Your System isn’t Broken, it is Getting the Results it was Designed to Get

Every few meetings we present an idea or a statement and someone will blurt out “But if we only give the parents books to read,” or “if their parents cared,” or “ we just need to educate people.” It is easy to want to look for Band-Aid solutions or to blame someone else. Those quick-fixes ignore the underlying problems of systemic and institutional racism. Systems get the results they are designed to get. Institutional practices do the same, if they are designed to get inequitable results they will produce inequitable results, and vice versa with equitable practices built in they will get more balanced results.

Before we get into this here are some basic definitions:
The City of Seattle defines institutional racism as: Policies, practice, and procedures that work to the benefit of white people and the detriment of people of color, usually unintentionally or inadvertently.


The Revolution WILL be Given Permission by Matt Lubchansky

In fakequity snark institutional racism is doing things that benefit white people. It is often unintentional. Excuses include: “That’s the way it is, we’ve always done it this way.” In other words, dominant society has catered to itself and given itself first preference at the fattest piece of the pie. We cast off the scraps to communities of color and say “here you go,” and when they say “hey, we’re getting less!” power holders say “You should be grateful to get anything, do you know how hard I/we worked to  get this,” ignoring that people of color have been working just as hard but with greater barriers to access the same power and privileges.

In real life this looks like things like the environmental cap and trade programs which allows corporations to buy credits to keep polluting, and often who gets screwed is poor communities of color when the pollution is next to them. We agree with the principle of less pollution, but not to screwing communities of color for the overall goal this is racism.  In local context institutional racism shows up in public process that allow the voices and opinions of wealth, mostly white, north end (a.k.a. higher-income, white, English speaking) residents to have a louder voice and more influence.

Unpacking Institutional Racism and How to Undo Bad System
We can’t fix big systems problems through easy solutions. There are times for individual actions, such as reaching out and tutoring a child, volunteering for a program, or donating food to an organization you care about, but we have to realize these actions aren’t the answer to institutional racism. In order to undo and address institutional racism we need to be intentional about undoing it. Just working as normal and saying “we help all clients,” isn’t a strategy for undoing racism.

To undo institutional racism we need to unpack and really look at the policies, practices, and procedures that are giving us inequitable results. Today, Heidi was reading an education report to look for ways to help teachers build their racial equity skills. In one-hundred pages she found the following words mentioned this number of times:

  • Race – 0
  • Identity – 0
  • Bilingual – 0
  • Equity – 0
  • Bias – 0

This is how organizational practices uphold being “color blind” and continue the racialized opportunity gap/structural racism. We can’t undo institutional and systemic racism without talking about being intentional about addressing race.

We Need to Bake in Equity
We can’t fix big problems like kids not graduating, a pipeline near a sacred Native American site and an important water source, or homelessness by doing the same things. The definition of insanity/fakequity, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We need to change and we need that change to “have equity baked into it not sprinkled on top” as Manuel Pastor, PhD, said at the recent Washington State Budget & Policy Center Budget Matters conference.

In order to fix our broken systems we need to look at the policies, practices, and procedures and admit they are broken. This doesn’t mean your organization is bad, but it does mean you need to do better in serving people of color. Baking in equity into your organization means really examining every point of interaction in a project. When we work to bake in equity it means we center people and communities of color, and we acknowledge our shortcomings and biases and work to resolve them. If you are serious about address structural racism, here are some ideas:

Distinguish your “Access” work from Racial Equity work- Access isn’t equity. Access efforts like translation, outreach, education, and board/staff diversity are important, but should not be called racial equity work. Outreach and engagement efforts provide access to the same system, the same systems that uphold structural racism.

If you’re confused about how access efforts uphold structural racism read the article, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion.” Racial equity means you’re changing the system that upholds racism, not trying to fix or ‘save’ people of color. Racial equity work means that you’re sharing power, decision making and resource control. This can be scary work, as it means you and your organization need to let go of control. Too many times this idea is met with, “yes, but” or “what does that mean for our mission?” or defensiveness to change. Rather than putting your arms out in a defensive posture, try leaning back, believing communities of color, and letting go of some control.

Challenge other white people and resistors when they unilaterally rely on mainstream, mostly white, data and news as their justification. Listening to people who sound like us reinforces the echo chamber effect. We often do everything we can to hold onto our truths, and as humans we are resistant to change. Equity work is about intentionally deciding we are open to change and challenging the stories and narratives we believe. The media and voices we take in defines the actions we take and the systems we create; we need  to diversify and listen to a wide variety of voices in order to create more racially equitable systems.

Accept your organization and you will need to change. This isn’t about you and your work. Racial equity work needs to be racial equity driven. If we say we are about a cleaner environment, closing achievement gaps, or improving health outcomes, or whatever your mission is, it needs to be centered in people of color. This being defensive and making excuses, saying “but we’re different because our clients are blah, blah, blah.” Trust us when we say every organization uses that excuse, we all like to think our work is special, unique, and we deserve a break. These excuses uphold institutional racism, stop the defensiveness and be open to examining why you need to change to see better results. Every organization can go deeper and do better work.

Take on your share of the burden and take action that is in line with your disproportionate power. We all uphold these systems, but people with privilege whether by being white, English speaking, hold positional power, or other forms of privilege have disproportionate control over resources, agendas, and access to social networks and power. Take responsibility that aligns with that power and share your access and power.

Be explicit about your stance for racial equity and commitment to eliminating structural racism. Colorblindness and not talking about race perpetuates structural racism. Be explicit and use words such as racism, people of color, white, etc. The clearer you are in talking about race the easier it is to infuse equitable practices into your organization and undo institutional and systemic racism.

Posted by Erin Okuno and Heidi Schillinger
Cartoon credit:Great Moments in Peaceful Protest History, The revolution WILL be given permission by Matt Lubchansky