendations for the future, concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost half a century after those protests and despite the progress made, America is still a land of inequalities. According to Pew Research, 92% of African Americans think that “whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that blacks do not have,” and 68% say that whites “benefit a great deal.”

People of color in the United States face serious difficulties in securing education, employment, health care and quality housing. They have long been grappling with discrimination and profiling by law enforcement. It goes without saying that the criminal justice system is also substantially biased against people of color, and African Americans in particular. This is evidenced by figures showing that despite making up only 13% of the general population, African Americans constitute 40% of the prison population in the United States.

Many thought that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a turning point for race relations. But talking points about a post-racial America were hushed by a wave of police brutality across the country that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked violent protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson reminiscent of the civil rights era. Today, under Obama’s successor President Donald Trump, America is hardly a color-blind, tolerant society. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump’s coming to power. White supremacists have been emboldened, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more widespread.

Dr. Tsedale Melaku is a sociologist, critical race and gender scholar, and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City University of New York. Her latest bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, was published earlier this year.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tsedale Melaku about race relations in America today, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypes that still engulf the question of race.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Some scholars I’ve talked to are of the opinion that it’s not easy being black in 21st-century America, and that racism is an obstacle to the black Americans’ access to quality education, health care, housing, and job opportunities. Do you agree?

Tsedale Melaku: The pervasiveness of structural racism is clearly evident in the multitude of studies that indicate the wealth gap between white and black households play a critical role in how American families are able to obtain employment, housing, quality health care, education and economic upward mobility. Just looking at the poverty rate in varying neighborhoods demonstrates significant racial disparities between black and white children.

For example, the average middle-income black child resides in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate as compared to a low-income white child. This significantly affects the life chances of black children. Another example of where hardship can be evidenced is through the recent article by sociologists Melvin E. Thomas, Richard Moye, Loren Henderson and Hayward Derrick Horton. In this study, they examine the combined effects of race, class and residential segregation on housing values for blacks versus whites resulting from the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession.

In addition to these factors and many more, I think the political climate we are in has not made it easy for people of color as a whole, but black people in particular, to live their everyday lives without the constant threat of structural, symbolic or physical violence that may be visited upon them through unfair policies and practices in place that continue to block access to necessary resources. So yes, I do agree that being black in America is still not easy, and will not get any easier until we address systemic issues of racism, sexism and classism.

Ziabari: How is it possible to debunk the myths and stereotypes that generate gendered racism and create barriers to African American women’s employment and professional development? What is the role of the media in perpetuating or downplaying these stereotypes?

Melaku: First, we need to acknowledge that these stereotypes and myths are part of a broader narrative created to keep marginalized groups in subordinate positions. Understanding that a white racial frame — an extensive viewpoint including racial stereotypes, assumptions, narratives and interpretations embedded within the minds of whites that people of color can also adopt — views whites as superior and the racially oppressed as inferior. This frame is used to justify continued white privilege and dominance.

My bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, based on extensive interviews with black women lawyers, highlights how race and gender create barriers to their recruitment, professional development and advancement to partnerships in elite corporate law firms. Through in-depth analysis I discuss how their experiences center around systemic gendered racism embedded within institutions. The book covers topics including appearance; white narratives of affirmative action; the differences and similarities with white women and black men; exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities — the “Boys’ Club” — and the lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training. I work to highlight the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Black women’s social identity creates unique daily racial and gendered microaggressions, which also manifest in their professional, social and economic development.

This is key when thinking about the ways in which black women, and other women of color, face significant challenges conforming to and maintaining a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in the workplace, as well as how this white racial framing impacts the perceived ability, competence and subsequent recruitment, training, development and promotion of this demographic.

The image of a lawyer does not invoke the image of a black woman because media representations of professional people tend to be white, and mostly male. Only recently have we begun to see images of black women in powerful lawyer positions in the media thanks to Shonda Rhimes, like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, but there continues to be a disconnect between media representations and actual perceptions of black women’s reality.

Ziabari: In recent years, there were several instances of US police using violence against and mistreating African American men and, in cases like that of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and E. J. Bradford, killing them. Do you think the law enforcement system in the United States is particularly biased against black citizens?

