Recently, while in the Central Campus Recreation Building, I heard a student say “Man, we can’t beat them. They’re black.” I was startled at the blatant racism of this statement, especially in this nation, on this campus.
As someone contemplating a history major, I reflected on the progress of race relations in our country. I started with colonization. Many people voyaged to America in search of religious tolerance. They wanted to build a “city on a hill” — a society others would emulate. However, the first settlers quickly started harming the native population. Later, the original U.S. Constitution allowed the practice of slavery while counting African Americans as three-fifths of a person. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln finally banned slavery with the 13th Amendment. One hundred years later, segregation was abolished.
Now Americans are slipping under a veil of ignorance, believing our nation is free, equal and colorblind. This perspective is wrong. Immigration issues, crime rates, inner-city problems and negative stigmas define America’s race problem.
I was astonished to find a stark presence of racism on campus. Students leaving the tutelage of their parents for the first time can formulate and espouse their own views freely. Many, including myself, have ingrained perspectives and views of race that lead to biased attitudes. Everywhere I go — the CCRB, my classes, my dorm — I hear nonchalant racist jokes and comments. I’m a perpetrator myself sometimes, though I try not to be. Obviously racist comments are dismissed as jokes, when in reality these attitudes are anything but. I believe many of these offhand remarks are formed by stereotypes and observations of society, but the habits and tendencies of other people aren’t a basis for racism.
The research I do surrounding the effects of government agencies on race relations has taught me that institutionalized racism leads to many biases and causes many of America’s societal ills, including segregated communities and poor urban neighborhoods with high crime rates. Institutionalized racism can clearly be seen in the criminal justice system. A multitude of sentencing policies and punitive laws were enacted after the civil rights movement. The 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York established harsh mandatory sentences for those caught with illegal drugs. More than 90 percent of those arrested under the new laws were black or Latino Americans. These laws were the start of a drug war, with other states and eventually the federal government following suit. According to The Sentencing Project, in 2011 America incarcerated more people per 100,000 than any other country in the world. Additionally, one in three blacks are likely to be arrested, as compared to one in 17 for whites.
America’s criminal justice system is clearly facing massive challenges. High incarceration rates and even higher prison populations are just a few of the many consequences of our government policy. Furthermore, incarceration keeps inner-city communities in stagnant despair and reinforces harmful stereotypes. The criminal justice system disproportionately re-incarcerates felons as well. According to a 2012 New York Times article, there are approximately five million people in the United States who have committed a felony and, as a result, are unable to vote. In this way, the institutional racism evident in our nation’s criminal justice system exacerbates America’s problem with race.
Everyone — the government and even students here at the University — must strive to change the path of our country and work toward complete freedom and equality. Student organizations like The Detroit Partnership and the Understanding Race Project are great first steps. All stereotypes and prejudices against race must be transcended by tolerance and acceptance. Hopefully, historians will look back and reflect on this era as a time when this campus, this country, became a “city on a hill” — a society that treats all races, all people, as equal humans.
Sam Mancina is an LSA freshman.