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Have we reached a transformative moment in the fight against systemic racism?

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The death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police has led to more than just protests about police practices toward Black people.

Demonstrations throughout the United States, and even the world, about Floyd’s killing have also been accompanied by public discussions about racism.

“You hear that refrain, ‘Let’s just not talk about race because that’s divisive,’” said Kyle Strickland, senior legal analyst at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, which conducts interdisciplinary research at Ohio State. “I would argue that it’s just as divisive for us not to talk about race.

“Not talking about it means you’re erasing the lived experiences of so many people, particularly Black people, in this country. We cannot talk about where we are as a society without talking about our legacy of racism, slavery and discrimination, and how that still permeates our institutions today and leads to systemic racism.”

Strickland, who earned his BA in political science at Ohio State and a law degree from Harvard Law School, discussed systemic racism and how individuals can play a role in positive change.

What is systemic racism?

It refers to an overall, overarching system of laws, policies, structures and practices structured in a way that gives certain benefits and privileges to white society and white individuals as a whole, and less so to anyone who isn’t white.

Systemic racism is not one wall, not one policy, not one set of practices. It’s how this structured system – as well as our history – influences our norms and our institutions today so that we actually value certain lives over others.

Why has systemic racism persisted?

It has been normalized in our society. We get comfortable. In many cases, we say, “Well, that’s just the way things are. That’s just the world as it is.”

We need to push ourselves as individuals, as institutions and as society to shift more to the way the world should be. That makes us uncomfortable because it makes us realize our society is a reflection of ourselves. We don’t like to talk about those ugly parts, but we need to talk about them because we all have a responsibility in making sure that we build toward a more equitable and just society.

We have to confront systemic racism head on in order to deal with it. Acknowledging that it exists is a huge start. The next piece – actually addressing it – is much harder.

How can an individual address systemic racism?

We can each play a big role.

One way is speaking out and denouncing it. That means calling out your family and friends who say things that are racist, problematic and discriminatory. We need to say that those attitudes are not allowed. They’re unacceptable and a form of bullying. We are well past that.

It’s going to hurt and strain some relationships, but we need to make people get there. They will get there, but we need to push them more.

Individuals need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t make that an excuse not to act.

We have to confront systemic racism head on in order to deal with it. Acknowledging that it exists is a huge start. The next piece – actually addressing it – is much harder.

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Kyle Strickland, Senior Legal Analyst, Kirwan Institute
What are some other ways that an individual can effect change?

Read our history. Understand our history. Open your mind to the ideas of a lot of Black scholars and thinkers in this space.

It’s so important for us to have historical context because a lot of the issues that we face today are not problems that are going to be solved overnight.

We got here largely because of compounding problems, compounding policies and challenges over time that we never dealt with. As a result, we have to understand how we got here in order to figure out the solutions to move forward.

It’s not enough to just have race-neutral policies and practices and laws, which we have in many cases. We’ve got to do more to dismantle the legacy of our racist policies and practices. We need more anti-racist policies.

We’ve got to reckon with our history.

What else is important for us to do?

We need to recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know, and be OK and comfortable with that.

We also need to be OK with changing your mind when presented with new information.

Ultimately, and most importantly, we have to listen to people’s lived experiences, and then do something about it. We have to play a role in accountability. We’re starting to challenge ourselves, and we need to continue to challenge ourselves, even just in our everyday lives.

What gives you hope?

We are seeing that people want to be part of a movement to change society and the world for the better. People are recognizing the power of their voice and their ability to make change happen. I think this generation is saying, “Well, why not us?”

That is what inspires me.

We’re at a moment in history, especially with the (COVID-19) pandemic, where everything has been upended. We are recognizing that a lot of people don’t want to go back to normal. For a lot of folks, that normal was filled with trauma, vulnerability and all sorts of pain. We’ve got to move beyond that.

We can do better. We can reimagine the way that our institutions and our society work. That requires more voices than ever to say, “Look, I’m tired of the status quo.” I think we’re seeing that this generation coming up is the generation that is going to help push us, hold us more accountable and say that the way we did things in the past are not the way we need to do things moving forward.

I do think this moment is transformative. I wholeheartedly believe that.