Structural Racism

Over the past several years, America has debated and (to some extent) confronted the extent of our country’s racism.The willingness of White Supremicists to make their animus explicit was triggered by the election of Barack Obama and evidence of shifting demographics, but we are still far from having a candid discussion of the ways in which that racism has infected the systems and structures of our society.

Far too many people think of racism as individual behaviors–the sorts of interpersonal  nastiness that goes viral after being captured by our ubiquitous iPhone cameras. Those of us who are white and middle-class rarely recognize the ways in which people of color have been systematically disadvantaged by official acts; I was shocked to learn about the federal government’s role in redlining from The Color of Law and similar books.

The Brookings Institution recently compared the treatment of South American immigrants with earlier treatment of immigrants from European countries. It was illuminating, to say the least.

Examining immigration policy through a systemic racism lens reveals that today’s largely Latino undocumented immigrants face far harsher consequences than white Europeans of years past for the same exact offense of unauthorized entry. A system that treats immigrants differently solely to their race is essentially the textbook definition of structural racism.

“Illegal” immigration was remarkably common in past decades. Around the turn of the century many Europeans came to the US “with a tag on,” a label sewn into their clothing to allow an employer or labor contractor who’d paid for the immigrant’s passage to find the newcomer at the dock on Ellis Island. While illegal—indentured servitude having long been outlawed[ii]–the practice was so widespread that one labor union official testified in 1912 that “more than 8 in 10” of the million immigrants who’d entered that year had a job waiting from an employer that paid for the newcomer’s passage.[iii] Others came as illegal stowaways aboard ships or unlawfully crossed the border from Canada, as CBS Evening News Anchor Nora O’Donnell recently discovered her Irish grandfather had done in 1924.[iv

According to the Brookings report, these “illegal” European immigrants faced few if any repercussions. In part, that was because there was little or no immigration enforcement, but even among those who were caught, few faced deportation. Migrants who entered unlawfully before the 1940s were protected by statutes of limitations and– in the 1930s and 1940s– by grants of amnesty. And before 1976, the government was extremely unlikely to deport parents of US citizens–the “anchor baby” accusation is a recent invention.

There weren’t restrictions on the ability of immigrants to access public benefits until the 1970s, and Brookings reports that it wasn’t until 1986 that it became unlawful to hire an undocumented immigrant.

In sum, from the early 1900s through the 1960s, millions of predominantly white immigrants entered the country unlawfully, but faced virtually no threat of apprehension or deportation. Businesses lawfully employed these immigrants, who were eligible for public benefits when they fell on hard times.

Times have certainly changed. Undocumented people today, most of whom are Latino and/or other people of color—are treated very differently. They enjoy none of the privileges  that were accorded to previous generations of white immigrants as a matter of course.

The toughening of immigration laws coincided with a shift of immigration from Europe to newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,[x] often in the context of racialized debates targeted mainly at Latinos. Researchers have documented how through the 1960s, racialized views of Mexicans shaped law and bureaucratic practice.

The report goes on to describe the increasingly draconian policies that followed the change in immigrants’ skin color. I encourage you to click through and read the entire, depressing  exposition.

Watching Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd was a horrific example of official disregard for the life of someone perceived to be different and thus lesser.  As a society, we need to send a message that such behaviors by individuals cannot be tolerated. But the larger challenge we face is the pressing need to ferret out the multiple ways in which similar attitudes have infected the structures of our laws and policies, and the multiple, less-visible ways those structures continue to harm not just the people being marginalized but also the country as a whole.


  1. Is this a surprise?

    Or like Donald Rumsfeld said, “is this a known unknown? Or a known known? Or possibly an unknown known?”

    Talk about a head scratcher!

    Everyone feels better if they feel they are not at the bottom of the hill, where all of the crap ends up from everyone else.

    I’ve had cousins (father’s side) on Facebook who disparage the Latin and other immigrants for speaking their own languages! Now, they seem to forget that their own grandparents spoke German at home and not English! When this is pointed out they seem to be contrite, but then go right back to the ignorant blathering about language. I mean, if we go that route, English is definitely a foreign language in this land, because the Native Americans had no concept of it before those interlopers who spoke it, arrived.

    I had a boss, he happened to be Irish, and he proudly talked about how they would relieve themselves in an area where the Italian immigrants would gather to eat their lunch! Somehow, this seemed to be a badge of honor.

    My father’s German ancestry, and my mother’s father’s Italian ancestry, really hated my mother’s mother’s ancestry which was Native American and African! In the South, i.e. mostly South, many African-Americans requested asylum on Native American reservations. This was interesting because, Native Americans were hated even more than folks of African dissent, but the white man stayed off the reservation. And, if African-Americans segregated themselves to reservations, so much the better!

