Some things do not change. In 2014, under President Obama, Americans found themselves taking to the streets to protest something called “systemic racism”. Now, in 2020, under President Trump, we find Americans taking to the streets protesting the same thing. One of the questions that has repeatedly emerged over the years is how can these laws be racist if they impact everyone equally. The answer is that they historically have not, nor do they really impact everyone equally today. But systemic racism means just that: our legal system was created by those with racist motives, and the effects of those motives continue to plague our legal system today.
In order to discuss systemic racism, it is important to understand what that means. The word “systemic” is, perhaps, the most important part of the phrase, as it means that the racism—that is, the racial discrimination that has become established as normal behavior—comes from and is enforced by the system that continues to enable it. The system in question is none other than the American Legal System and its rules and regulations. To talk about systemic racism, this institutionalized racism, is to understand that it is embedded entirely within the American Legal System itself.
It is no secret that there have been several more-than-questionable laws established in the American Legal System since our country’s founding. Slavery itself was a racist legal institution where white people had power over black people. Yes, there were black slave owners, but not enough that black people had any power in the creation and development of this legal system. After all, they did not make up a large enough portion of the power structure to stop what happened next.
After slavery there was this perceived notion that whites needed to be somehow protected from blacks, both economically and socially, and laws began to emerge with that notion in mind. Slave Codes transformed into Black Codes, laws that infringed on the 2nd Amendment rights of the newly “freed” Americans. In the early 1900’s, “many southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the gun market”. Throughout the 1990’s and to this day, we sit by and watch as “gun control laws continue to be enacted so as to have a racist effect if not intent”. Gun control laws, however, are only one of the various laws that make up the often-racial outcomes of the American Legal System.
Shortly after the end of legalized slavery, Black American workers began to show up in trades. They began working in “artisan careers as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, shoemakers, and vendors”. They “were able to navigate the economy far more freely, had greater access to education, and increased consumption levels heightened demand for artisans’ services”. Fearing competition, whites began to push for laws that focused on restricting Black Americans’ access to the workforce, including laws leading to the creation of occupational licensing. The original idea, or intent, behind occupational licensing was that it would price Black Americans out of these trades, creating less competition for those low-skilled white Americans that were already struggling to make ends meet. Since the 1950’s the number of occupations requiring licensing has only grown.
Occupational licensing restrictions were not the only barriers placed upon these communities when it came to restricting their ability to freely enter the workforce. At the end of the nineteenth century, “blacks were 85-90 percent of the firemen, 27 percent of the brakemen, and 12 percent of the switchmen”. Since unions at the time were “unable to block railroad companies from hiring non-unionized black workers,” they “called for regulations preventing the employment of blacks. In 1909, a compromise was offered: a minimum wage, which was to be imposed equally on all races”. However—and this shouldn’t be surprising—it was not equally imposed on all races, and it served as a way of, again, benefiting white Americans and ultimately pricing Black Americans out of these industries in which they were beginning to flourish.
These laws have continued to haunt generation after generation of Americans, ever serving their intended purposes. Even today, in the year 2020, these same laws continue to have a negative effect on these Black and poor white communities. When we talk about gun control today, we see many laws aimed at making it more expensive to own a weapon. H.R. 5717 “would implement a 30% tax on all gun sales and a 50% tax on all ammunition sales”. Here we have another tax simply aimed at making legally owning weapons more expensive, pricing certain groups out of the market. In many places it has become a felony to simply own an unlicensed weapon. Considering Black Americans make up for only approximately 12% of the population, but approximately 43% of the population arrested on weapon’s possessions charges, it is safe to say that these laws still have a harsher impact on these communities. But, as previously stated, that was the intent.
There is also the ongoing issue of occupational licensing having a negative impact on entry into the workforce. In some places it takes more training to be a cosmetologist than it does to become a police officer. In the 1950’s approximately 4.5 percent of the workforce needed to seek a license to work. Now, “that figure has grown to over 20 percent”, with states requiring “licenses for an average of 92 occupations”. Numerous studies have shown that the burden of licensure outweighs the benefits, and often licensing laws have served to “reduce service quality and public safety”. But occupational licensing continues to serve a purpose, and that purpose is to make it harder for those in lower income communities to compete in the market. Considering Black Americans make up a large portion of the unemployment numbers, there is enough evidence to at least question whether occupational licensing is worthwhile or if it continues to serve as a barrier for these communities trying to enter the workforce.
Minimum wage is another great example of how the American Legal System, the government, has placed barriers on Black Americans from entering the workforce. Minimum wage laws continue to price low-skilled workers out of the competition. Considering 16% of low-skilled workers are Black Americans, these laws continue to serve as intended barriers for this community when it comes to having the ability to enter the workforce and elevating oneself into a skilled trade.
In the end, the American Legal System has been plagued with laws based on racist intentions while successfully producing racist outcomes. Not only have we historically made criminals out of these communities for merely accessing their Constitutional Rights as American citizens, but we have continued to place economic barriers on their entry into the workforce. After all, we still see a push for things like gun control through taxation, a (finally shrinking, but ever-present) demand for occupational licensing, and constant pushes to increase the minimum wage, all without any consideration for the history of these demands nor their outcomes.
The thing about systemic racism is that it is, intrinsically and as the phrase clearly states, found in the system. The person upholding or supporting the legal system, as it is, themselves might not be racist, but the system they are upholding or supporting is. If we are going to actively be anti-racist as a nation, then that means we are going to have to actively stop voting individuals into power with a history of supporting these very same institutions, no matter how vile the opposition. Otherwise, these racist power structures will never be changed.
Edited by: Daniel J. Frimpter