When William M. Wiecek called several weeks ago about the upcoming conference "Structural Racism: Inequality in America Today," I immediately thought, "Here we go again."
Wiecek, the first Lassiter Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Kentucky Law School, hails from Syracuse University, where he will return at the end of this semester.
He and his wife, sociologist Judy Hamilton, are working on a book about structural racism and the U.S. Supreme Court. When he was invited to UK, Wiecek thought a conference about the insidious ways racism exists in our society would be a perfect topic for the James and Mary Lassiter Distinguished Visiting Professor Conference.
I wondered what it was about Kentucky that made the state look receptive to progressive thought. This is the state that elected a U.S. senator who thinks business owners should have the right to refuse service to anyone they please. This is the state that has had numerous racial incidents on college campuses where higher learning is supposed to reside.
Why discuss structural racism here?
"Kentucky is a border state," Wiecek said. "To me, a border state is an ideal place because of that heritage of slavery and Jim Crow. As a border state, it has the characteristics of both the North and the South."
Plus, he said, people in the South don't find it as hard to discuss racial issues as Northerners do, "which is why I think this is a more hospitable environment."
OK, but what exactly is structural racism?
It involves policies that are built into our economic and legal systems, he said. It is about the outcome not the intent. It isn't the same as traditional racism, where one person has a bad attitude about another and then they develop a prejudice, as though to justify that attitude, and find ways to discriminate.
With structural racism, for example, local property taxes fund our schools but in some communities poorer districts get poorer schools, Wiecek said. Those districts tend to be home to minorities.
And, he said, the continued exclusion of domestic and farm workers, who tend to be minorities, from Social Security benefits is structural racism.
"So the problem of Brown vs. Board of Education, the deliberate subjugation of people of color, is not the same problem we have today," he said. "In that spirit, we have organized a group of people (at this conference) ... to share the work they are doing on breaking through our nation's ignorance or neglect of that form of racism that does not wear bed sheets or burn crosses." That form of racism, nonetheless, "maims the life chances of people of color more systematically than any KKK klavern could ever hope to do."
By holding the conference, "We are trying to do the hardest task of all: to get people to see the invisible," he said. Those people are the ones who have the most "at stake in denying what they see in front of them," Wiecek said.
Even if we could magically erase individual bigotry, there is enough structural racism to maintain disparities for years, Hamilton said.
The problem with attacking such an invisible form of oppression has been that the various disciplines examining it don't speak the same language. And until we all find a way to be on the same page, people who hold the power are not going to change, she said.
"I tell my students it is like teaching a fish to see water," Hamilton said. "It is so much a part of what we see, we think it is normal. It is not intentional, not individual bigotry."
But unconscious racism and implicit bias continue because "We have this notion of racism being somebody's fault," she said. Nobody intends for the entrenched policies to have a racial outcome.
"I would make the case that every time we see race disparity in an outcome then we are seeing evidence of structural racism," she said.
Wiecek and Hamilton said the best way to combat structural racism is to recognize it exists, name it and point to it. "Ignorance keeps it going," Hamilton said.
And that brings us back to the purpose of the conference, which has had to move the opening keynote address from its original venue to Memorial Hall because so many people want to attend, Wiecek said.
"We have gone from worrying about empty rooms where speakers outnumber attendees to practical concerns about such things as crowd control," he said.
Opening ceremonies and the keynote address by John Powell, an internationally recognized authority on civil rights and executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, will start at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Memorial Hall.
At 10:30, panel discussions on housing segregation, criminal justice, racialized identities, sociological perspectives, legal history, attitudes and stereotypes, the burdens of history and structural racism in education will begin at the law school.
The conference, which is free, ends by 5 p.m. Lunch will not be provided.