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Thoughts on Equity

We must talk about systemic racism if we want to dismantle it

February 18, 2022

Thoughts on Equity is a blog series presented by the Kansas Health Foundation to feature written, video and audio content from multiple KHF contributors. Through this blog, KHF will discuss issues of equity, systemic racism, health disparities and how Kansans have the opportunity to shape a more equitable and inclusive future.

Thoughts on Equity: We must talk about systemic racism if we want to dismantle it

Tragedies, such as what happened to 17-year-old CJ Lofton, may appear sudden, and may seem like the result of systems breaking down. But the collective “we” must wrap our minds around one chilling aspect of this scenario – tragedies like this don’t just happen. We create them through the systems we put in place. We should have seen this coming.

Systems, processes and policies yield outcomes they were designed to produce. Many systems at work in our society disproportionately impact Black people and other people of color. This is systemic racism, and to dismantle it, we must acknowledge that our institutions and “systems” are not broken, but working precisely as intended.

If we want different results and more equitable services, we need different systems and solutions.

How is our system unjustly producing disparate results for Black people and people of color?

Numerous studies show that Black defendants receive weightier charges and longer sentences for the same crimes. Law enforcement officers stop and ticket Black motorists more often, search their vehicles more often and use force against them more often. Black people in Kansas make up roughly 6 percent of the state’s population but about 27 percent of the state’s prison population.

Worse, we’ve made a habit of punishing people who need our help. We have criminalized mental illness and poverty. We use law enforcement and the criminal justice system to fix problems police simply are ill-equipped to solve.

We pack our jails with people who should be receiving mental health treatment. We are more focused on controlling people in the short-term, than treating them in the long-term.

All of these realities land with greater force and greater frequency on Black people and people of color.

Systemic racism helps explain why Black families are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and why their outcomes are more likely to be negative compared to White families. It helps explain why Black youth are twice as likely to be arrested and more than four times as likely to be committed to juvenile facilities as White youth for similar offenses. These disparities exist in every stage of the juvenile justice system. Data shows these disparities are the result of historic injustices, not because Black youth are committing more crimes.

I want to be clear that systemic racism is not an indictment of the thousands of public servants who operate within these systems. I spent a decade in public service leading human services and other agencies. I have great appreciation for the dedicated people serving in these systems and a keen understanding of what systemic racism looks like inside these institutions.

I know firsthand how challenging it is to take on systemic racism from within an institution – one in which an entire segment of the workforce (lawyers and other professionals) is tasked specifically with minimizing risk and protecting the interests of said institution. They weren’t bad people resisting change because of their personal ideology, they were simply doing the work they were hired to do. They did not want me to call out the injustices I observed, but how can you solve a problem without identifying or acknowledging it?

We won’t successfully dismantle systemic racism if we aren’t willing to call it out and talk about it. We have a long way to go. It won’t be easy.

But, we have to start somewhere. Acknowledging the problem and talking about it is the first step. The Kansas Health Foundation pledges to continue raising the issue so the conversation can continue.

CJ was a victim of the systems we created and maintain.

Let’s work together to make sure this never happens again.

NOTE: This information was featured in an op-ed by KHF President and CEO Teresa Miller, which was first featured in the Wichita Eagle.

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