Alvin Brooks: Dismantling the American Racist System
The American Racist System
A while back, while I was searching for material for the memoir I was preparing, I ran across an article I had written for The Kansas City Call, the Black weekly newspaper, at the request of the late Miss Lucile Bluford, managing editor. It was the first week of February, 1970 — and we were about to celebrate "Black History Month" for the first time. Before then, the observance had always been called "Negro History Week," founded in 1926 by the African American historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Except on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I would often stop by The Call office just to chat. Wednesdays and Thursdays were preparation for Friday’s distribution.
But this time, one Monday, was different. Something was heavy on my mind. So I spoke with Miss Bluford about my frustration. What difference would it make to us African Americans by renaming “Negro History Week” to “Black History Month”? Would we become more conscious of who we were? Would we read and discuss more about our history with understanding and pride, and challenge school districts to include African Americans in the teaching of American history to show the debt America owes to us? Would we as adults and students be encouraged to read the works by numerous African historians? If none of the above took place during this designated month, was the week itself long enough? Ordinary reading is not sufficient. What needs to be addressed is how Blacks have been deliberately left out of full participation from the beginnings of this nation, how Blacks were never intended to be equal in America’s racist system.
After monologuing for about forty-five minutes Miss Bluford responded, "This thing is really worrying you, ain’t it, Brooks? You’ve been giving this a lot of thought and analyzing this system?"
I said, "Yes ma’am." I went on to say, "Miss Bluford, unless white folks who created this racist system, admit that their ancestors created it, and now commit to change it, we’ll be in the same condition fifty to hundred years from now. Black folks don’t have the power to change the whole racist system. We need to acknowledge, to understand that we are victims of the system. We certainly have a role to play in making change, but it must be white society that makes conscious, substantive change. All the laws and marches won’t demolish the racist system. White folks need to take an honest, critical analysis of this racist system without becoming defensive, and be truthful about what they see. Then do an honest self-analysis and ask the question, 'Am I a racist?' And recognize that their witness allows them to be beneficiaries of that American racist system."
Miss Bluford said, "Brooks, if you put what you’ve said in writing and get it to me early next week, I’ll publish it and do an editorial on it the following week."
I thanked Miss Bluford and told her I would put my thoughts and analysis together and get them to her in writing. I did February 10, 1970. The article appeared Friday, February 12, 1970. As promised, Miss Bluford followed up with an editorial the next Friday. What I’ve written below in part comes from the original article as I wrote it. I would have enclosed a copy of the original in its entirety, but although it’s covered with a thin layer plastic for protection, it is nonetheless yellowed, brittle, and in some places very difficult to even make out the words. So, after re-reading as much of it as I could, I was prompted to update it fifty-years later. This allows me to segue into this —
An Analysis of America’s Structural Racist System As Viewed and Experienced By an Eighty-Eight Year Old Black Man Some Fifty Years Later, 1970—2020
Some fifty years ago I was thirty-seven years old. Today, I’m eighty-eight. For the past half-century, I’ve witnessed civil rights laws passed, often, it must be noted, with opposition. I’ve witnessed protests and marches for civil and human rights. I’ve even led a few. These and many other efforts, all to make America "a more perfect union." (I've also witnessed the starting of a riot by local police, the suppression of voting rights, and many other efforts to drag us backwards.)
Some strides have been made in the name of equal opportunity; Black/white relations have improved; public accommodation and fair housing laws have been passed and are enforced.
Locally, for example, Kansas City has elected two Black mayors; since the majority of the city is white, this has been possible only with some white support. The first Black police chief, after retirement, became the first Black county sheriff. There are a few more Black officers, and several have been promoted to high ranks. A recent city manager was Black. Kansas City City Hall looks racially different since I was appointed the first Black department head in 1968 following the riot after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there’s still racism in both the Police Department and at City Hall.
There have been Black school superintendents appointed to many of what used to be suburban school districts. But because of white flight, these districts have become urban school districts with majority students of color.
Nationally, in 2008, we elected Barack Obama, the first Black President. (I was his spokesperson for the western district of Missouri.) Shortly after Obama took office as President, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, with group of prominent Republicans including Newt Gingrich, determined to deny the new President any achievements and make him a one-term President. Were these Republicans determined to keep Obama down because Obama was a Democrat? NO! Was it because he had served in the Senate with McConnell? NO! Was it because Obama was highly educated, bright, articulate. NO! Was it because his wife, Michelle, was beautiful, also highly educated and articulate. NO! Was it that the Obamas were the parents of two beautiful daughters?
