In trying to
explain systemic racism, I’d like to use a metaphor. Sometimes
I compare racism to having a significant carbon footprint. The
population of the United States is just 5% of the world’s
population, yet we contribute disproportionately to the carbon
footprint that is causing global warming and the loss of the polar
ice caps – resulting in rising sea levels. The rising sea
levels devastate many populations across the globe –
populations whose lifestyles and industries contribute almost nothing
to global warming - particularly small islands. Take Tuvalu – a
tiny country in Oceania made up of nine tiny islands.
people of Tuvalu are losing access to significant portions of their
livable land mass, due largely to the actions of people in the
western world, especially the United States. Judging from the media
attention this story gets, the U.S. perspective is that the country
of Tuvalu is inconsequential. Even though our consumer lifestyle and
fossil fuel use is a major contributing factor to the hardships faced
by Tuvalu, most people in the Western world are oblivious to the
plight of the people living on these shrinking islands.
Tuvalu often walk through ankle-deep water to get anywhere on the
islands, sometimes stepping on cement blocks to get some relief from
the water. They may soon be forced to evacuate. Their living
conditions represent an example of the harms caused by one group but
felt by another and all the while, the powerful group can remain
For people who
believe that harm is only caused when there is intent to do harm,
this metaphor helps to make clear that one need not be aware in order
to harm. But the other side of the coin is that once one is aware, a
moral imperative arises.
the kicker: Our leaders are fully aware of what is going on with
Tuvalu. They’ve known for years that if the developed nations
reduce their carbon output, the people of Tuvalu could continue to
inhabit their island nation. At the United Nations Climate Change
Conference, the prime minister of Tuvalu said, “Let’s do
it for Tuvalu. For if we save Tuvalu we save the world.”
is a canary in the coal mine. It is a warning that the fate of Tuvalu
will be our fate, if we don’t change.
I like this
metaphor, because I think it helps us to see that systemic racism
causes harm whether you are aware of it or not - and, if left
unaddressed, this cancer will impact everyone, not just the Black,
Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) populations.
The people of
the United States hold no animus for the people of Tuvalu but that
doesn’t matter - our carbon footprint (the size of which is
driven by our culture, politics, industries, policies, and
institutions) has disproportionately contributed to factors that
cause global warming and make life in Tuvalu almost unbearable.
white people in the United States will tell you that they harbor no
ill will toward people of color. Yet, our white dominated power
structures/institutions behave in ways that produce harm. In every
measure of human well-being, Black and Brown people in the U.S. (as a
group) fare poorly compared to whites in the United States.
there are exceptions. When people point out Oprah Winfrey or Barack
Obama to counter my assertion, I remind them that with any group,
there have always been a few Black and Brown individuals whose lives
are somehow exceptional. That was even true during slavery.
bottom line is that economic inequality and limited opportunity is
the by-product of interlocking systems. This is just as true today as
it has been for much of this country’s history. Empirical data
bears it out.