Deeper Than Diversity - Reflections on Systemic Racism in and Outside of Schools

Let’s talk about what’s happening this summer with regard to racial equity. A lot of my colleagues and friends are excited that the country is finally ‘waking up’ to the realities of race issues in America. As protests have boiled across the country, many companies have made statements and pledges to be part of the solution. I have questions, however, and they may be uncomfortable: To what degree are freshly reinvigorated DEI initiatives capable of making a dent in the systemic oppression of Black and Brown people worldwide? And how can companies come out against racial oppression when it is essential to their prosperity?

I want to share a couple focus areas that shed light on these questions and create a more realistic and truthful lens through which we should look at race inequality.

  • Apple made a powerful statement regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to pledging money to causes that fight for racial justice.

Let’s contrast this with a look at one of Apple’s main revenue streams: making electronics. Many of the materials that go into our smartphones and laptops are frequently mined using slave labor and child labor, contributing to endemic poverty, armed conflicts, and in fact the destruction of Black lives. [1] [2] [3][4][5]

This is not going to be remedied by donations and DEI work. If the world’s electronics makers truly valued Black lives, they could thoroughly investigate their supply chains and root out this issue; however, doing so would negatively impact their profit margins and make it harder to offer products at competitive prices.

Undocumented seasonal farm workers are the backbone of our agricultural industry. They are not paid living wages or provided with viable housing, and they are not protected when they face widespread health and safety issues on the job. [1][2]

Ben & Jerry’s made one of the most powerful statements of any large company. The claims and calls to action therein are well-researched and necessary. But, looking a little closer, things get more complicated. For starters, they are owned by Unilever, who’s human rights track record is not strong. [1][2] Being a subsidiary of a corporation is a direct form of support for that corporation and its practices. Additionally, Ben & Jerry’s’ own dairy suppliers striked over poor work conditions in their supply chain as recently as 2017. While they did make a commitment to improving those conditions, it does remind us of how widespread exploitation of agriculture workers is, especially when unchallenged. It also shows that even the corporate shining stars of this movement are connected to the continued subjugation of those living in the Global South.

  • Next, I’ll touch on consumer goods: the clothing, appliances, and general plastic stuff that we like to use (and throw away).

It’s pretty well known that the manufacture of most of our consumer goods has been outsourced to countries where workers’ rights are virtually nonexistent. Many American companies subcontract to local factories that utilize child labor, provide little to no healthcare, and pay workers cents on the hour. [1] This may meet or exceed the local standard in poor countries, and the answer probably isn’t to put an American minimum wage in sweatshop workers’ pockets. That said, what would this system look like if American companies were invested in economically empowering the people and countries that make their products? How much do our companies’ bottom lines depend on the socioeconomic inferiority of the developing world? Would this country have amassed the wealth it did, if the slaves that built it were required to be treated as human and compensated for their work?

Furthermore, a consumer economy is inherently incapable of sustaining itself. The first casualties of environmental destruction and climate change have been and will continue to be Black and Brown people. Any company that seeks to turn a profit by directly or indirectly exhausting the resources of Earth is part of that. How much does a Green or Sustainable ribbon on a product improve the planet when the end result is still the creation of more stuff?

  • I, like many of you, have made my career in the building industry. Buildings, even green buildings, require an exorbitant amount of stuff to build and to run. Where this stuff comes from, and the infrastructure it contributes to, is overwhelming problematic.

Some of the main materials we use to construct buildings are sourced via exploitation and neglect. Steel is one of the primary materials used in buildings; it’s made from iron and carbon. Iron’s supply chain is full of slave labor. Carbon is taken from coal, which has a notoriously dark past and present. [1][2][3]

In a broader sense, the expansion of infrastructure comes with a myriad of ethical problems. This is the inconvenient truth. Even Ben & Jerry’s contributes with every new store it opens, every machine and piece of paper or plastic they use, every forest cleared for more cows. Few of the entities we work for, support, and rely on in our current system can escape this truth. I think you get the point.

  • Racism is characteristic of our K-12 school system, which brings us to our last section.

We know that low-income Black communities do not have the wealth or the income (tax revenue) needed to fund the improvement of their school districts. But how exactly we got here, and why it has not improved, is not a coincidence. Today’s ghettos exist thanks to the concerted efforts of Jim Crow, Redlining practices, and the racism of the post WWII G.I. bill to exclude Black people from access to home-ownership and to prevent them from building generational wealth. The War on Drugs has and continues to destabilize and criminalize Black communities to an astronomical degree. Bring in the school-to-prison pipeline, and it should become clear that the issues these communities are facing are profound.

Our Indigenous brothers and sisters face a deeply racist history in education as well. Between the 1870s and 1973, Indian children were sent to boarding schools which were specifically designed to strip them of their culture and identity. The legacy of this has been tremendously impactful. Coupling that with centuries of displacement, violence, and neglect (and the mass death, poverty, addiction, and depression they’ve effected) begins to illuminate the underside of the iceberg – the tip being the low achievement and quality of schools in Indigenous communities, and Indigenous underrepresentation in STEM fields.

Note that all of the underlying factors described have been implemented not haphazardly but intentionally. So phrases like “Our schooling system is broken” are missing a major theme. The system is working as designed. If we want to improve schools using an ‘equity lens’, we should be frank about what we are truly up against. If we want to apply sustainable initiatives to underserved schools, we should at least be considering how much those efforts can truly empower communities of color.

Nevertheless, outreach to kids can be extremely valuable. But if our objective is to direct the paths of kids and schools based on an external assessment of what they need, our work will do nothing to counteract the social forces that create the inequity we want to fight. It’s extremely important to engage the children, parents, and educators we serve. We should continue to support them with resources and connections, find ways to strengthen young voices, and share insights and tools to fight the environmental crisis, keeping in mind that the biggest contributors to climate change are the rich, not the poor. Keeping in mind the role white parents have played in keeping school segregation, a direct form of oppression, alive. Keeping in mind the irony for Natives – who lived in relative harmony with the natural world before a genocide was inflicted upon them – to have sustainability preached to them by the people who exacted it, and who actively propagate further devastation with their way of life. Thus, as we continue to build connections with schools, let’s develop strategies to provoke structural rather than surface-level change.

My goal is not be apathetic or to shame anyone; rather I want to help paint a clearer picture of how the world operates. Remember colonization (1500-1945), the campaign by Western countries to acquire and exploit the world’s natural resources and human labor? Well, the forces that drove it didn’t cease to exist when colonies gained independence. The United States prides itself to this day on Western values. Except in their presentation, our economic, social, and political foundations have changed little since the beginning. The countries and peoples who possess the most valuable resources are not the ones allowed to prosper. Today’s economic powers are founded, built, and sustained because the rest of the world is *conveniently* too powerless to demand true equity. It’s the only way to make products at a competitive price point. Our comfort, technology, and sustenance are sourced from the subjugation and enslavement of people inside our own borders and in the developing world.

My hope is that this provides some timely perspective. I know so many architects and Engineers like myself are trying to improve schools and uplift communities right now. We’re doing so while working for a system that is inextricably linked to the oppression of those same people. This is not a call to change your job, although I don’t feel that would be an overreaction. This also isn’t to say that inclusion work shouldn’t be done; these are small and achievable steps in the right direction.

Let’s just not convince ourselves that more diversity will bring about the structural reform necessary to reverse course in the system we work for. Let’s not pretend that hiring more second-class citizens to work in industries that propagate the existence of second-class citizenship is going to do much more than improve the lives of a negligible number of Black and Brown people, win more business, and make us feel better about ourselves, all while preserving the overall status quo.

 


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