The Common Good

The Problem With Systemic Racism...

They say a watched pot never boils. But that's not entirely true. Of course a watched pot boils—it's just that intently watching a pot of water reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit is not an incredibly exciting way to spend your time. And so most people get bored or distracted and end up leaving before it ever reaches the boiling point.

Two pots reach the boiling point. Image courtesy Showcake/shutterstock.com
Two pots reach the boiling point. Image courtesy Showcake/shutterstock.com

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Systemic racism is like a heat source that keeps a pot of water simmering at a constant 211 degrees. Extremely hot, but not quite boiling. Every once in a while the heat gets turned up just a tad—like when a frightened white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shoots a young unarmed black man while his hands are in the air. Or a group of ignorant, overzealous college students from Oklahoma State University create a banner for a football game that makes light of an act of genocide committed against Native Americans by the United States government.

And then the water starts to boil. 

Protests are organized. Twitter goes ablaze. Op-eds are written. Civil rights leaders are given the microphone.

And the temperature is brought back down to 211 degrees.

Even the dominant culture gets caught up in the frenzy. However, their fight is vastly different from the fight of the Native American, African American, Latino, or other minority cultures.

For, while the minority culture is angry because of the entire system of racism by which they are surrounded, the dominant culture is either protesting because one individual committed a single offensive act that caused the equilibrium to be thrown off, or they are completely bewildered that such an "isolated" incident could have caused the water to boil in the first place.

But the goal of the dominant culture, the one that benefits from systemic racism, is not to bring the water down to a reasonable temperature, or even remove it from the fire altogether. Their goal is stop the water from boiling and get it back to a steaming hot simmer.

For to the dominant culture, a simmering pot is normal and even good.

Because the dominant culture primarily sees the problem in the context of the current situation, they attempt to address it not on a systemic basis, but rather on an individual one.

"That officer needs to be disciplined."

"Those students need to be expelled."

And while the minority culture is angry towards the individual, we are more frustrated, and at times even livid, towards the entire system.

The challenge for us is to not allow our immediate anger and frustration towards the individual to cause us to forget the larger goal, which is systemic change.

Systemic change is most likely not going to happen while the water is boiling. Protests, Facebook likes, sit-ins, Op-eds, angry Twitter feeds, and 15-second sound bites on the evening news may help us vent our current frustration, but by themselves are not going to bring about systemic change.

To get systemic change, the conversation needs to go much deeper. The audience needs to be far broader. And the leaders need to be vastly more courageous.

This past weekend, when I saw the banner that some students displayed at the OSU football game which made light of the Trail of Tears, I was extremely frustrated and angry. I felt an incredible desire to say something but was well aware that the student’s banner was merely a symptom of a much deeper, systemic problem. So I created a graphic using the banner the students displayed and adding some comments that connected the banner to the deeper systemic issues:

I posted this graphic on my Facebook and Twitter feeds in hopes that it would be shared, commented on and possibly even make its way into the mass media. But I was not counting on the latter.  An in-depth interview regarding our misinformed national identity, a broken educational system, or the Supreme Court case law precedent based on a Doctrine of Discovery would in no way help ABC, NBC, CBS, or ESPN sell advertising on the opening weekend of the college football season. They would be looking for controversy, not dialogue. Their purposes would be much better satisfied with an angry Indian rather than a weary indigenous host.

But the graphic did get shared many times on social media. I have not gotten an overwhelming amount of feedback on it, but I have received some. And it is my hope that the systemic problems the graphic highlights will open new doors to the much deeper and broader conversations that need to take place.

The crisis of systemic racism is not that the water occasionally boils, but that it is kept simmering at a constant 211 degrees. Working for systemic change is not flashy. It will not get politicians elected, and rarely will it help sell advertising. Most people do not pay attention to things like systemic racism because, after all, a watched pot never boils.

But we all know that’s not true.

Mark Charles is a Sojourners' Emergingthe son of an American mother (of Dutch heritage) and a Navajo father. He lives with his family on the Navajo reservation and seeks to understand the complexities of our country's history regarding race, culture, and faith in order to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation. (Twitter: @wirelesshogan, Web: wirelesshogan.com)

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