Slotnick: Need for systemic change deserves more than a fiery soundbite
In a recent article, a City Council person called our actions around a procurement policy racist, and a business person noted that by extension, we too must be racists. Such powerful claims warrant a response.
They were right, we're racists, but not for the reasons claimed. And this matter can’t be wrapped up so neatly in a sound bite. My admission demands some explanation, I’m hoping that’s what this letter will do.
Our stunningly majestic country was built on stolen land with stolen labor. There too is a powerful claim. From 1619 when the first kidnapped Africans landed on these shores profoundly against their will, to a century-and-a-half of genocide of indigenous people, this land has witnessed the deep subjugation of some humans for the benefit of others.
The echoes of these horrific crimes of the past continue to ring today, into the present era. In fact, these echoes created the context which we live in now. I’m specifically speaking of things like red-lining – the practice of excluding certain areas from mortgages for home ownership – and the creation of segregated spaces of intentional economic impoverishment, reservations.
These acts ensured that those who were down, stayed down. People born black or brown would, by definition, and intention, go to sub-standard schools, never own property, and pass no wealth or expectation of achievement on to their children. This system where the virtue of your birth almost absolutely determines your eventual wealth and achievement is racist. We all were born into this system and benefit from it every day. So yup, I’m a racist.
We must be careful to not get tripped up on the fiery language. I believe racism is systemic, and bigotry is individual. I’m not a bigot, but I’ve benefited from a racist system. So, the businessman was right, I’m a racist.
Our obligation is to undue the racist system, piece by piece. It took 400 years to create it, so we’re not going to fix it with a few quick moves, and in fact many of our best efforts may actually end up being mistakes (the City Councilor might yet be proven right). There’s no road map for this, we’re in unchartered territory.
However, that lack of clarity does not pertain to the finish line itself. The hope is that at some point political efforts to tilt the scales like Pell grants, federal student loans and even our modest procurement policy will not be needed because the virtue of your birth won’t mean anything deterministically in the likelihood of your success.
Until that day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we may very well make mistakes, but we must be in it for the long haul.
Thanks for the opportunity for explanation.
Josh Slotnick, Missoula County commissioner