NO! Then the only thing left to notice is that Obama was Black! McConnell and others were protecting that Structural Racist System. During this time, Donald J. Trump was denying the citizenship of Obama by saying he was not born in the United States and was not entitled to be President.
In spite of McConnell’s (and his colleagues’) declaration, there were many of us, both Black and white, who thought this new presidency was the beginning of a reformed nation headed towards "a more perfect union." Despite eight years of a Black President and more Blacks being elected to Congress, we found that the System was not being dismantled. The American Structural Racist System had only been protected, and in some ways even furthered and extended.
Yes, over all, I’ve witnessed progress. But inequality remains, in both public and private sectors. For example, now seven of the 615 billionaires are Black (that’s about 1.1% ). But none of this and what successes we’ve had have brought us really much closer to "a more perfect union" that includes African Americans. We will never reach that goal until white Americans recognize and admit, as we African Americans can’t forget, that America’s Structural Racist System was never intended for full access and equal involvement in the American government and society. It was designed to keep society in tiers, to reward whites, and often to blame Blacks.
The answer to our future lies in dismantling the System, little by little. Our white brothers and sisters must work towards dismantling America’s Structural Racist System, sometimes with us, but it is their responsibility as the privileged ones to rid the System which has victimized Blacks. Only a more inclusive system can yield a true democracy.
To my dear white brothers and sisters: before you completely turn me off and stop reading my analysis, hang in here with me just a little longer while I make my case plainer, from an undisputed documented history of the American System written by open-eyed, honest white historians who demonstrate how we the nation was formed with a racist structure.
When the European so-called settlers came to what was termed the New World, they began wars against the indigenous peoples (sometimes called the First Nations, American Indians, or Native Americans) and to force them from their sacred tribal grounds. Remember, before the white man arrived, there was already a great civilization on this continent of some sixty million indigenous First Nations people in hundreds of different tribes.
The whites decimated them with diseases and eventually with alcoholism and guns. Eventually the United States government forced them to relocate by the thousands through the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830; this confiscation of their land violated treaties, and led to what became known as the Trail of Tears, all so the Southern states could have the Native Americans’ land. (Andrew Jackson was the President who signed the Indian Removal Act; Donald J. Trump featured his portrait in the Oval Office.)
So Native Americans, often regarded as savages, not worthy of being considered fully human, were killed or removed from the land the whites wanted. Another group, Black people, were imported to be enslaved as less than human beings. Historically Jews, and especially in recent years, Asian Americans and Hispanics have also been subject to severe prejudice and oppression. Even more recently, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and many other groups have similarly been targeted.
American slavery began in 1619 when Africans were brought to what was still considered a newly-discovered continent. The acts against these human beings initiated the formation of the American Structural Racist System. But what was etched in stone that formed this System, and undergirded it and sustained it, follows.
It’s in black and white. The American Structural Racist System is etched in what became known as the Charters of Freedom.
First, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. The first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson; with some changes, it was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. The Declaration says, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this America’s promissory note. He said: "This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned."
As King explained, this first charter of liberty did nothing itself to dismantle to system of racism. Blacks and American Indians were not recognized even as fully human in 1776.
Second, THE CONSTITUTION. Following the Articles of Confederation which were effective in 1781, but which proved unworkable, the Constitution established a federal government in 1787. Did this apply to Native Americans and African slaves? No, the racist system was still in place. To increase the political power of slave-holding states, a compromise had to be made to get agreement from northern and southern states in determining Congressional representation in the House of Representatives by means of the infamous "Three-Fifths Clause" — Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3. It established the counting of slaves as three-fifths of free persons — of course free persons meant primarily whites. Though slaves were not citizens and could not vote, this compromise gave the slave-holding South enough representation to defeat various efforts to abolish slavery.
One can see who had the power. Although the importation of slaves ended in 1807, this made no change to the status of those still victimized as slaves who could be bought and sold as property, mere chattel, not considered fully human.
Three, THE BILL OF RIGHTS. James Madison was the architect of this document. In 1791 the Bill of Rights was ratified. The first ten Amendments guaranteed civil rights and liberties to individuals, such as freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion, and also established due process. Were Native American or slave recipients of these guarantees?
The answer, of course, to the question asked regarding all three of the Charters of Freedoms is No, No, No.
To summarize: Blacks were slaves. Chattel. Not considered fully human. In America as it formed, slavery was practiced in both North and South.