Melaku: The police shooting of any person should concern all people, and we need to ensure that the people who are in a position to protect and serve are doing just that. Countless studies have shown that there is significant bias in law enforcement that makes people of color, and black men in particular, vulnerable. For example, the work of Gaurav Jashnani, Priscilla Bustamante and Brett G. Stoudt examine how order maintenance policing approach — also linked to “broken windows” policing — incorporated by urban law enforcement has a disproportionate impact on the experiences of low-income people of color.

The lived experience of people of color is centered in this research to evidence how stops, ticketing, and arrests by urban law enforcement negatively affect communities of color, leading to unwanted criminal identities that continue to pathologize black and brown people and push them out of public space. I strongly urge that we continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and government officials about the seemingly unaddressed violence, policies, and practices that are visited upon marginalized groups, and black people in particular.

Ziabari: Has the Black Lives Matter movement been able to fulfill its goals, including bringing anti-black racism to the attention of politicians and combating racial inequality, profiling, and police brutality? What’s your assessment of what this movement has gained in the years since its founding?

Melaku: The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad-based social movement that works toward campaigning against systemic racism that disadvantages black people actively pursuing human rights through a variety of ways, including advocacy, activism, education and consciousness-raising, among others. The movement attempts to publicize often unrecognized challenges black people encounter, ranging from poverty, racial profiling, gender violence, mass incarceration and various other forms of racial inequality in the US.

More research is needed to understand the importance of the movement in highlighting the disparities black men and women face in America. While this is outside my field of expertise, existing academic work is being done to understand the successes and opportunities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholars such as Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Frederick C. Harris, Dr. David Pate, and Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., work to engage real conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the long historical reasoning behind the disparities reflected in the black experience and what could be done to make changes.

Ziabari: Are you concerned about the spillover of anti-black attitudes from the United States to other countries? In October 2016, a United Nations working group issued a warning about systemic anti-black racism in the criminal justice of Canada. What’s your take on that?

Melaku: Without question, there will always be concern about the political response of the United States and what that means for its citizens at home and abroad, as well as people of color in other countries. As a powerful and influential leader in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are always working toward equality and justice for all people. We need to hold true to the principles that we espouse. Black and brown people across the US and beyond protest due to the persistent frustration and anger over pervasive institutional and individual discriminatory practices they face on a daily basis which is fueled by growing anti-black sentiments.

Ziabari: How do you think the artists, media personalities, journalists and academicians can contribute to addressing racism and eradicating different forms of discrimination against people of color?

Melaku: I think all of us need to engage in more critical discussions about the implications of our actions and particularly the ways in which systemic racism penetrates all institutions, creating unjust and unequal outcomes for people of color. In addition, there has to be the recognition that this is work that should not only fall on the shoulders of people of color but all people because this is a human rights issue. Further, people who are in positions of power should use their influence in order to move the needle further toward reaching more substantive changes in the lives of people who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and its impact on their social, professional, educational and economic life chances.

Ziabari: A recent Government Accountability Office report found that black students in K-12 schools in the United States are far more likely to be disciplined for different types of maltreatment than those of other races. Does this indicate that racial inequality in the United States starts in the schools?

Melaku: This is a great question that many scholars have taken up within their research in various ways. Take the work of Dr. Carla Shedd for example. She published a very important bookUnequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Justice, that provides an incredibly in-depth analysis of how class stratification, racial residential segregation, and disinvestment in public goods such as education, social support, etc., in Chicago have deleterious effects on the life chances of adolescents. Dr. Shedd particularly highlights how schools either emphasize or improve the varying social inequalities that shape the lives of students from marginalized backgrounds.

In contrast, my research focuses on schools as paths to mobility instead of pipelines to prison. Racial inequality does not begin, nor does it end, in schools. The black women I study earn positions in top law firms because of their academic successes, but racial and gendered inequality persists even in those contexts, which speaks directly to the systemic nature of racist and sexist practices embedded within varying forms of institutions.

Ziabari: According to a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans believe racism remains a “major problem” in society. Only 3% of respondents said they believe racism doesn’t exist in the United States. To what extent does racism affect social relationships in America today?

Melaku: It is important for us to look at history, and the history of race and ethnicity in particular, when attempting to understand the current cultural, social, political and economic climate in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, built on indigenous people’s land and stolen people’s labor, with a distinctive history of controlling migration according to racial and ethnic framing and preferences. In recognizing this history, we must come to accept that the optimistic and often rosy image of US equality and freedom glosses over continuing discriminatory practices embedded and widespread in institutions, from housing, employment, education, political and economic structures.

