In a January 30 op-ed published by Spectator, Coleman Hughes cited his singular experience of racial discrimination on campus as evidence against the conclusion that Columbia is a “vessel for systemic racism.” According to Hughes, this one event was just that—a singular, isolated incident.
However, I didn’t come to that conclusion, and here’s why.
I believe that Hughes’ argument is premised on a miscalculation in which he reduces systematic racism to individual discrimination. To me, he is essentially using his individual experience to negate a larger system. One may be tempted to make this error after searching “define racism” on Google, which offers a simplistic definition that only encompasses individual discrimination. However, systemic racism is much more complex than personal prejudice. (Maybe try the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button next time?)
Indeed, systematic racism can manifest at times as individual discrimination. Yet, this does not mean that one can simply take isolated experiences to wholly negate the system. Narrowly viewing racial discrimination in isolation prohibits one from fully seeing racism as it exists, in the largest system: society (hence systematic). In other words, seeing the system requires expanding this view to account for societal forces.
In fact, this broad view is required to understand racism since, at inception, it was a system. Racism ordered human beings and maintained this hierarchy so that real societal impacts were produced. These impacts persist today as evidenced by statistics showing the connection between societal outcomes and race, an otherwise arbitrary category. In other words, racism was never just personal prejudice, because race had to be systematically constructed in the first place.
Racial disparities demonstrate this construction, because they are what make race palpable in society, what make race systematically real. Individual racial discrimination can occur if and only if people can be grouped, delineated, based on race as a systematic construction, if and only if race is real. According to Hughes, this is “painting with a broad brush.” But, is “broad” not what systematic implies? How else would one fully understand how racism manifests in American society if not with the broadest of brushes painting from 1619 to today?
Hughes attempts to diminish “painting with a broad brush” by comparing it to the “error” that racists make when they take a “single scary encounter with a Black person [as] enough to prove that Black people are generally scary.” Yet again, Hughes, trying really hard to see an act of racism in isolation, seems to fail to see the bigger picture.
Racists are not racist because of one “single scary encounter with Black people.” Through exposure to negative media portrayals of Black people, prevailing stereotypes, and ongoing subjugation, people internalize systemic racism and then implicitly, Black people are thought of as scary, encounter or not. As stated before, the system enables this internalization and if it didn’t, racism, as Hughes knows it, would not pervade society.
However, according to the Pew poll that he cites, many black people would agree with Hughes, as 51 percent of black respondents said that their race “hasn’t made a difference in their overall success” in life. Yet, in this same poll, 88 percent of black people said that “the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites.” Even the authors of the poll take care to point out that “large majorities of black adults say that blacks in this country are treated unfairly in a range of institutional settings.”
It is also important to note that considering institutional racism as a barrier varies with education. While 55 percent of black people with a four-year college degree say their race has made it harder for them to succeed, only 29 percent with a high school education or less say the same. Based on polls indicating that low-educated whites are more likely to have conservative racial attitudes, I would conclude that education is a key factor in conceptualizing systemic racism for all races.
Surely (with that good-old-fashioned Ivy League education), Hughes knows, that “the existence of racism is an undeniable fact.” It seems to me, he most likely meant the Google version but, as long as we can delineate a group based on social mobility and that, on average, falls along racial lines, systemic racism cannot be denied. Not even “the full spectrum of political opinions held by Black Americans” would change that, especially when those opinions are rooted in systemic racism themselves. This shows, given that we live in a racist society, that we are all “vessels of systemic racism,” which means we all have a responsibility to be anti-racist, especially at Columbia University.
The author is a first-year at Columbia College studying sociology and Africana studies. She enjoys practicing a prison abolitionist framework, which means actively creating a new world where no one is a vessel for systemic racism (or any other oppressive -ism). You can find her, and her opinions, on her YouTube channel, Dear Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
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