Black people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are incarcerated at rates over 7 and 12 times more than whites respectively, according to a report published last month.
The Sentencing Project, the criminal justice reform organization that authored it, called racial and ethnic disparities in state prisons across the nation “staggering.”
Why is this happening?
Is it bad luck?
Is it because all the individuals involved in criminal justice from arrest to prosecution to sentencing are racist?
Neither sounds right.
So I called Professor Cynthia Young, Department Head of African American Studies at Penn State University, to find an answer.
"It is clearly an example of systemic racism and it is clearly a good example of how thoroughly embedded in our society systemic racism is," said Young.
I then asked her to define systemic racism.
"Systemic racism consists of deeply embedded practices, policies, and perceptions that perpetuate inequities, inequalities, and discrimination," Young told me.
Both Democrats and Republicans have helped create this problem within the criminal justice system. So-called tough-on-crime policies and rising incarceration rates can be traced back to the 1960s, and criminal justice laws that adversely hurt communities of color continued in the decades that followed, such as mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, the “racial double standard” in drug sentencing, and differential policing that is highly concentrated in poor Black, brown and Indigenous communities.
"I find it very curious that in this latest wave of attacks on Critical Race Theory people are so resistant to thinking about it structurally or systemically because in fact if you don't subscribe to thinking about racism structurally then you really are just saying that white people are always bad and racist," said Young. "And that's just not my experience in the world."
The Sentencing Project’s report also examined other “perpetuating structural disadvantages” that are contributing factors before people of color even reach the criminal justice system, such as racial disparities with poverty, employment, education, and housing. Young also pointed out that you can look at how discipline is administered in schools.
This reminded me of a September article in The Bucks County Courier Times that actually revealed racial bias in school discipline locally. According to the data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, “students of color in Bucks County are more likely to get out-of-school suspensions and to face discipline that includes the police.”
The thing is, this is likely often unintentional. But when some parents and school boards seek to halt Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs that would help educators actually identify unconscious bias, that is intentional.
This is why the community needs to talk about systemic racism. But in a county that is 90% white, it is likely invisible to many people because they don’t experience it, nor do they know anyone who has.
"The power of systemic racism is its invisibility to the people who are not its victims," said Young.
Never mind that the concept has also been bastardized and politicized by right-wing media and political operatives. And the fact that this is leading to whitewashing of curriculum and slashing of DEI initiatives in area school districts like Pennridge will only perpetuate racial injustices.
One bit of good news though is Young explained to me how her first year students at Penn State welcome conversations in class that interrogate race and racism based on their own experiences in their communities and a wider societal analysis.
I know leaving Bucks County for college was instrumental for me in better understanding the world and how it works. One particular experience was a fact-checking and reporting internship with the Chicago Reporter, an investigative monthly covering race and poverty. In January 2002 while I was there the magazine published a report showing that Black people and Latinos received stiffer sentences than whites for the same drug offenses.
Twenty years later and sadly things still haven’t changed.
"Not everyone wants to sit around and think about what it is like for other people who aren't like them," said Young, explaining another reason why people may not want to engage in what for many is an uncomfortable topic.
Thankfully, I know people in Bucks County who not only think about it, but then actually engage in racial justice education, organizing, and activism to dismantle systemic racism.
The thing is, we need many more people to join them.
Cyril Mychalejko is a teacher and freelance writer from Bucks County. He can be reached at email@example.com and at https://cyrilmychalejko.substack.com.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Mychalejko: Bucks County needs to talk about systemic racism