“It was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.”
Malcolm X, trying to explain his infamous “chickens” quote
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (1964)
During the 1960’s Malcolm X was perhaps the most controversial voice for Black America during the Civil Rights Movement. His “Chickens coming home to roost” was arguably one of his most controversial statement. This quote earned him censorship from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, as well as the ire of many Americans. However, Malcolm X did not back down from his words. Many interpreted his words as condoning the assassination of President Kennedy. This however was a mistake. His words were much deeper than a seemingly unsympathetic remark about an American tragedy. It was a brutally honest assessment of a problem that continues to plague America today. Malcolm X described the grotesque violence that is created by the all-consuming nature of institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism creates a socio-political, economic, and cultural system predicated on violence that is perpetuated throughout all of society. In such an environment not even the President of the United States is safe.
Malcolm X’s words inform my own reflection on the series of recent tragedies in Dallas, St. Paul, and Baton Rouge. Recently, I have zoned in and out of various media coverage of all these incidents. I can’t help but notice that despite all of the different issues that have been analyzed I have been very dissatisfied with the socio-historical analysis of the events. Personally, I believe that the five officers murdered in Dallas, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling are all victims of systemic or institutionalized racism. More accurately, their deaths are the result of a society that refuses to acknowledge its racial history and the ongoing systems of inequality that continue to create a racialized caste system.
Institutional racism is defined simply as the way that various practices in social and political institutions are embedded with racist ideologies that create inequality. These ideologies are reiterated through various avenues such as; the criminal justice system, employment opportunities, housing, health care, political power, education. Institutional racism can be both implicit as well and explicit. It can often go unnoticed and can be reinforced through the status quo. Institutional racism originates through everyday opportunities and operates through the politics of respectability. It is easy to recognize or call out a racist individual but institutional racism is far more complicated. Institutional racism is by no mean a recent phenomenon. African Americans have fought against institutional racism for about as long as they have fought for equal right and protection under the law. Whether it was through the race riots in Detroit, Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas during the Civil Rights Movement Era, the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, protest over Rodney King, and the contemporary iteration of Black Lives Matter Movement; the struggle against institutional racism continues. Finally, institutional racism evokes both passive and active violence. Economic disparities, lack of educational opportunities, political disenfranchisement, and environmental racism are acts of passive violence that are created by institutional racism. It should come as no surprise that these conditions create an environment where active violence becomes a normalized behavior. This behavior becomes a staple for every stakeholder in the system of institutionalized racism.
If institutional racism is indeed the problem what exactly is its scope today? This particular problem exists at all levels. To begin with it is exists at all levels of the education system. Yes, this includes preschool. Black children make up a large portion of the preschoolers who are suspended according to a recent study. They compose relatively 1/6 of the preschool population, yet they represent over 50 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. In general, black children are far more likely to face stricter punishments compared to white students in grades K through twelve. They make up forty percent of all school expulsions and over sixty percent of the students referred to the police from schools are minorities according to the department of education. Scholars call this phenomenon the school to prison pipeline.
Institutional racism also affects employment opportunities and housing arrangements. Black graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white college graduates. It is no secret about the ongoing disparities between mean income for African American families compared to white families. Recent research has also indicated racial biases in hiring practices. Applicants with black sounding names have found great difficulty in finding employment despite have similar or a better resume compared to other applicants. Studies also show that as the pay scale for a particular job increases using increments of 10,000 dollars, the likelihood of an African American applicant receiving that job decreases by seven percent. In the housing market, almost 80 percent of whites own homes compared to less than 50 percent of African Americans. Perhaps most staggering are recent figures that suggest that the median net worth of white families is approximately 250,000 dollars compared to nearly 30,000 dollars for black families.
The greatest indicator of institutional racism continues to be the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, racial inequality is pervasive at every step of the criminal justice process. Black juveniles are 18 times as likely to be sentenced as adults compared to white juveniles. They also compose the vast majority of both the juveniles in prison as well as the one’s tried as adults in the court system. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be searched during a routine traffic stop by a police officer and more than six times as likely to be arrested. According to the Sentencing Project found that this statistic is not merely a coincidence stating that there is “an implicit racial association of black Americans with dangerous or aggressive behavior.” Furthermore, systematic inequality continues to exist in the court system as well. A black person who kills a white person is twice as likely to receive the death penalty as a white person who kills a black person. Even jury selection suffers from racial discrimination. Black jurors who are equally as qualified as white jurors have been illegally turned away from the courtroom in some places as often as ⅘ times. The end result of this process is that in many death penalty cases, particularly one’s involving African Americans, predominantly white juries determine guilt or innocence. Sadly, this is just the beginning of institutional racism in the court system. Noticeably absent from this picture are any stats about stop and frisk policies from the FBI’s investigation, disparities created by mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing laws, and the impact of the War on Drugs.
If any of the above facts are hard to believe then take the recommendation of the United Nations on the current status of race relations in the United States. In a recent news article Ricardo Sunga III, chair of the UN expert panel on people of African descent that the United States has a high level of institutional and structural racism. He also noted that excessive form seems to be the norm for police when dealing with African Americans, who are more than twice as likes to be shot by officers compared to whites. Sunga stated: “It is time, now for the US Government to strongly assert that Black lives matter and prevent any further killings as a matter of national priority.”
To conclude I will return to Malcolm X’s (in)famous words about a “chicken coming home to roost.” In his first interview after being censured by the Nation of Islam Malcolm X did not shy away from his original comments. He also described American racial progress using the analogy of a 9-inch knife in someone’s back. I think this is an appropriate analogy to describe the current impact and attitude towards institutional racism in American society. Institutional racism is like a 9-inch knife that has been placed in the back of Black America. It creates crippling conditions that make it a struggle for black people to move on a daily basis. Since the Classic Era of the Civil Right Movement some people have said that the knife is only three inches and others have said the knife has been removed. Either way according to Malcolm X it does not matter whether the knife is still there or completely removed. True progress only happens once the wounds that the knife has created begins to heal. However, for Malcolm X and many other black Americans most people in the United States refuse to even admit that there is a knife in the back. No matter what one’s perspective is, one thing remains clear. American society is not even close to healing any of the wounds created by institutional racism.