Native American tribes comprised their own nations with distinct governments empowered to regulate their own internal affairs within the United States with which the Federal Government made treaties — which the whites violated over and over again. Native Americans were called savages if they refused to follow the laws written against them. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Indian Removal Act which violated treaties and forced the Cherokees and others from their land, leaving in a Trail of Tears, with thousands dying on the way westward. Those Native Americans who willingly did as told by the politicians were known as "Good Indians."
President Lincoln’s executive order, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the three Constitutional Amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th, after the end of the Civil War, were designed to give equality to the freed slaves. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and those that followed including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 almost a century later, were all designed to bring equality to the descendants of America’s slaves.
The 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Schools said, "racial segregation in public education in America is unconstitutional. Therefore, the states should end segregation with 'all deliberate speed.'" This Court struck down the 1896 "separate but equal" doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. I was a sophomore at the all-Black Lincoln Junior College when the Brown case was handed down that May. I will never shall forget what Professor Girard T. Bryant said in our history class, "It won’t mean a damn thing unless white folks do what they are supposed to do: accept the Supreme Court ruling and abide by it seeing that our Black kids get equal education that white kids do. But I doubt if they will. They’ll run to the suburbs to avoid integration and we will continue to have second-class all-Black schools."
How right you were, Professor Bryant. Nothing has occurred Since white Europeans discovered the so-called "New World." The racist system continues. Whites continue to be the beneficiaries of that system.
The control of that system lies in the hands of those who have economic and political power. The civil rights laws, the marches, the slogans are certainly important and should continue as needed, but they haven’t and won’t change America's Structural Racist System. Passing civil rights laws, conducting marches and protests have not achieved full equality. Whether our white brothers and sisters know it or not — a few possibly do — they are the recipients of the benefits of that Structural Racist System on a daily basis. It’s passed on generation after generation. That Structural Racist System has developed into what we call "white privilege."
Now that I’ve used America's history to describe the foundation for America’s Structural Racist System, I’d like to further share my analysis of what sustains and undergirds it — America’s institutions. Let me name five. I began by thinking about three — economic, political, and social institutions. I added as a forth, religion, after sharing my thoughts with a good friend of mine, Father Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University. Father Curran is convinced that religion has been an institutional enabler of racism. And while working on this paper, I discussed it with a Kansas City Star reporter, Mará Rose Williams. She suggested adding the media to my list of institutions that are part of America’s Structural Racist System. The media's influence shapes and sustains people's opinions.
The question must be asked then, which of these institutions is most important to sustain this System and who controls it. I’m convinced that the most important institution of the five is economic. Economic power is money. And who controls the money in America? White Americans. It is my opinion that whoever controls the wealth also controls the political and social institutions. As Father Curran stated, religion weaves itself through these institutions. As Ms. Williams stated the media supports these institutions.
Further evidence that the America's Structural Racist System is intact and accomplishes what it was formed to do, look at the long and continuous disparities at the national, state, and local level: Wealth (economics), public education of Black, health care, employment, housing, the criminal justice system (police, prosecutions, courts, juries). Economic development in the Black community and property ownership in well-defined ghettos remain a problem.
Under those institutions (economic, political, social, religious, the press) that undergird America’s Structural Racist System are what I call "subsidiaries." I contend these subsidiaries reflect and carry out the same racist behavior and end results as the System and its institutions. Examples, police departments, school systems, businesses, lending companies, just to name a few.
How difficult would it be for our nation to move towards ridding itself of its Structural Racist System? Since the System, the institutions, and the subsidiaries are maintained by human beings, the first thing at each level has to happen is there must be a recognition, a declaration, that there does exist a Structural Racist System.
Then those persons so privileged have to engage in self-examination and admit that at each of these levels racism exists, and that they are part of maintaining it, and are the beneficiaries of it. I want to emphasize that self-examination — and institutional self- examination — is critical. There must be a national beginning, which will not be easy.
But supposing we give it a try — right here in Kansas City, and become a model for other cities and eventually the nation. It is possible. The Creator has made us in his likeness and image. We are higher intellectually than any other creature the Creator created.
Therefore, with the Creator's help, we have unlimited power to dismantle the System. But Black people cannot solve racism and its evils in its institutions and subsidiaries. We have an important role to play, but the ultimate power is not in the hands of Blacks; white society must take the lead without being defensive or going on a guilt trip and making excuses. And perhaps we are on our way, as my concluding example suggests.
Let me now bring my analysis of America’s Structural Racist System to a close with two notes, first quoting some of the language of the Kerner Report, and then reviewing a local development of considerable merit. Both are related to the fifth institution I named above as a foundation for America’s Structural Racist System, the media.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, known as the Kerner Report, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson and established by executive order in 1967 to investigate riots in cities that year. The final Report was released in 1968. The Commission said the riots arose because of a "lack of economic opportunity, failed social service programs, housing, education, police brutality, racism, sense of powerlessness, and the white-oriented media." In its criticism of the media it stated, "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective."
