Racial Justice: A Matter of Life and Death

by Holly Fetter, ’13

This piece was originally posted on the Just Democracy Blog of Advancement Project, a national social justice law group, in July 2011.

If you think we’re in a post-racial era, think again. Racial justice is officially a matter of life and death.

Last week, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health published a disturbing study that found that poverty, low educational attainment, and other social factors cause as many deaths as heart attacks, strokes, and other leading causes in the United States.

Researchers found that in 2000, 245,000 deaths were attributable to low education, compared to 192,898 deaths caused by heart attacks, which was the leading cause of deaths that year. Racial segregation killed about as many people as the third leading cause of death, cerebrovascular disease. The number of deaths attributable to low social support was comparable to the same from lung cancer.

Overall, 4.5% of U.S. deaths in 2000 were attributable to poverty. The racial implications of this study becomes clear when you look at recent Census data: one in four blacks, Latinos, and American Indians live below the poverty line, compared to one in eight White Americans. 32.4% of Latinos, 21% of blacks, and 17.2% of Asians lack health insurance, compared to 12% of Whites. These “interlocking systems of oppression,” in the words of renowned Black Feminist Patricia Hill Collins, create a situation in which low-income people of color are subjected to the effects of racism on a massive, impersonal scale.

A few weeks before the Columbia study was published, researchers from Tufts University and Harvard Business School released another unsettling study, one that confirmed my worst fears about my fellow White people—we actually believe in reverse racism.

The report, titled “Whites See Racism as Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing,” explains that while both Whites and Blacks perceive anti-Black racism as having decreased since 1950, Whites believe that anti-White racism has increased and is now more prevalent than anti-Black racism.

According to the authors, their study is the first to show that White people believe more progress toward equality has been made than Blacks do, and that it has been made at the expense of White people.

This study made the Columbia findings particularly painful to read. While people of color are literally dying because of structural racism, White folks are complaining about their inability to get into their dream school.

The biggest finding of the study is obvious: White people need to start paying attention. Many of us are so oblivious, so self-absorbed that we refuse to believe that racism and inequality exist even when its symptoms are so obvious.

A week before the Tufts/Harvard study was released, friends and I organized a series of events that we called “What is White? Week.” The intention was to start a conversation on campus about racial privilege and White identity. One student, writing for our campus’ conservative publication, responded disapprovingly to our efforts. In a blog post titled, “My Life As A White Man,” this student explained that because he came from a high school in Los Angeles where most of the students were smart Asians, he had never considered himself part of the majority, and “had no practical concept of White people as dominant or superior.”

This student acknowledged the importance of eradicating inequality, but failed to take into account the ways in which such inequality has roots that run much deeper than individual acts of racism. He wrote that, “the idea that all ‘white people’ are equally ‘privileged’ or culpable for racism ignore [sic] the astounding diversity of background and life experience among whites,” and called for “the elimination of ‘race’ as a social category.”

It is this sort of attitude that exemplifies the pitfalls of a post-racial perspective. While it is certainly true that privilege is situational, that does not mean that it can be entirely discounted. Racism has been institutionalized in such a way that we don’t have to see it because it is so buried. It takes us White Millennials quite a bit of digging to uncover the roots of racial inequality because we aren’t regularly confronted with its ugliness. This student can take his own experience—as a kid who felt oppressed because he wasn’t as smart as his classmates of color, then went to a diverse university where he felt victimized as a White male —and create an entire philosophy around it. From that perspective, privilege is no longer structural, and the blame falls on individuals instead of on a system.

Because our society is intensely individualistic, we only know what affects us personally. White people are unwilling to believe that anti-Black racism still exists, and are willing to invent anti-White “reverse racism” to take its place because we don’t have to see racism if we don’t want to. We pretend that we don’t live in a world with segregated neighborhoods and classrooms just because we don’t see the signs that say “Whites Only.” They’ve been covered over by meager attempts at reparations—affirmative action programs, month-long celebrations of diversity—so that all White people see are the ways in which we’re personally affected by such programs. There’s no White Community Center on campus, so we feel insignificant. A person of color got into Harvard instead of me, so I feel marginalized. Believing in “reverse racism” is believing that my life isn’t the result of some combination of opportunities—those that existed and those that didn’t.

We need to confront our history. We need to acknowledge the opportunities that have been denied to groups of people since the inception of this country based on deep-seated racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, classism, and other forms of oppression. This history informs our experiences whether we choose to accept it or not, and it’s time that we stop erasing the mistakes that our forbearers made and start correcting them.

This is why I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with Advancement Project this summer. We’re all about getting to the root of current issues like immigration, voters’ rights, and educational inequity. Advancement Project understands that you can’t make any progress toward racial justice without understanding the complex history and intersectionality of structural inequalities. We work across communities to confront and correct the mistakes that this generation has inherited instead of burying them under a celebration of “colorblindness.”

Poverty kills, but so does ignorance.


Holly Fetter is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a focus on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

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4 thoughts on “Racial Justice: A Matter of Life and Death

  1. […] are more likely  than White people to live in poverty. I’m sorry that income inequality leads to inequality in access to healthcare and education, negatively affecting people of color. I’m sorry that our country […]

  2. […] why many young people (and Stanford students in particular) are not visibly outraged by the racial injustice that plagues this country. What is the drug that is sedating us, making us so damn […]

  3. […] As a result, I see problems that used to be invisible to me. Grocery shopping was never particularly ethically challenging until I learned about the damage many food systems inflict on people and the environment. I took our family’s health insurance for granted – if I even thought about it at all – until I interviewed uninsured people about their health care experiences last spring. I can no longer brush off the fact that officials in the church I’ve faithfully attended all my life discriminate against people based on sexual orientation. The “land of opportunity” seems like an ironic title in a country where people’s zip codes and skin colors can predict the length of their lives. […]

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I come from a family that has some deeply engrained racist perspectives and they won’t acknowledge it because they are so obsessed with individual experiences that they refuse to look at the larger structural roots of racism. “I hate affirmative action because it means I have to deal with a bunch of unqualified workers just because they’re black.” “It’s impossible to have equality as a white man these days! Why, just the other day I applied for a job and they hired a black man instead! That’s reverse racism if I ever saw it!” “There’s a black manager at the place where I work. If one black man can make it, they all can. They just choose not to and they shouldn’t be given an extra advantage over me just because I’m white.” “I work hard for my money. Why should I have to pay more in taxes to support a bunch of Mexicans who won’t get off their asses and make their own money?” “Well, what about me? I’m white, but I don’t make more than the Mexican guy who lives next door! Don’t talk to me about income inequality having anything to do with race because that’s bullshit!” “Race and gender aren’t that important. People just want society to feel sorry for them and give them a leg up in the job market.” THESE are the kinds of ignorant, individualistic comments I have to listen to whenever I go home and they drive me CRAZY! Whenever I try to explain that racism is more than just one person’s set of experiences and that it’s deeply buried in the structure and history of our nation, they tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against and to stop talking. New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Become more articulate about explaining the racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and homophobic roots of our nation.

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