When Racism Becomes Structural

“Why I can’t buy a home in certain neighborhoods escapes me. My husband and I were driving through a nice, quiet, somewhat upscale neighborhood one day and saw a for-sale sign out front. It was perfect. We stopped the car, and got out. We began to look around the outside of the house after going to the front door and no one had answered our knocks. No more than five minutes had passed and I felt eyes peering upon us. When I located those eyes, next door curtains closed. Two minutes later, a middle-aged woman came out of her home and asked us the reason we were walking around their neighbor’s property.

We explained that we were drawn in by the sign on the lawn. I have great credit, a well-paying job and career. I dress professionally at least six out of seven days each week. My family consists of myself, 37, a Clinical Psychologist, and my two children, all straight ‘A’ students. My husband, 38, is a  successful attorney. We also have a family pet-a Poodle. My husband drives a Tesla and me, an Audi SUV. We are well-spoken, and my children are well-mannered.

We can easily afford to live in this community comfortably. We simply grew tired of the apartment life, a Condominium actually. Our goal is to fully embrace the American Dream. We want a sprawling front lawn, backyard, a built-in pool, and we want our children to be able to run around safely, in their own space. City living can be hazardous, as nice as it may be in close proximity to everything ‘metropolitan’.

man wearing graduation gown

I still have student loans to pay off, but my credit score is 720; my husband’s is 785. Somehow none of this is enough to purchase a home in the community of our choosing.” At this point, surely you have figured out that something is indeed wrong with this scenario. There is some unseen force at work here. “The woman and other neighbors who had come to surround us in a crowd, were nice enough. In fact, they had already assumed that we purchased the home already. There was hope, we thought. Next thing is to approach the real estate agency who listed the property.

We were pre-qualified for a mortgage for $725k, but by the time we finished speaking with the Realtor, we were very discouraged. Suggestions were given, directing us to look for homes in different areas. The house that we wanted was the very last property shown to us. On paper, we were fine, but it seemed like, once we stood before the agents, even the banker found it difficult to approve us for that mortgage. But, we were approved nonetheless.”

This represented the story of a young African-American couple, as it was told to me. What was happening here is that racism had grown to enter structures, systems, policies and practices. Most importantly, racism had seeped into people’s perspectives. The thing is, however, the neighbors whom we met that day were indeed gracious and seemed open to the possibility of us, as new neighbors. It became clear that the openness didn’t apply to structural frameworks already embedded into practices. Laws had changed, but yet not enforced because, no one speaks about the racism that is subtle.

When we talk about race, we don’t mean a biological or genetic category. It is a way of interpreting differences between people which creates or reinforces inequalities among them. Race is an unequal relationship between social groups, represented by the privileged access to power and resources by one group over another. Race is socially constructed, created and recreated by how people are perceived and treated in the normal actions of daily life.

Expressions of racism have evolved markedly over the course of our history, from slavery through Jim Crow through the civil rights era to today. Racism in the 21st Century is harder to see than its previous incarnations because the most overt and legally sanctioned forms of racial discrimination have been eliminated.

Nonetheless, subtler racialized patterns in policies and practices permeate the political, economic and socio-cultural structures in America in ways that generate racialized differences in well-being between people of color and whites. These differences continue to determine where we are allowed to live and how we live. Where our children learn and the resources they are given to support their learning. Many times, where we work and how much we are paid is impacted and influenced by race.

These dynamics work to maintain the existing racial hierarchy even as they adapt with the times to accommodate new racial and ethnic groups. This contemporary manifestation of racism in the U.S. can be called Structural Racism, systems embedded with rules from the past. At this level of society’s consciousness, housing is still not the only aspects of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, impacted, guided and influenced by ‘subtle’ racism. Those old policies continue to reinforce and be reinforced by perspectives which allow practices to remain unchanged, in part through what we label ‘implicit bias’ and fear,’white fragility’. It becomes so steeped in our consciousness that these biases become subconscious.

At this deep level is where one is absolutely unaware of their roles and contributions to structural racism. What’s a citizen to do to feel a part of this nation’s fabric, when the fabric continues to be denied to certain groups because of the amount of melanin or texture of hair? Even the sounds or spelling of names, monikers, influence decisions, policies and practices. When structural racism can’t be seen, not at all does it mean that it doesn’t exist.

a woman and a young man smiles

We can’t accurately determine or presume to know the quality of any person’s daily experiences until and unless our eyes and minds are open enough to empathetically step into their shoes. Convenient unawareness neither validates nor excuses selective inattention to the lives of others or the injustices in systems over which they have no control.

In the end, this couple bought an even bigger home, on a lovely tree-lined street, in a community nicely sprinkled with diversity. Their next door neighbors are Jewish, and across the street lives an Italian family. Down the block are families from the Caribbean, too. With a few African-American families, this little slice of democracy is a true melting pot, similar to the way I grew up.

Their neighbors are open-minded, have broad worldviews, are very friendly and are respectable and respectful homeowners. They led a wave of home improvement projects in that block. Their home, purchased at $640k, three years later is now worth $1.6 million[true story]. Neither the neighborhood nor the neighbors suffered from adding another color to the community’s rainbow. It thrived in spite of external forces fueled by structured racism. Why can’t this describe MORE neighborhoods across and around this country?


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