Letter to the Editor : The Problem of the Insidious Culture of Systemic Racism


*This article is a contribution from Dr. Raul Chavez

When I returned to campus last fall semester, I was greeted by a series of lawn posters stuck in the grass; scattered throughout my walk to my office. The posters showed young, good-looking students, smiling at the camera, with inscriptions promoting the college’s racial and gender diversity and denouncing racism and discrimination. For sixteen weeks, I passed the posters mumbling to myself, “You really have no clue, do you?” I was never able to embrace the message. Deep down I understood that the posters embodied the very nature of everything that has been wrong with American society. The Chicano author, Alfredo Vea Jr., in his novel The Mexican Flyboy,  eloquently explains the problem, “We can’t repair our world, our present or future, until we fix our past—pin it down in time and place; shine the brightest light on it, measure it and study it with an unflinching eye—then name it for what it was.” Lawn posters denouncing racism and promoting diversity strewn throughout campus does not address the problem. Vea understands that the issue requires us to use our vision to confront the problem. 

And that … My friends, is our problem! 

The bedrock of American stability defends status quo, oh … we may speak of change, pass a couple civil rights acts, end slavery, give women the vote, but our society was founded on a white patriarchal system., that with over two-hundred years of constitutionally protected white male privilege becoming our default system, we see no need to question tando fix it. The security of the system deludes americans into thinking that while the system may be flawed, it does work. I am reminded by the words of a friend who pointed out to me recently, “Teaching people to be anti-racist is not going to fix the problem, it is the systemic racism of American society that is the issue.”

The problem resides in the insidious culture of systemic racism this nation refuses to “shine the brightest light on,”  to change what has been normal for over two centuries, to leave one’s comfort-zone and feel that brief, but painful, moment of discomfort, when, heaven forbid, you realize it has all been a lie. When I started teaching at Mt. San Antonio College over a quarter of a century ago, the excitement of being part of a community of scholars entrusted with the education of our youth energized my lectures and drove me to ensure I made all students feel welcomed in my class. They were my responsibility, I lectured with my own little flair and embellishment, but always cognizant of respecting the narrative of american history. 

 I remember my first graduation ceremony as an instructor, a retiring English professor, Pat Alloway, gave the keynote address.


Everything Pat spoke about condemned the school for focusing on production-line academics, it had become a factory of education  training its students to become a part of the capitalist labor force … cogs in the American machine (needless to say, it was many years before a professor gave a commencement speech at Mt. SAC!). Pat reminded me that the education we receive must prepare us to be functioning human beings within a society, to share life experiences with others, not as an employee, but as a person imbued with the knowledge of a world full of both the exotic and mundane. Our job as educators, (going back to Socrates?) has been to illuminate and energize the youth; it should come as no surprise that in a culture immersed in capitalism, an institution of learning—such as Mt. San Antonio College—prioritizes commodity education over promoting social justice.  

It took me many years, an insulting advice from a colleague, and a travel ban to Arab countries, for me to finally break loose from the institutional chains that muted my conscience. 

 It was the summer of 2015 when the epiphany moment began; a young, white female student claimed a grade she received was influenced by her race. Although there was a personality clash affecting her behavior in class, her grade was commensurate with her effort. A student grievance report was produced and all  was resolved to everyone’s approval. The grievance did not bother me–it was personal, and nothing more. I was over it; however, there was a residual fallout from a statement made by the chair of the department that has, fortuitously, resonated ever since.  Her official written response to the grievance stated  that I needed to avoid creating a learning environment where a student might feel “uncomfortable.” I had made a 19-year-old, white female uncomfortable by addressing racist issues within the U.S. historical narrative, apparently my use of the word “white” offended her; I still remember the chair telling me in person I needed to try using words such as “society” to make my points rather than saying “whites.”

It was all a fuckin joke! It wasn’t until the spring of 2017 that everything finally fell into place. 

