Structural Racism: The Long View
A deliberately misapplied term, “critical race theory,” has recently begun tearing across the U.S., with numerous states (22 to date; the legislation has already passed in 5) having introduced cookie-cutter bills in their state legislatures to “ban” the teaching of this term (or anything it implies) in schools. Will teachers become fearful of addressing topics long considered part of standard grade-and-high school curricula in the wake of this new reign of legislative terror in red states? Will they be forbidden to talk about important figures in U.S. history? Will they no longer feel comfortable introducing long-taught topics (slavery, the three-fifths compromise, the plantation economy, the Missouri Compromise, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, the Great Migration(s), Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Movement – Civil Rights Act/Voting Rights Act/Fair Housing Act, just to mention a few such topics relating to Black Americans)?
The term, which was created in the 1980s in American law schools to refer to laws and their accompanying policies that resulted in unequal treatment of Black and white Americans, has now been co-opted to refer to individual and group behaviors perceived as causing the recipients of these behaviors to suffer in both tangible and intangible ways.
Both are examples of racism, but the term in its original sense referred to structural elements of society codified in law and policy, while the latter refers to attitudes and behaviors which are not – at least in the current dominant discourse – directly connected to the structural elements which may continue to underpin, reinforce, and perpetuate such attitudes, even subconsciously (much of the training is directed towards the latter, with unconscious bias-prejudice being assumed on the part of all white participants in such programs).
Our elite private schools and colleges – and a good many of our public school systems – have been carrying out “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” training for their staffs – not only teachers, but administrators as well. This training is in-house for the most part, but it’s provided by contractors – millions of dollars are being earned by private providers of what should be a public service, assuming it’s to be carried out in a spirit of civic commitment.
There is nothing wrong with seeking out greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in U.S. society at large and in schools (and other publicly-funded institutions) in particular. But what’s the specific goal of this training? Presumably, at least in the case of our public schools, diversity, equity, and inclusion would seek to address in a permanent and enduring fashion – sixty-seven years after the fact – school segregation and its diabolical twin, housing segregation. Ideally, we would be witnessing a massive citizen uprising demanding that all residential housing in the U.S. be henceforth zoned “fully integrated, mixed-income” from the Pacific to the Atlantic. At present, zoning laws and regulations remain (largely) in the control of local jurisdictions – and the idea of zoning for mixed-income, mixed-race housing is anathema in many places, particularly higher-income communities zoned for single family homes.
Rather than seeing some decrease in racial and economic segregation, however, what we are facing is an increase in homelessness and the threat of homelessness once eviction moratoriums run out; we’re facing the planned removal of new homeless encampments in wealthy cities absent any apparent plan for providing the homeless with the one thing they require: housing.
Do you observe any mass movements being undertaken by critical race theory warriors? Abject apologies by transgressors aside, what will happen five years from now, when those who demanded diversity, equity, and inclusion realize that residential housing is more segregated than ever? When they realize that our schools are growing more inequitable and less inclusive? When they realize that the income gap between whites and Blacks (and Hispanics and Native Americans) has continued to widen?
But this has unfortunately been the trend for more than a generation in the U.S., a trend driven largely – though not exclusively – by growing financial disparities between white and Black Americans. “Good schools” are those in middle-class and upper-middle-class, majority white neighborhoods; “bad schools” are those in poorer and majority POC ones. Anyone seeking to purchase a home in a new city has only to study school ratings (conveniently posted on the real estate sites themselves thanks to realtors’ collaboration with Great Schools) to grasp the overall demographics and racial distribution of residents, which correlates with school ratings. Students at wealthy schools, basking in the funding provided by their property tax base, enjoy newer and better-equipped facilities; they are offered both curricular and extra-curricular options aplenty; their parents can pay for extra tuition and outside college counseling to ensure they gain admission to the “right” post-secondary schools. Once these students graduate – with lower levels of debt and better prospects of repaying whatever loans they did take out – the cycle of inequity and exclusion is perpetuated.
Parallel to the emerging discourse – and vociferous counter-discourse – of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training now transpiring all around us are occasional calls by prominent Black writers and intellectuals (and “woke” whites) for reparations. Reparations, however, imply that the U.S. as a society actually do something about the 400+-year legacy of slavery (and, in the case of Native Americans, dispossession, cultural genocide, and actual genocide).
This is proving much harder than paying verbal obeisance to racism’s ugly past and present. One indicative example: the Biden Administration, in its American Rescue Plan (the first of three pieces of legislation; the others are the American Jobs Plan [just passed in greatly truncated form] and the American Families Plan), offered a form of reparations/remediation for Black and other historically-disadvantaged farmers, who were long precluded from USDA and bank loan programs available to white farmers. This is one case of what those who coined the term “critical race theory” were referring to back in the 1980s; another is the fact that domestic workers and farmers were shut out of the Social Security Act of 1935, when most domestic workers / small farmers were Black. The provision, called Section 1005, made $4 billion available to help such farmers obtain pandemic debt relief. But Section 1005 was recently deemed in violation of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause given that it favors Black, Native American, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, and Asian Pacific farmers and “discriminates” against white farmers, who may have suffered equal or greater financial harm in the pandemic. But if the consequences of discrimination cannot be countered by limited, targeted programs such as this one, what form of remedy can Black and other historically-disadvantaged farmers turn to? As David Muraskin, a lawyer for Public Justice representing Black farmers noted in an email, “As the Court recognized, U.S.D.A.’s discrimination against farmers of color was rampant and severe. This loan repayment program was a necessary step towards fixing those harms. To recognize and correct racism is not racist or unconstitutional.”
