“Systematic Racism in White Neighborhoods, White Schools, and White Thinking” – Emma Janak

In her panel, titled “Living in a Bubble: White Neighborhoods, White Schools, White Thinking”, Dr. Lisa Nunn, a sociologist of education, referenced Emile Durkheim’s famous quote, “We are born into a world that pre-exists us.” Dr. Nunn discussed topics revolving around racism in schools, neighborhoods, and white niceness, covering how these oppressive institutional systems are in place and how they have developed over time. During Black History Month, University of San Diego’s law school has held the “Baked In: Systematic Racism Around and Within Us Series”, covering the different areas in which racism is present, and providing insight to those who are eager to enhance their perspective. This series covers a variety of different institutions and places in which black people are still facing injustices and provides a space for attendees to listen to a professional in the specified field and share their own thoughts and reactions on systematic racism, including the steps we must take to battle this institutionalized norm. Dr. Nunn urged her audience to acknowledge the harmful effects of these institutions and behaviors that are displayed in our own society every day. From the smallest things, like what is available in a college campus bookstore, to what neighborhoods white people choose to live in, all are factors in systematic racism. Dr. Nunn asked deep, thought-provoking questions, that I will speak to, such as: How is opportunity hoarding oppressive in today’s educational system? What does white niceness entail? What changes can we make to our community so that it is less of a white institutional place and less grounded in white thinking?

Redlining was introduced in the 1930’s as a way to segregate and discriminate against people of color who were trying to buy houses. A variety of different tactics were used in redlining such as declining loans for people of color and creating spaces in which certain areas were occupied solely by people of color. Although redlining is no longer in place, it relates to the larger issue of segregation, which Dr. Nunn explained, stating that even “as metropolitan areas diversify; White Americans still live in mostly white neighborhoods.” Even with the diversification of society, black people are still negatively impacted. In “Chapter 6: The Northern Black Freedom Struggle and the Coming of the Civil War [1830-1860]” in Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., “Black laws discouraged… blacks from entering or settling in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.” Black people were also restricted by law and custom, “access to jobs, public institutions…and white neighborhoods” (Racial Discrimination in the Era of the Common Man 217). Dr. Nunn talked a lot about opportunity hoarding, a term which refers to white, middle class families taking opportunities away from black people in order to succeed later in life. Dr. Nunn specifically related opportunity hoarding to the education system, explaining that many of these white, middle class families are more likely to push their children into honors and AP classes to benefit them in college and later in life. Of course, this is something that any parent, regardless of race, wants for their child, but these white families, as Dr. Nunn explained, are likely to push their children into these courses even if their child’s test scores don’t qualify them, and in some cases, even when the child doesn’t want to. Opportunity hoarding is an example of systematic racism because as these white students are placed in these honors classes, it leaves less room for black students to join these classes, therefore negatively impacting their education in high school and college. In both schools and neighborhoods, black people are isolated and pushed out of opportunities and neighborhoods, causing them to be seen as inferior and placed at the bottom of society. As seen in “Chapter 4: Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic [1775-1820]” from the text Freedom on My Mind, white people were “quick to blame free blacks’ poverty and low occupational status on inherent racial inferiority than social forces” (Free Black Education and Employment 154). Many white people saw black people as a threat and therefore did everything in their power to subdue them and their position in society including inhibiting them from gaining an education. The racial hostility and economic discrimination that was present in the 1800’s is still present and emphasizes the sad reality that in the past 200 years there has not been as much of a change in the treatment of black people as one would like to believe. Dr. Nunn highlights this issue so that we may be able to change our actions in order to foster a more inclusive environment, in which we support black people and work to elevate black people in our society rather than bring them down.

In her panel, Dr. Nunn talked about white niceness. Initially, I was confused on what she meant by white niceness and how it related to systematic racism because when looking back in history, there is a lot of white violence and hostility towards black people. White niceness is the idea that white people choose to “gloss over ugly, awful stuff that makes us uncomfortable and leads us to obscure racial injustice” explained Dr. Nunn. By ignoring and choosing to look past the injustices of the past, white people are actually further inhibiting the black community. After the emancipation of slaves, the North was viewed by many slaves as a safe, opportunistic area in which they could go and be free and live-in cohesion with white people. Many slaves ran from the south and migrated to the North in search for these opportunities. When they got to the North, they realized they were shut out of society and discriminated against in jobs, housing, and schools. As seen in “Chapter 4: Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic [1775-1820]” from the text Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., white people took “time to craft racially discriminatory statues and practices designed to keep [black people] at the bottom of the northern labor market” (Free Black Education and Employment 153). These northern whites were intimidated by the idea of black people succeeding in their society. The Northern whites thought that since they were against the institution of slavery, they were being nice, and therefore there was no issue with their implementation of racially discriminative practices. These beliefs are still in place in society today as demonstrated by Dr. Nunn’s discussion of white niceness. Placing value on niceness leads to an overall avoidance of discussion about race altogether and claims that race “doesn’t matter.” Rather than providing black people with equal opportunities, white niceness and opportunity hoarding conveys that even if most of society is against slavery as an institution, there are still areas in which we need to improve in order to ensure that black people are given equal opportunities and rights. In order to advance as a society, we must talk about things that make us feel uncomfortable and acknowledge our oppressive history so that we may grow and learn from it.

This program is significant to our understanding of African American History as it brings attention to the underlying issues that are still present in our everyday life. Especially in Black History Month, it is important to be self-reviewing what we can do to foster a more inclusive environment in which all people are treated fairly, regardless of the color of their skin. By challenging these topics head on, we are avoiding the common fall to white niceness and rather shedding light on racial injustices so they may be addressed and hopefully eradicated.

Works Cited

“Chapter 4: Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic, 1775-1820.” Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 153-154.

Chapter 6: The Northern Black Freedom Struggle and the Coming of the Civil War, 1830-1860.” Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 217.

Nunn, Lisa. “Living in a Bubble: White Neighborhoods, White Schools, White Thinking.” Baked In: Systemic Racism Around and Within Us Series. 2 March 2021.

Williams, A., & Emamdjomeh, A. (2018, May 02). America is more diverse than ever – but still segregated. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/segregation-us-cities/

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