In that context, let me ask you to consider that The Kansas City Star newspaper, in its Sunday, December 20, 2020 edition, under the leadership of reporter Mará Rose Williams and three of her col- leagues, for the paper, did an exhaustive self-examination in a Special Report: "The Truth in Black and White." It traced the role of the Star for over 140 years and the influence it exerted: "it disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citians. It re-enforced Jim Crow laws and redlining. Decade after early decade it robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition."
Mike Fannin concludes, "Before I say more, I feel it to be my moral obligation to express what is in the hearts and minds of the leadership and staff of an organization that is nearly as old as the city it loves and covers: We are sorry."
Mike, that took guts to give Ms. Williams, who "conceived the idea for The Star’s self-examination," the green light to move forward with her colleagues, to let the chips fall where they may, to admit the Star's immoral and racist history, and make it known in a Special Report. This is a powerful model for others where one organization in local media revealed, and is extricating itself from, the American Structural Racist System.
So thank you, Mike Fannin, Mará Williams, Eric Adler, Cortlynn Stark, and Mike Hendricks, for your hard work and sharing the dark side of The Star so we can move into the light of equality.
I’m closing my analysis of the Structural Racist System, but be- fore I do, I must return just briefly to the Kerner Commission Report. The strongest indictment of the Report is found in these words: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal." It went on to say — and this undergirds the analysis I’ve been offering — "What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintained it, and white society condones it."
Well, that was 1968, fifty-two years ago.
Now, if there’s merit in my analysis of the System, and the Kerner Report, both presented over fifty years ago, if there’s an honest effort to change America’s Structurally Racist System, first all persons of good will be honest with themselves and conduct a serious and ongoing self-examination of how they participate in, and benefit from, or are harmed by, racism and white privilege. Then address the question, "When, where, how do we begin to dismantle the Structural Racist System?"
But neither of these questions will prove fruitful until we accept the fact that, continuing today, our nation is built with institutions of a Structurally Racist System. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves continuing to debate the obvious, being defensive, continuing passing laws, organizing marches, and developing slogans without the very basic structural changes in our institutions, with little progress over the next fifty-years. If we are truly committed to Binding Us Together as healthy communities and a nation, then each of us must immediately begin this self-examination for the good of all and for all who come after us.
An Addendum to my Book, The Antidote to America’s Structural Racist System
While I hope my book, Binding Us Together, may be inspirational, I want this essay to be a challenging addendum to my book. I hope it challenges us to see to the conditions that caused me, and thousands of African Americans and others people of color and ethnic and religious difference, to endure human rights violations and even suffer death.
The antidote to the poison of racism that my book reveals lies in an analysis of America’s Structural Racist System. By writing about it I am attempting to prick the conscience of those who live, own businesses, socialize, work, and shop in Kansas City, to exercise self examination to begin the process of dismantling Kansas City’s Structural Racist System as a microcosm of America’s System.
This is my city. This is your city. This is our city. This is the Heart of America. Why shouldn’t we start here in Kansas City, and be a model for other cities, states, and the nation?
The Kansas City Star newspaper made a presidential move. It stepped up to the challenge, did the self-examination I'm asking for, and announced it, with a public apology for the 140 years they played in perpetuating Kansas City’s Structural Racist System. The Star should be honored for its leadership — honored and imitated!
All organizations should salute The Star with awards and recognitions — as each organization works to discover and dismantle its own racist structures that have kept us from being the kind of community we all want.
After sharing this essay with many of the civil and human rights organizations in the area, I decided to call on each of us as individuals and all public and private institutions to immediately accept the challenge to make a difference at chipping away Kansas City's Structural Racist System.
I plan to send a copy of this essay to the Chamber of Commerce and business leaders with the hope that they will follow the Kansas City Star and distribute copies of this essay to their members. They can begin by publicly announcing that they accept the challenge of self-examination as individuals as institutions. This appeal of mine also applies and challenges places of worship.
Let’s make this a movement! Who will be the first to join the Kansas City Star? I hope and pray that the challenge will be accepted by all immediately. Then next year, Black History Month, 2022, can be a time of celebration throughout the entire community as we model for America what America should be.
- Alvin Brooks, Director, The Kansas City Human Relations Department
This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Call on Feb. 28, 2021. Reprinted with the author's permission.