To the editor:
A Sept. 24, 2020 letter to the editor of the Alexandria Times was titled, “Alexandria has overcome systemic racism.” The author congratulates the people of Alexandria and their representatives “for overturning the past discrimination that occurred in Alexandria….The days of slavery and slave trading are long gone … the days of Jim Crow and segregation are also long gone. … [Alexandrians] have cause for pride that there is no systemic racism in city government, including its housing, zoning, health and police departments …”
We respectfully beg to differ.
If one accepts a rather common definition of systemic racism – when our institutions, e.g, housing, health, education, banking, etc., have created systems and policies over time that advantage white families over families of color – then one must acknowledge that the vestiges of such racism are present everywhere in the deeply entrenched and disheartening racial disparities and inequities that characterize communities of color, and especially the African American community.
For example, data going back more than two decades confirms that a Black adult in Alexandria is at almost twice the risk of dying prematurely than a white adult of the same age range. Moreover, 43% of the Hispanic population, 31% of Black population but only 5% of whites are with- out health insurance coverage.
A few other glaring inequities help make the case that systemic racism is far from over in the City of Alexandria:
• More than 80% of whites in Alexandria have a college degree or higher, but only one out of three Blacks or Hispanics have a college degree or higher.
• In 2019, 54% of the instances of use of force by the Alexandria Police Department were against Blacks though they represent only 23% of the population.
• In Alexandria, the average Black household has 20% of the wealth of the average white household. With respect to income, non-Hispanic whites earn more than $85,000 a year, compared to $37,000 for Black workers and only $24,000 for Hispanic workers.
Of all the disparities identified above, perhaps none have been as perverse, longstanding and intractable as the racial wealth gap. To that point, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in a June 28, 2020, New York Times Magazine article wrote, “While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today.”
Without significant progress in narrowing and eventually closing the racial wealth gap, success with other key disparities could be greatly marginalized. The conclusion of a recent report by the Institute for Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University stated:
As long as a substantial wealth gap persists, white households will continue to enjoy greater advantages than their black and Latino neighbors in meeting the financial challenges of everyday life and will be able to make greater investments in their children, passing economic advantages on.
The author of the Alexandria Times letter to the editor also points to the removal or repurposing of “many reminders of [our] deplorable past” as further testimony to the absence of systemic racism in the city. These include the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, the removal of the Appomattox statue and the repurposing of the early 19th century slave trading property on Duke Street to a museum that tells the true stories about our city’s slave trading history.
All these actions – including others such as decisions to rename T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School – should indeed be applauded. They are necessary but far from sufficient to the achievement of meaningful and sustainable racial equity in the city. They are the low-hanging fruit on the deeply rooted tree of systemic racism; they are the barriers that must be disposed of before one can even glimpse the daunting work ahead of mitigating and eliminating racial inequities.
Racial equity is achieved when race can no longer be used to predict life outcomes. Because the seeds of systemic racism were planted before our country became a nation, and we still feel its effects today, we must acknowledge that it cannot be uprooted overnight – and not even perhaps within the next decade. But at least for the moment, the winds of change are at our backs and the conversations on racial equity and justice continue to permeate throughout the community.
We hope that the momentum for reform can and will be maintained, so that we can, in the words of NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow, “work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
-Richard E. Merritt, Tavares Floyd, Alexandria