How Structural Racism Works: Inaugural Lecture

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Last Wednesday, the Martinos Auditorium of the Granoff Center was filled to capacity with students, professors and guests, all of whom were there to attend a lecture by Professor Tricia Rose, the director of the Brown University Center for the Study of Race + Ethnicity in America. In the lecture, Professor Rose described — with the characteristic wit for which she is beloved by colleagues and students — her research and plans for an upcoming public engagement project designed to disseminate academic findings regarding structural racism to the general public. After an introduction by Provost Richard M. Locke that discussed structural racism across the nation, on college campuses, and at Brown itself, Professor Rose took the stage to introduce and summarize the titular “How Structural Racism Works.”

Describing the work as a “visual, cultural, emotional project”, Professor Rose began by acknowledging that, for many, structural racism is difficult to talk about. She proceeded to summarize the post-Civil Rights-era ideological war that has persisted in the United States for the past 40 years, waged between the descriptive reality of structural racism and the prescriptive belief of colorblindness. Colorblindness, long the dominant ideology in America, relies on the idea that race no longer matters and thus that race-oriented programs “to level the playing field suddenly become seen as special privileges”. Professor Rose described the thought process behind the average proponent of this ideology as such: 1) I, and most people I know believe in racial equality. 2) Laws have been changed to end racial discrimination. 3) I don’t see color. 4) I can’t be racist. 5) I get no special treatment based on my whiteness. 6) Therefore, it must be the  behavior of those discriminated against that is to blame.

Other conclusions include that “it must be in their culture” or that “they lack discipline”, stock phrases of colorblindness that work hard to obscure the structural racism that occurs everyday. Such thinking is “at the heart of disbanding/curtailing programs created to redress structural racism”, and relies on the passage of laws – rather than their implementation – as a litmus test for progress. To debunk colorblind ideology, Professor Rose cited just a small array of sources from the “extensive body of scholarly work” that proves the existence of racial disparity (i.e. a 16% unemployment rate for black people in the U.S. in 2010 compared to a nation-wide 11% at the height of the Recession).

Professor Rose also pointed out that colorblind ideology is so fully saturated in the media that, in a recent poll, 61% of whites responded with the belief that racial equality in this country had already been achieved. Responding to the emotional appeal of colorblind ideology, one of the main goals of Professor Rose’s project is to “tell the story of structural racism with that same level of emotional attachment, and sense of urgency… in the efforts to build a large, anti-racist community.” She went on to outline 5 major areas where structural racism is at play:

1) Housing

2) Education

3) Mass Media

4) Wealth/Jobs

5) Criminal Justice

While not specifying all the forms via which the project would be accessible to the mainstream, Professor Rose did speak  of her intention to give a series of spring semester lectures on her project that will address each sphere with more attention and discuss the interplay between them – as well as an additional summary lecture of the sort on Wednesday. Looking forward, regardless of one’s specific feelings on structural racism and/or colorblindness, “How Structural Racism Works” promises to be a useful educational resource and catalyst for discussion and action on a number of racial issues affecting Brown, wider college campuses, and the nation as a whole.