I had begun expressing my views on race more openly after the incident with the chair, but it was during a candid moment with a group of young people that everything changed for me. After a lecture I’d been sharing my “uncomfortable student” incident with a couple of Palestinian youth, when one of them shared her “uncomfortable student”  story to me. As she told the story,  during a political science class in spring of 2017, her instructor made an announcement to the class  regarding Trump’s travel ban from Arab countries. A white male student sitting in the back of class chimed in that as a veteran who served in the Middle East, he understood how important the ban was to the security of the U.S.,  because he knew Muslims (Arabs), and how untrustworthy they are and how they hated America. To make matters worse, the instructor added her own thoughts supporting the ban. So…here you have an eighteen-year old Palestinian female sitting between these two Bozo’s Muslim travel ban love-fest! Oh, but let’s not make young white females uncomfortable when speaking about racism in American history…that really was my FUCK IT moment.  My esteemed colleague was concerned with preventing white students from being “uncomfortable,” oblivious to the reality that the whole U.S narrative makes Brown people feel “uncomfortable,” hell, the history department offers a “History of the Wild West,” seriously…the Wild West?! It doesn’t get any more white supremacist America than that: conquest, manifest destiny, imperialism; structural racism at its most insidiously benign.

As a person of color, I was reminded that my obligation to the young brothers and sisters raised in a system that has made THEM feel uncomfortable from the moment they entered a classroom superseded that of an institution predicated on the principle of “one-ness;” we are all the same, we all share the same story, we are all americans, bullshit!! I still hear the chanting of my Hawaiian sister Haunani Kay Trask, exhorting, “We are not americans … the americans, the white peoples are our enemies…they took our lands, they imprisoned our Queen, they banned our language and forced us to become a colony of the United States. America has always said that it is democratic, that is a lie, they have never been democratic, they have never been democratic with Native peoples, they have never been democratic with Indians…” 

Haunani Kay’s speech is an example of everything that is wrong with American society. “Don’t insult the white people, don’t make them feel uncomfortable,” her words may ring true to Brown people, but whites are uncomfortable. In an age when Americans fall all over themselves in an attempt to find the cute and blonde white Gaby Petito, the media and its viewers are oblivious to the fact that in the state of Wyoming, where the young white girl went missing, 710 Indigenous women have gone missing since 2011. Neither Savannah nor Hoda ever shared a camera with the parents of one of those indigenous women…priorities America!  In the last year Indigenous water protectors have battled multi-national petroleum corporations throughout North America. Do americans care? Clean water is a human right, not a privilege.  The story of Indigenous activism finds little space in the national narrative. Black Lives Matter raised a social awareness to racial injustice, but how serious are americans in making the structural changes necessary to end racism. A football coach loses his job for using racist, pejorative language and loses his job.  A white judge from Louisiana makes national headlines for using the word “nigger” in a private conversation. She must be chastised for using such offensive language, but she is the anomaly, she must be made an example, she must be punished…individual racism is not what haunts America, it is the structural racism imbedded into political, legal, and national DNA of this America that is the problem.

Too much effort is spent in our society focusing on the things we really have no control over.  A racist can not be taught to be something they are not, and probably don’t want to be. Liberal white America needs to listen better to the complaints and actions of people of color.   So, why are Black people upset about the behavior of the police? Why do Indians hold up the construction of petroleum pipelines? Why do Black athletes drop to a knee during the national anthem? To many Liberals, the answers reside in faith, faith in a system meant to bring prosperity and equality to all americans.

We can work together to manifest change, because our system recognizes our rights as citizens.

Patience, our leaders will hear us and establish the nation our founding fathers intended it to be…Bullshit!! The founding fathers created a system meant to promote and protect the welfare of white males at the expense of people of color. If applied correctly, the system DOES NOT work for people of color; anyone who believes this is delusional. Is it wrong to know this? Structural racism as the foundation of the system is the problem. Is it hateful to claim this? These are truths all peoples must understand, not just Brown people–but whites also. Everything we know about ourselves as americans has been filtered through a racist sieve promoting an anti-Brown agenda, regardless of what it is that we tell ourselves otherwise, and fuckin lawn posters strewn throughout campus will not suddenly erase the campus-wide structural racism afflicting this school.  Seventy-plus years of status quo leadership has prevented the school from reading its own signs. Perhaps those faculty possessing that all so rare  social-justice conscience–and I know they exist–will force their way into the minds of enough of the young Mt. SAC students to help end this culture of denial and guilt so destructive to society’s ability to move in a direction where people of color receive the due-respect deserved from their historical experience. HEY AMERICA…IT’S ALL BEEN A LIE! And Mt. SAC, are you ready to take down those signs?