The Toxic Mold of Racism in America

June 19, 2020

by Minerva Delgado, Alliance to End Hunger

I just wrapped up a racial equity training for a community-based anti-hunger organization – the latest in a number of such trainings I have conducted over the past couple of years.  During this transformational time, I’m grateful that looking at hunger through the lens of race is part of our work at the Alliance to End Hunger.  It takes on added meaning in this moment. The focus of our racial equity trainings is on the racial wealth divide and how it leads to higher rates of poverty and hunger among communities of color.  I always start with a great exercise (created by Bread for the World Institute) which explains systemic racism and its impacts.  James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  I believe this is true.  Until we have a common understanding of structural racism it’s hard to move on to interrogate our sectoral and organizational policies, practices and outcomes which is what we need to do to achieve true equality.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, protesters continue to call for justice.  Debates rage on about the nature of racism in the U.S. and the role of the police.  These are important conversations that I hope will lead to a common understanding and commitment to root out racism.  However, I often ask myself, “How is it that well-meaning people can have such divergent opinions about racism?”

We live in a racist society.  I state this as a fact.  One that has been proven over and over again, and one that I have experienced personally.[i]  For many individuals racism is a shadowy or completely invisible concept, which leads some people to doubt its existence or full extent.  For example, when I was applying to colleges, I was happy to be accepted to all of my choices. My parents were waiting for the financial aid offers to come in to help me decide which college to attend.  However, my preferred option offered me no financial aid.  It was a surprise given my parents’ low incomes, so I simply went to another college. It wasn’t until at least 10 years later that I discovered my preferred school used redlining to determine financial support for students.  They had engaged in a practice of not providing financial aid to students from low-income Black and Latinx communities, including the community in which I lived.  They were able to say they accepted students of color, but the students chose not to attend.  (The school eventually ended the practice after losing a discrimination lawsuit.)  I had been subjected to racism without even knowing it at the time.  There are instances like this taking place to this day, with Black people not knowing why they didn’t get the job offer or why their bid for the house wasn’t accepted.

We all live in an environment rife with racism, but for some in our society it’s possible to be insulated from its effects.  The analogy I use is one of a house filled with invisible, toxic mold. Some rooms at the top are open and airy and the people within them are oblivious of the mold. But some are locked in the dark, dank basement and would rather set fire to the house than live with the toxic mold any longer.

Our house is on fire and this moment of conflagration forces us to confront our racial legacy.

This current boiling point may be linked to a specific incident, the tragic death of George Floyd in Minnesota, captured through an indisputable video.  But the causes of the fear, frustration and anger that lit the match go deep into the legacy of racism in America.

The same forces that cause greater hunger and poverty in communities of color, particularly African American communities, are at play in all segments of society, and are adding fuel to the fire.

I noticed not long into the pandemic that my experience of COVID-19 was different than those of my white colleagues.  As a woman of color from New York City, I saw Facebook posts almost daily from friends suffering through the loss of grandparents, parents, spouses and friends to COVID-19.  I myself lost a dear friend.  Systemic racism in healthcare has led to greater numbers of deaths among people of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In New York City the CDC reported, “death rates among black/African American persons (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/Latino persons (74.3) were substantially higher than that of white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) persons.”

Similarly, it appears that I also know more people who were furloughed or laid-off, or are essential workers who did not have the privilege (like me) of working from home.  Racism in the workplace has led to lower wages and greater occupational segregation.  Almost 50% of Latinos say they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut, lost a job, or both because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Growing up in The Bronx (where Amadou Diallo was killed), and having worked at civil rights organizations (shout out to LatinoJustice!), I know racism in criminal justice has led to racial profiling, over-policing and mass incarceration in black and brown communities.  The killing of unarmed African American men and women by the police, in police custody or by self-appointed vigilantes is a sad, tragic reality.  According to Harvard’s Dr. David Williams there are sixty police shootings each year of unarmed African Americans.  Further, African Americans are five times more likely than whites to be killed by the police when unarmed.

We know these issues are not isolated.  They tell the story of entrenched racism in our society and institutions.  Putting out the fires will not be enough.  We must rebuild the foundation of our house.

We cannot let this moment be lost to history the way that other moments and movements unfortunately have been.  We cannot go back to “business as usual.” There is a reason why protesters chant, “no justice, no peace.”  Lasting peace will not be found until we dismantle the systems of oppression that devalue black lives.

But these are not usual times.  During the COVID-19 pandemic when every part of our society has been impacted, the term “business as usual” does not apply.  Can we conceptualize a new normal?  One where institutional racism is rooted out; where the dignity of each individual, regardless of race or color, is respected?  A society where one’s race does not predict their chance of being poor, hungry or exposed to violence?

I will admit the last few months and weeks have been painful and exhausting.

I’m proud to have been part of an effort by national anti-hunger organizations to put out a statement in solidarity with the protesters and condemning the death of George Floyd.  I am gratified to note the issue of racial equity has become a more common theme among anti-hunger organizations in the last few years.  I believe it’s important for everyone to speak up to condemn racism wherever we find it.

I take heart from a recent webinar on COVID-19, race and housing in which Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Anti-Racist) cautions us against becoming hopeless.  He said, ”we have to recognize that in order to bring about change we have to believe in its possibility.”  He went on to say, “…every one of us has a job to do in this… larger anti-racist struggle. And so we don’t all… have to be simultaneously… fighting against every single racist policy.  But we can fight against those in our community. We can fight against those within our area of expertise and I think that’s what we should each focus on.”

I may not be able to do much more than the average citizen to impact policing tactics, but I can make a difference where I have some influence.  I challenge you to do the same.  As we say in my neighborhood, “Pa’lante!”—let’s move forward together.

[i] I must acknowledge my light-skin privilege here. I identify as a Latina, a woman of color.  I’m of Puerto Rican descent which makes me of mixed race.  I acknowledge my ancestors who are African (enslaved and brought to Puerto Rico by Spanish colonialists) and Taino (the indigenous people of the Caribbean who were the first peoples encountered and all but eradicated by Christopher Columbus and Spanish colonialists).

I know that my relative light-skin has shielded me from much of the effects of interpersonal racism. However, I have experienced being called the N-word and other racial slurs, attacked by racists and the KKK, and subjected to institutional and systemic racism.