    We have such an influx of people looking for a better life, to flee a tumultuous existence, but seem to be willing to walk directly into the fire for it. So, you would have to think that it’s pretty bad wherever someone comes from to be willing to do that. If this is a country of immigrants, why do some immigrants disparage so deeply, others?

    If we look at Ruth the 2nd chapter, we see how we are to treat those who are considered foreigners, because we really have no concept on the type of individual many of today’s foreigners are! So many want to have another to demonize for their lot in life, because, they have been convinced of their superiority, but will continue to follow a political dogma that willingly puts them at the bottom of the heap.

    Propaganda? Well, it works! It allows one to convince the gullible to cut their nose off to spite their face.

    Can government reverse this trend? Well, this trend has been going on for millennia, not just one, but many millennia. If government would stick to supporting equality for everyone, governments of men, then possibly there could be a society that is truly E Pluribus Unum–Out of Many, One.

    But, when the politics dictate a constant conflagration between old and new, rich and poor, native or foreigner, that thought out phrase, E Pluribus Unum, is just that, a phrase, a paper tiger, an idea with no hope of true fruition.

    Daniel prophesied this very issue, when he spoke with King Nebuchadnezzar and interpreted his dream of the immense image. All of the world powers were mostly of a single ethnicity at the time. But there will be a time when a great world power will be of different ethnicities, and those different ethnicities will not be cohesive.

    This was the feet of iron and clay, iron is powerful, strong, but clay is weak. So, the power, the entity Daniel was referring to was very powerful but it’s citizenry was not cohesive. Eventually it would come to a point of self-destruction.

    It’s a warning, what could happen! And, it is happening right now. There can’t be a successful society, E Pluribus Unum, when government itself promotes separation and inequity!

  2. One other issue,

    I remember riding my bicycle down my street in Chicago, as a kid, and being outside all summer, I was pretty dark. There was a program where German men could come to the United States and work so they can go back to Germany and collect an American Social Security check which would put them on a higher level than many of their countrymen.

    Somehow, it ended up where many of these men were ex Nazi soldiers. And, they deemed it okay to threaten a six-year-old child riding his bicycle, born in this country, that they would shoot that kid off of his bicycle if he rode by their front door with it.

    So, I have to agree with Sheila, there have been folks taking advantage of public monies since the beginning, it’s just, the lighter your skin, the more forgiving one could be towards them I guess. And, I remember my father, who spoke fluent German, pushing one of those Nazi soldiers out his window, LOL, because my father despised his own father’s political beliefs, and would not let the vim and vitriol of those Nazi beliefs affect his son, me!

  3. John Sorg

    Having Sheila to read gives me you to read
    All I forward Sheila to, I tell them to read the comments
    Thank you

  4. We can’t avoid the fact that Latino skin color automatically puts them on the level of African-American racism in this country. The fact that white Europeans and Asians are entering the country as illegal immigrants in small numbers from our northern, eastern and western borders, makes it easier for them generally to meld into areas of society. We are faced with massive numbers of Latinos coming from South America, Central America and Mexico across our entire southern border and our awareness has been exaggerated by their numbers and Trump’s constant demands for his wall as a solution. If you paid attention to the crowds at his rallies, and speeches in the White House, there were always 2 or 3 token African-Americans to disprove his White Nationalist mind set and the foundation of his campaigns.

    Our dark-skinned brothers and sisters have no choice in the color of their skin, they are born with it. But as that song from the musical “South Pacific” says, “you’ve got to be taught to hate”. Look what this hatred has done to the Royal Family in the UK; Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan are in the untenable position of going against hundreds of years of his family and their entire nation’s “Structural Racism”, which for many years spanned this earth. Remember “The sun never sets on the British Empire” Yet they chose to make a home in this country where racism reigns supreme. Do they see some form of hope beneath the blatant and structural racism many Americans are struggling against? The fact that the laws here do not specifically refer to skin color make it almost impossible to target specific issues to fight against. The voter suppression law recently enacted in Georgia does not mention race but the message is clear; as the outcome of 2022 elections will prove if not changed.

  5. JoAnn,

    Once again, nailed it, right on point!!


    Thanx Sis? I truly love your posts, always insightful!

  6. I wonder if the Brookings article discusses current immigration law because labor camps await those undocumented brown immigrants from our southern borders as well. They are not paid minimum wage, nor do they have the same protections. If they cause trouble, the employer makes a call to ICE, and away they go.

    This is a collaboration between government regulators, law enforcement, and the Oligarchy. They’ve been doing this forever. What about the prison labor camps in the South. You don’t think this is a collaboration between industry and government? LOL

    As long as we let capitalism be our economic system, labor will be exploited. The protections written in federal statutes don’t apply to prisoners or undocumented workers.

