With several publicized deaths of black people by law enforcement in the past few weeks, race relations in the U.S. have once again come to the forefront of the national conversation—though for many, these conversations are always at the forefront. While these discussions have been ongoing for decades, the ability to easily record and share incidents of violence over social media has made these latest instances impossible to ignore.
As an academic anchor institution for the Baltimore area with a focus on community engagement and institutional equity, Towson University is uniquely positioned to work to help our community unpack racism and work to counteract it. I’m sure we’re at least somewhat aware of at least some of the ugliness in our local history, and its scars are still seen today. As a community, we need to talk about it so we can do better.
Before we dive into our exploration of Baltimore, I want to make sure that we are working from a shared understanding of a few key concepts.
Privilege is a trait or characteristic that puts one person at advantage in our society over another person who doesn’t have that trait or characteristic. For example, research shows that obesity discrimination exists in the hiring process: people in smaller bodies have better employment prospects than people in larger bodies, even if the two people have the same qualifications. Similarly, empirical studies show that resumes with “white-sounding” names are more likely to move forward in the hiring process than resumes with “black-sounding” names, even if the resumes are otherwise identical. This is an example of white privilege.
One note on privilege before we move on: privilege does not negate any hardships that you have experienced. Life is hard. However, privilege means that whatever characteristic that you have that gives you privilege is not intensifying the hardships you experience. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summarizes it succinctly in her novel Americanah: “Yes it sucks to be poor and white, but try being poor and non-white.”
Levels of racism
Related to the concept of privilege is the model/construct of levels of racism. In other words, someone who is white is benefitted at each of these levels, while a person of color is disadvantaged at each of these levels.
Individual racism: someone who is flat-out racist
- For example, if someone says, “I won’t vote for him because he’s black,” the white candidate automatically gets a bump; this is white privilege.
Interpersonal racism: someone who treats someone differently because of their race in their interaction
- For example, if someone in a meeting room assumes that the black person in the meeting room is part of the administrative or facilities staff instead of a participant in the meeting, this is a judgement about the person based on the color of their skin. The assumption that a white person in the room is participating in the meeting is white privilege. It is important to note that even if the person does not believe they are racist or does not intend to act in a racist way, the impact of their judgement is still racist.
Institutional racism: a specific policy or action that affects people with different skins differently, even if the policy or action does not “seem racist” on the surface
- For example, standardized test scores highly correlate with race—in that on average, the scores of white students are higher than the scores of black students—but not success in an academic program. Thus, white students are at an advantage when standardized test scores are a large component of the college admissions process; this is white privilege.
Structural racism: when an overarching societal norm affects people differently depending on their race
- For example, 98.7 percent of U.S. presidents been white men. This does not reflect the demographic makeup of the U.S.
- For example, black mothers are 243 times more likely to die in child birth than white mothers. Notably, even Beyoncé and Serena Williams had serious complications with their pregnancies—Williams noted that her medical team ignored her when she told them about her medical history/risk factors. This is white privilege.
While terms and definitions are important, one of the main takeaways from these labels should be that racism isn’t limited to an individual’s personal beliefs or actions. That is, just because someone states that they personally “aren’t racist” or that we live in a “post-racial society” because the U.S. elected one black president, this does not mean that racism does not exist or is no longer prevalent in our lives as U.S. residents.
Understanding the impact on our communities
Our discussion so far has focused on general examples of racism and white privilege. However, the Baltimore area is a particularly good case study to understand these concepts on a local level. Prior independent research that the Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI) has published highlights examples of privilege and racism that exist in Baltimore City. Let’s look at a few examples:
The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) is a ranking that examines the overall quality of life for countries across the globe. The index incorporates scores for health, education, and income/resource availability. RESI applied the principles of this index to neighborhoods within Baltimore City. In addition to TU being a neighbor of Baltimore City (and the city that several members of RESI staff call home), Baltimore City is an excellent example of local-level disparities due to its history of significant racism and discrimination in housing.
Housing covenants and redlining (barring residents from living in certain neighborhoods based on the color of their skin) are examples of institutionalized racism, resulting from a specific set of policies. Though these policies are no longer on the books, neighborhoods in Baltimore City are still highly segregated due to perpetuated systemic racism. Residents have vastly different outcomes depending on where they live and the color of their skin. This systemic racism harms black people and benefits white people, an example of white privilege.
For example, areas that had been redlined (and whose residents are still predominantly white) have much higher HDI scores than areas that were not redlined: put into context, going a few miles across town has differences in quality of life equivalent to a move from Norway to Tunisia. In addition, seven Baltimore City neighborhoods where residents are predominantly black have infant mortality rates equal to or greater than the infant mortality rate of Syria, despite Baltimore City being home to some of the best hospitals in the country and world. These differences in quality of life that we have observed are pervasive and the result of decades of legalized oppression followed by de facto segregation.
In addition to research on conditions in Baltimore City as a whole, RESI has also examined the local workforce and labor market. For example, RESI has conducted research on occupational crowding, which determines if the demographic composition of who works in a specific job matches the demographic profile of everyone eligible for that job (as determined by the required level of education).
Our analysis showed that black residents of Baltimore City tend to be over-represented in some of the state’s lower-wage occupations, such as community and social service and healthcare support and health technicians. Similarly, they are under-represented in some of the state’s highest-wage occupations, such as architecture and engineering, management, and the sciences. While personal preference can definitely play a role in a worker’s interests/educational pursuits, since this calculation takes into account the necessary education, this racial disparity cannot be explained away individual choice—there is systemic racism involved.
Even after acknowledging the forms of systemic racism that have shaped our city and continue to impact our neighbors, there is still much to be unpacked and learned/relearned. As demonstrations take place and we continue to experience a nationwide pandemic that has disproportionately affected black communities, I encourage you to interpret any news stories or articles you see with a critical eye. Additionally, do the work to educate yourself about the role racism and/or privilege has played and will play in our lives as we work towards systemic change.