Social relationships are driven by the ways in which race, gender, class and other important identities intersect, combine or overlap to either privilege those in positions of power or oppress those viewed as inferior. As evidenced in my research, the way social identity affects the experiences of women and people of color is indicative of the fact that we still have a long way to go. This dynamic significantly impacts social relationships in America today, as [it has] in the past.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

From a black male teacher: Don’t make me the default disciplinarian

PHOTO: Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat


My first day in the classroom is one I’ll never forget. I was given a room of curious sophomore students — 43 of them.

I could feel the lump in my throat and every drop of sweat on my body. I was used to public speaking, and I felt good about what I would be teaching. But in that moment before the first bell rang, I actually thought about walking out.

When the bell rang, I called for the attention of the room. Most of the students didn’t even hear me. I called out again, a little louder. Now more students looked at me, but with some side-eye and a few dismissive smirks. Their conversations continued.

I had little to no control over the classroom and it was only the first two minutes. So, I did what any good teacher does who doesn’t know what they’re doing … I acted like I did.

I stepped out from behind the lectern and walked to the middle of the room. “My name is Mr. Miller, and this is research and study skills. I don’t repeat myself, so if you fail to listen, you will fail. If you don’t work in this class, you will fail. If you give me your butt to kiss, I’ll draw a butt and lips on your report card next to your F.”

Some kids laughed, and others rolled their eyes. They knew they were in for a long semester, and so did I.

But through all of the laughs, head-shaking moments, phone calls home, and “come to Jesus” conversations to come, I grew into my role. It was a combination of teacher, mentor, cheerleader, father figure, critic, guidance counselor, advocate, and even social worker. I found that Dr. Brooks, my grad school teacher who encouraged me to enter teaching, was telling the truth — there was a need that I could help fill.

I soon realized that my school’s administration saw another need I could fill: disciplinarian.

I developed a rapport with my students over time and I showed them respect. I earned their trust and collaboration, and that meant I rarely called down to the main office over a student. I did my best to handle things on my own. Being a Black man from Camden, like my kids, didn’t hurt.

But that, being a Black man from Camden, also qualified me for an invisible tax.

I was the only Black male teacher in my building, the high school. Black males made up only 3% of teachers in the schools where I taught at that time; as of last school year (2018-19), they made up only 1.7%. Currently, Black male teachers only account for 2% of all teachers nationally.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the students where I taught, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were students of color.

I now believe it’s why I, a first-year teacher, was given a class of 43 students, often without an aide to assist. The next semester, I was given freshman classes with some of the more “challenging” students. The principal told me she knew I could handle it.

I was a first-year teacher, but it didn’t matter. I was the Black teacher.

I was given lunch duty with more passive teachers. Some days, I was the only teacher. Whenever there was a commotion in the hallways and I was near, I was always asked to see about it and break it up. I did what I could, but I cannot say that I wasn’t frustrated.

Teachers often serve as hall monitors and are often called upon to help out. I understood that, but I was no fool. I knew who the strong teachers were and who the weak teachers were, and I was never paired with a strong teacher for any disciplinary purpose. I saw other adults breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me come around the corner. I am not sure what they all thought, but I was not their savior, nor was I trying to be.

Black teachers enter the profession because they want to help students succeed. Research shows that not only do Black students prefer Black teachers, but that Black students perform better academically with a teacher of the same race, that Black students are more likely to go to college when they’ve had at least one Black teacher, and Black teachers are less likely to suspend Black students.

However, Black teachers often leave the profession because they are seen and overused as disciplinarians while receiving very little support from administrators, among other reasons.

So if you start this school year with a Black teacher or Black male teacher in your building, and you wish to support that teacher and keep them as part of your school community, keep the following things in mind.

Black teachers are not the school’s de facto disciplinarians. They are not the enforcers of the schoolwide discipline policy. They are not the default representative for all Black people. If they go above and beyond for students, that does not absolve others from doing their jobs.

Black teachers do share a collective experience with other Black students, but don’t assume that we are all the same. Use our cultural knowledge to improve the climate and culture of the school community. But don’t abuse it, whether from the classroom or the main office.

I ended my first year feeling drained but accomplished. I grew as a professional and I grew in my craft. I understood that I brought value to my school community. The school community saw my value.

But I continued to be taxed, and I was my entire teaching career. Today, I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss that.

This article was originally published on

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He last wrote for Chalkbeat about walking his Camden students’ neighborhoods with his colleagues. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.