Buck the System

Conquering racism begins with understanding that it’s a system that can be dismantled

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, is a family physician, epidemiologist, and Past President of the American Public Health Association whose work focuses on naming, measuring, and addressing the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of our nation and the world.

That’s how her bio reads.

It should be noted, however, that the nature of Dr. Jones’ work is laced with complications—because, as she put it, many Americans neither understand nor want to discuss racism. In fact, as she presented her talk, Racism is a System: WE CAN ACT to Dismantle Racism, during the American Psychological Association’s virtual APA 2021 Convention, Dr. Jones often cautioned listeners to resist getting their “hackles up” and, “if you feel uncomfortable, I want you to shake it off.”

A Four-Eyed Monster

Discomfort over discussing racism stems from four core falsehoods that perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of racism.  

  1. Racism does not really exist. As Dr. Jones explained, a crucial step toward breaking down racism is forgetting the old—and very untrue—adage that hard work reaps success. Put another way, the American dream is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. “Most people who make it have worked hard. But there are many other people working just as hard, or harder, who will never make it because of an uneven playing field that is structured and perpetuated by racism, sexism, or any other number of systems of inequity,” Dr. Jones said. “But we don’t call it racism. We blame those who don’t make it—describing them as lazy or stupid.”
  2. Racism comes down to individual shortcomings. Racism actually results from a much larger, system-wide series of failures, Dr. Jones explained. “When I say the word racism, I’m not talking about an individual character flaw, a personal moral failing, or even a psychiatric illness. I’m talking about a system of power based on two things—structuring opportunity and assigning value.” Once the “system” is in focus, the question progresses from What can I do about racism? to What can we do? “That’s when we develop our sense of collective efficacy,” Dr. Jones added.
  3. Racism only hurts certain individuals. In fact, Dr. Jones emphasized, racism saps the entire society’s strength by wasting valuable human resources. “I actually think that this is where we need to focus,” Dr. Jones said. “We need more people to have a sense of urgency to dismantle this system and put in place a system where all people can know and develop their full potential.”
  4. Racism can only be addressed one person at a time. A far better approach to racism is to examine the system perpetuating racism, Dr. Jones said. “The first step of action is to ask this question: How is racism operating here—within structures, policies, practices, norms, and values. Then we can identify levers for intervention and targets for action. Collective action will propel us to dismantle the system of racism. Collective action is power.”

Long Story Short

To illustrate the importance of dismantling racism at the system’s level, Dr. Jones leaned on her recognized knack for allegories.

The story begins with a factory spewing cement dust, and anyone anywhere near this factory suffers from cement dust in their lungs. This accumulation of lung dust affects town folks in different ways. “For example, cement dust in my lungs might make me doubt myself and my full humanity. Maybe I shouldn’t try to graduate from high school or even apply college,” Dr. Jones said. “Cement dust in someone else’s lungs might make them feel that they can, with equanimity, put a knee on someone’s neck for nine minutes and 29 second and crush the very life out of that human being.”

Approaching this scenario on an individual basis might involve “some kind of screening machine to measure how much dust you have in your lungs, and if you have too much dust in your lungs an alarm goes off,” Dr. Jones said. Then she asked, “What do you do with people who set off the alarm? Do you vote them off the island? We can’t do that. So, I think we should scrap this idea.”

Continuing an individual-by-individual approach to getting rid of cement in the lungs—aka racism—Dr. Jones suggested a lung cleansing spa. “But if you come right back into that same cloud of dust, you’re going to re-accumulate lung dust. So, maybe we should not focus on interventions at the individual level.”

Concluding the allegory, Dr. Jones suggests that it’s the factory and its manufacturing system that needs to be dismantled—and then reassembled so that cement dust no longer spews into the air.

Racism may not be a visible cloud of cement dust, but it is built on a system with identifiable and addressable mechanisms, Dr. Jones said. “The mechanisms are in our structures, policies, practices, norms, and values – the very elements of decision-making. But who is seated at the decision-making table? Look around. Who has an interest in this proceeding but isn’t seated at the table?

“By thinking for 10 minutes about who’s at the table, who’s not, what’s on the agenda, you can generate five,10, or even 15 action levers for intervention—which will equip you to focus efforts that can dismantle the system of racism.”