Essentially the judge (Martha Morales Howard of the U.S. District Court for Florida’s Middle District) was saying “Yes, harmful discrimination took place. But no, there’s nothing we can do to remediate it.” In other words, here we face a right with no path to a remedy, which is itself unconstitutional.
Let’s consider a different case of “structural racism,” this one involving Native Americans. Last month, Canada was shocked (“shocked”) when a graveyard containing the unmarked graves of at least 215 Indigenous children was identified on the grounds of the former Kamloops School in British Columbia. Residential (i.e., boarding) schools, many run by various Christian denominations – most prominently, Catholics – were widespread in both Canada and the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries; many operated for over a century. This week we learned that a second graveyard has been identified in southeastern Saskatchewan on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School; spokespersons for the First Nations have noted that it is probably larger than the Kamloops one (to date, 751 graves identified). Logically, every residential school would have had its own cemetery; Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given an estimated number of deaths of around 3,000 – this is almost certainly far too low, based on a total of 150,000 Native Americans who were sent to such schools.
The object of residential schools in both countries was to “Europeanize” North America’s Indigenous peoples – or at least, that was the purported goal, undoubtedly motivated by racism. Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt’s statement became a motto of sorts for the U.S. treatment of Native Americans over the past two centuries: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” This statement set the tone for residential schools’ philosophy, which was one of cultural genocide.
But there were also significant financial benefits for the government and private entrepreneurs to be gained by forced removal of native children from their natal villages and tribes. As noted in a recent Intercept interview conducted by Naomi Klein with members of the Emanuel family, the net result of forced depopulation of tribal lands was that these lands, once emptied, became available for exploitation. Tribal lands contained enormous wealth both above and below ground: forests (for the timber industry), virgin land (for the agricultural sector), minerals (including the highly sought-after rare-earth minerals used in high-tech manufacturing today), and of course, oil. All these sources of wealth remain economically vital for Canada and the U.S. today.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico), in response to the discovery of the graveyard at the former Kamloops School, this week announced the creation of a special committee, “The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative,” tasked with identifying similar graveyards on the grounds of Indian residential schools (total 357) in the U.S. The committee will be charged with identifying the names, tribal affiliation, and death records of children sent to residential schools in order to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences.”
This is a far more challenging project than the press announcements would suggest. It is estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to U.S. residential schools, some of them hundreds of miles distant from children’s villages. Conditions in the schools, judging from survivor testimony, were horrific: hunger was the children’s ever-present companion, healthcare was minimal or non-existent, brutal punishment was meted out to those who continued to speak their native language, and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were rampant. When a child died, whether due to sickness or abuse, they were sometimes buried in the dead of night – by older children, who were forced to serve as gravediggers – and their graves went unmarked.
Where are the records from these 357 schools kept? Are they in publicly-accessible archives? Are they complete, i.e. do they encompass the full period of operation of each school, with a full record of each child’s admission and course through the school (including details such as date of admission, age upon admission, date of release or date/cause of death)? Does the Church still control the records of the residential schools it operated in the U.S.? The Catholic Church has not been forthcoming about releasing the records of the schools it operated in Canada, where around 60% of all residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, with 47% run by a single order, The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. To date, “the Oblates have refused to release their records to help identify the remains found,” and there is little reason to imagine that the Church will release whatever records they have retained for similar schools in the U.S. Pope Francis, although called upon by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 to issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the abusive regime of residential schools, expressed sorrow but stopped short of an apology.
Assuming records from these 357 institutions can be obtained, what will they reveal? How complete are they? Do they include tribal affiliations, names of natal villages, and native names and ages of the children who were taken there? (There are many problems involving transliteration of Native American names.) Are deaths, departures, etc. fully recorded? While we should assume that every school had a burial ground for children, it is hard to imagine that every death was duly recorded.
The Secretary announced April 1, 2022 (not an auspicious date) as the deadline for receipt of the Report by the members of the Boarding School Initiative. Almost certainly, this deadline will be extended – and, if the Secretary is serious about obtaining access to the greatest number of records, it seems probable that the Department of the Interior/U.S. Government will need to take the Catholic Church to court. Such cases are fraught, exceedingly complex, and drawn-out, and the Vatican, which will be the shadow defendant, has almost limitless resources at its command. The Church has been fighting the release of residential school records for years in Canada, and the playbook for refusal to cooperate in such an investigation is by now well-established.
In other words, the outcome of this newly-announced initiative is by no means given, especially when we recall that the U.S. does not have the benefit of the enormous testimonial documentation by survivors which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission amassed during the seven years it was in operation (2008-2015).
Here are the specific points (#71-76) made by the Canadian Commission upon concluding its work in 2015:
- We call upon all chief coroners and provincial vital statistics agencies that have not provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada their records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential school authorities to make these documents available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
- We call upon the federal government to allocate sufficient resources to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to allow it to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
- We call upon the federal government to work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.
- We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.
- We call upon the parties engaged in the work of documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt strategies in accordance with the following principles:
- The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies.
- Information shall be sought from residential school Survivors and other Knowledge Keepers in the development of such strategies.
- Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery site.
We assume that similar objectives will be set for the American iteration of this initiative, i.e. documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of those cemeteries identified in the U.S. over the coming year(s).
Would these four goals constitute “reparations”? Yes, in some sense – if nothing else, the identification of the graveyards and those buried there would provide a sense of closure for families who have grieved lost children, sometimes for generations. Without closure, we cannot face the future unburdened from pain, anger, and grief.
Is closure sufficient? No. The structural racism illustrated in the century-long history of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans had consequences which live on in the present.
And it is these long-tailed consequences which will demand full remediation.