    Here is the worst part, when you look closer at the migration patterns of these people, many are escaping from countries where US sanctions, regime changes, or interference in elections have installed far-right fascist regimes that allow US corporations to take advantage of the land and exploit workers. They are fleeing oppression and displacement in their country for better opportunities, only to land in the USA, where they get exploited again.

    Much to the dismay of the federal government and their media, these stories are being told, and so are the stories of our Native Americans. Colonialism is alive and well, and it doesn’t align with anything written in our history books used to educate our youth. Wonder why?

  7. Regarding voter suppression, here in NC we vividly recall the Federal ruling in 2016 calling our changes ” the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision”.

    And not, by the way, those three judges were appointed by Carter, Clinton and Obama…Can you guess how the massive crop of Trump/Federalist Society appointees will rule on the challenges being mounted to the emerging state changes?

  8. I was reading a commentary on immigration the other day and it said if we would just enforce penalties on companies that hire illegal immigrants the problem would just go away. It sounded reasonable, until you read the history of immigration laws.

    So that brings me back to the question of why have immigration laws gotten so convoluted, and I think today’s blog post might explain almost EVERYTHING and now I want to gag at what seemed like a reasonable argument.

    Thanks Shiela.

  9. Todd, I am glad to see you raise the issue of how our very own foreign policies, have created the southern border situation, not that it has not been raised here, previously. Yes, our form of, particularly American, capitalism, played out on the international stage, has been the source of the problem.
    Sheila’s calling attention to the need for a national discussion of the racial issue is spot-on, but, I expect, it will be a long time coming before any real change is created in our national consciousness.
    One very simple case in point: There was a St. Patrick’s Day, outdoor, buffet style dinner at my complex, last month. There were a number of servers taking orders for drinks, and who, later, brought desert. One of those who took care of our table was a delightful, sparkling, young woman of mixed “race.” She kidded with us as she did her job, and all seemed to be fine. Toward the end of the evening, although we all knew her name by then, one of our neighbors referred to her as “The black girl.” I expect she did it totally out of awareness, but that was her mind’s way of “seeing” the young woman, not as a person with a name, but simply as a person of “that” category. The issue here is the, if I am right, “out of awareness,” piece.
    Any useful discussion of structural racism will have to find a way to address this issue. And the discussion will have to be a thread of many discussions, on the national stage.

  10. I can’t recall where I read this but the historian stated that the Irish were hired to drain the swamps so that they could stem the spread of yellow fever. Slaves were not used for this because they were “valuable property.”

    There is a long history of treating immigrants with disdain in this country.

    People forget that immigrants revitalize our country and our economy. Many of them take jobs that no white supremacist would ever take.

  11. We know what would happen is George Floyd had been an attractive white woman lying in the street under his knee. Not that anyone would ever do that-also the point,

  12. Richard Thomas; watching parts of the Chauvin trial, the witnesses on the sidewalk were black and white and of mixed ages. They watched as three police officers participated in the public murder of George Floyd as the fourth officer stood by to watch and prevent intervention from the witnesses. I deeply believe they made no physical moves to aid Mr. Floyd due to being afraid of being shot by police, not respecting their authority which does not allow what can be viewed as a new form of public lynching in this country. Even Chauvin’s defense repeatedly proves it was a murder and not police protecting themselves from a dangerous criminal. But…technicalities, loopholes in the law do not guarantee a conviction. Trump’s comment that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it comes to mind; we have seen police walk away unscathed from these killings too many times to believe the Chauvin trial will end any differently.

    The city of Minneapolis has settled with the Floyd family for $27 MILLION in the civil suit; and they settled quickly and obviously without a defense. While that cannot be used against Chauvin in this murder trial; every juror knows this fact but cannot consider it.

    “Watching Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd was a horrific example of official disregard for the life of someone perceived to be different and thus lesser.” I think we all know the city officials did not consider George Floyd worth $27 MILLION; but it was worth that to avoid a lengthy civil trial to air the Police Department’s dirty laundry and the city’s failure to protect its black residents. “Structural Racism”

  13. Todd @ 8:53 am is on the mark. The American business movement has sought out countries where human rights, labor rights and environmental protections are non-existent or simply not enforced.

    Those who crossed the border illegally found our “Rights” did not extend to them. Make waves and you get deported.

    Militant American Imperialism has been at work since the 19th Century in Latin America. Our thirst for illegal drugs has aided and abetted the created the Drug Cartels.

    The migration problems from the Middle East can be traced back to Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2.

    As a cynic I read, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” >> We will exploit them.

