By Zach Ugol
One of the challenges in having discussions around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is in how deeply personal the conversations can be. The words “systemic racism”, “white supremacy”, “white privilege”, etc. carry a lot of weight. It is easy to become defensive; I know I have at times. But in order to engage in discussions around race, I need to not take things personally. As a white male, I need to understand that society is not trying to punish or blame me.
One of the paradigm shifts for me has been beginning to understand the history of racism and learning about the differences between internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism (refer below). The conversations around race are not only around what is happening today, but how the past is impacting what is happening now. Whether we acknowledge it or not, some of the racial challenges facing our society are the reverberations of past racially unjust acts.
A few weeks ago, !mpact Makers brought in Dialectix for our first training session for a small group of employees. The goal of the session was to provide background around DEI and to clarify definitions around certain terms. In order to facilitate meaningful discussions around race, we needed a common language with which to speak. One of the main focuses was around the difference between internalized racism, interpersonal racism, institutional racism, and systematic racism.
- Internalized – within individuals
- Interpersonal – between individuals
- Institutional – within institutions
- Systemic or Structural – across multiple institutions
Since this training session, I have been reflecting on the ways in which the history of racism in the U.S. impacts the present. Though laws and policies may have changed, the decisions made decades ago have a continuing effect on our society at present.
One example (of which I am sure there are more) is with minority owned small businesses impacted by COVID-19. A friend of mine who works at the Federal Reserve of Richmond published research around the importance of small business lending during COVID-19. It seems logical that businesses with access to existing credit products are more likely to survive this economic downturn. The challenge is that minority-owned small businesses “may be at a disadvantage, as these firms are less likely to have an existing credit product – 41 percent of black-owned businesses do not have outstanding debt.” Minority businesses may not be able to obtain loans to keep their businesses afloat or may face higher interest rates because of their lack of credit history (which may discourage them from obtaining a loan). In fact, further research by the Federal Reserve noted that minority owned businesses were less likely to have access to funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as minority owned businesses may not have had established banking relationships with creditors in order to submit their applications prior to funding being unavailable. These issues stem from a lack of a strong and healthy relationship between banks and communities of color.
The question is “Why?” Why don’t minority-owned small businesses have a relationship with a creditor? Perhaps, when they went to secure a loan in the past they were denied because of where their business was located, a lack of collateral, a lack of credit history or low credit score, above average interest rates, or a host of other reasons that disproportionately impacted people of color. And while the policies around lending may have changed years ago, the ramifications of those policies are still being felt. This is an example of systemic racism, where there is no one individual or even group of people responsible – rather, the way in which the system is set up causes a disadvantage for minorities. Which is precisely the challenge in addressing systemic racism; there is no one to blame.
Systemic racism is the hardest to address and correct because of its long-term effects on society. What I have begun to recognize is that in order to address these inequities, we (myself included) need to understand and acknowledge how decisions made decades ago have implications today. We need to take time to listen to history, to understand the root of the challenges facing our society so that we can begin the process of healing and dismantling unjust systems. Until we are honest about the nature and history of the problem(s), we cannot even begin to solve them.