Utica College Professor Anthony Baird, Hamilton Professor Todd Franklin, and SUNY Polytechnic Institute Professors Mark Montgomery and Ronni Tichenor spoke in a webinar addressing “What is Systemic, or Institutional Racism?” on Sept. 30. This event was part of an ongoing series focused on Racial Justice and Criminal Justice Reform in Oneida and Herkimer counties.

Baird opened the discussion with a presentation that considered the significance of identity and its relationship to race, attributing to such a label as “Black” a variety of potential individual responses ranging from pride and confidence to ambivalence, trauma, and confusion.                                                                                       

racial justice reform series continues on Oct. 7

The webinar series covers Black Lives Matter, police use of force, the treatment of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system, domestic violence, and other issues relevant to effective reform.

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“Racial-ethnic identity confusion is a result of institutional and structural racism and the legacy of slavery,” Baird said, pointing to the multitude of often-derogatory labels that have been used to oppress and discriminate against Black Americans throughout history.

Baird also noted the sensitivity that surrounds the word “racism,” before addressing the webinar’s guiding question. Institutional or systemic racism, he said, is “derogatory treatment, unfair policies and inequities, and inequitable opportunities and impacts based on race, produced and perpetuated by institutions — schools, mass media, etc.” 

Montgomery built on that by saying, “Racism to its very, very essence strips people to the very core of their dignity.” He described it as a process capable of breeding a population to “feel like they don’t matter,” and encouraged conversations that have “empowerment as a cornerstone.” He stressed several times the necessity of including in these “courageous conversations” those who are suffering from the issues being discussed. Only by getting these people “in the room” can the policies that preserve systemic racism be fully understood and comprehensively altered, Montgomery argued.

In further breaking down the webinar’s key question, Franklin emphasized the role of the “problematic patterns” that evidence systemic racism. He highlighted the recent killing of Breonna Taylor as a manifestation of one such pattern: no-knock warrants. Franklin first detailed the history of no-knock warrants, before providing evidence to illustrate that such warrants are both largely ineffective and “disproportionately used in relation to people of color.” Finally, he challenged New Yorkers to voice their displeasure with the legality of no-knock warrants to their respective representatives. 

Tichenor, a sociologist, further substantiated the presence and gravity of institutional racism with a number of statistics. “What we mean by systemic racism is that it touches everything,” she stated, citing a 2018 study looking at EMTs and their administration of pain medication — which was 40% less likely to occur if a victim was Black as opposed to white, for reasons grounded in stereotypes. On a larger scale, Tichenor cited policies that place major polluters in poor neighborhoods of color and the historical discrimination in housing and lending. 

Hamilton Professor of Music Michael “Doc” Woods also featured in the webinar, tying into the conversation traditions of African-American music. He focused particularly on blues, which he characterized as a coping mechanism for decades of injustice and discrimination.

This series of webinars, co-sponsored by the Levitt Center, continues on Oct. 7 and will run into early November. 

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