  14. Todd, and Mitch,

    You both bring up some very good points and interesting topics for debate. We live in an area right now the changed over from mostly
    Slavic/Armenian to mostly Hispanic/Latino in less than 30 years. A city of about 100,000 is now approximately 89% Spanish speakers.

    Ostracizing the spanish-speaking population is a huge mistake because there is an underground economy that in most cases dwarfs what we see with our own eyes right now. I know that for a fact because being in this community and being respectful of my neighbors and offering assistance when possible, they freely explain how they exist invisibly but visible.

    It’s no different than what happened and still happens in the black community, where there were always black folks around back in the days of heavy segregation, but really no interaction from whites except anger, or having to do the dirty work! You need your grass cut? You need someone to clean your house? You need someone to walk your dog? Watch your kids? Shine your shoes? Fix your deck on the cheap? Most of this was/is all cash and unseen by Uncle Sam and the tax collectors. I would venture to say that in the United states, large swaths have an underground economy the dwarfs what people can see.

    Martin Luther King activated the invisible visible folks, the African-Americans in the United states. Those folks used the earnings from their invisible economy to boycott the visible economy and that hurt the white folks. That more than anything else, the matters of the wallet, will change a person’s mind even if they don’t like it.

    I personally know of one individual that’s been here for about 20 years as an illegal immigrant. He walked into a car dealership and plunked down cash for three brand new trucks, also purchased three brand new boss plows and three self-dumping trailers. As long it was it was out in the open and all taxes were paid, no one said a word!

    I’ve seen the same with two and 300,000 homes. The money is there in the community that’s been ostracized, the government is just cutting its nose off to spite its face, and the states who are not recognizing the folks that live there, are really existentially stupid.

    Believe me, when I was working, if I didn’t have to pay taxes on the money I earned, I could have done the same thing! Everyone should be legal that way everyone has to pay taxes. That makes the playing field level for everyone. Then of course we have to make the corporations pay their taxes also. But that’s another story!

  15. John, that is a perspective that is new to me, thanks.
    I am reading 2nd of 2 articles in the April issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, dedicated to the upcoming hundredth year anniversary of the destroying of the once vibrant Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Ok., on June 1, 1921. It is very instructive regarding today’s topic, giving background history regarding the turning of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories into the state.
    Sheila, that history is similar to what you’ve read in “The Color of Law,” and, ironically, the first Roosevelt president, was as instrumental as the second, in going along with the segregationists.

  16. Mitch,
    I believe a while back, I mentioned the Tulsa issue, but also I mentioned Rosewood Florida and Knoxville Tennessee, all around the Juneteenth celebrations. The slaughter was astounding, especially in Rosewood. The history of this country is truly disgusting in a lot of ways.

  17. John, Yes, you did mention Rosewood, perhaps Knoxville, as well.
    And, yes the history of this country is disgusting in a lot of ways.
    The moves by so many state legislatures, as we speak, to clamp down on voting rights is disgusting!

  18. I love to be a contrarian sometimes, so I will be now.

    First, I will not deny the racism against LatinX immigration, but a one-dimensional appraisal often loses a lot.

    Our country went through stages of hating “outsiders” from the time Ben Franklin complained about the influx of Germans, or, if you like, Peter Stuyvesant’s attempt to prevent Jews from Dutch Brazil from settling in New Amsterdam.

    Clearly, we favored Portuguese to Chinese and started restricting immigration when too many southern and eastern Europeans began to arrive.

    But we also must remember the zeitgeist. America in the 19th Century had lots of stolen land to settle and welcomed immigration. During the industrial revolution, we saw a great need for workers and still welcomed some immigration. Cheap labor was seen as a good thing.

    By the post-war period, we started to feel “full”, so we “forgot” the great economic benefit that immigration (of all kinds) bring to this country.

    Of course, by that point, it was easier to deny entry to the “darker” people who were one of the main sources of new immigrants, so the main thesis of the Brookings Institution study is not wrong, just one-dimensional.

    BTW – Robin, I came across a similar item about advertising for the cotton gin – it was dangerous to use and they suggested hiring expendable Irish immigrants rather than risking the damage to valuable property, AKA slaves.

  19. Len, I agree with your thoughts. It seems to me that every “wave” of immigrants was, firstly, caused by intolerable conditions in the countries that they came from, and secondly was not welcomed by those of other ethnicities who were already here. Our current southern border challenge is more of the same.

    History shows that the great melting pot allows cultures to blend over time but the more evident any individual’s ancestry is the more difficult the blending process becomes. Distinct features like skin color are the reason that the first European seafarers thought stealing land from and enslaving indigenous people was OK. We love to hate. It makes us feel superior.

    In order to survive our exploded and exploding population and lifestyle and technology, humans are under pressure to liberalize in order to survive. That’s a step too far for many humans.

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