Whitney Benns and Blake Strode on Systemic Racism

jail bars

Systemic Justice Project alums Whitney Benns and Blake Strode have a powerful and vital piece in The Atlantic about 21st century debtors’ prisons in St. Louis, but really about systemic racism. They write:

As the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional—there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.

Whitney and Blake use the terminology of systemic intent to explode the false dichotomy between individual intent (which is easy to isolate and condemn) and amorphous systems (identification of which as often leads to helpless shrugs as to calls for action):

There is a tendency to understand intent, much like racism itself, as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real and destructive. But the systemic intent at work in a place like St. Louis is more a matter of inertia than personal biases. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has a life of its own. Local courts and jails are not rife with injustice and racial disparity because they are staffed with ill-meaning personnel; they exhibit these problems because they are the product of structures and policies designed with racial hostility. That is to say, ultimately, these structures and policies have worked precisely as planned.

Their weaving together of the individual and the systemic reminds us that it is the decades of deliberately racist intent that allows racism today to be hidden “in the seemingly colorblind tedium characterizing the bulk of city affairs.”

The story of the debtors’-prison crisis in St. Louis is partly one of individual failings by local officials and institutional actors whose job security depends on collective indifference to the status quo. But to regard the story solely, or primarily, as one of individual failings is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem itself as well as the structural forces responsible for the design of the region. This design did not emerge last week, last month or last year. It is the many-headed hydra produced by conscious and sustained efforts many decades ago.

I highly, highly recommend that you read the full piece here.

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