During the annual Kenan Distinguished Lecture, Making Straight What Has Been Crooked: The Ethics and Politics of Race in America, Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu and Associate Professor of History at Duke University, Adriane Lentz-Smith engaged members of the Duke and greater Durham community in a conversation about improving racial relations. Throughout the discussion, Landrieu explained that his executive decision to remove four of New Orleans’s confederate monuments reflects his belief that a greater effort to recognize and apologize for the institution of slavery can help us advance towards a post-racial America. Despite the progress made since the Jim Crow Era, however, recent events, such as the Charlottesville rally and the Charleston church shooting, for me, still indicate a widespread white supremacist and racist stronghold. Here, I wondered if a post-racial America can ever be realized.
Although overt segregation no longer exists, a phenomenon Landrieu referred to as “institutionalized racism” imposes a major obstacle for equality. Using his experience orchestrating the removal of four monuments, Landrieu elucidated his definition of institutionalized racism. While the monuments commemorated the confederacy, the side fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, many believed them to represent important aspects of Louisiana’s history and culture. Since every contractor within the state refused to carry out the project, removal proved to be an extremely arduous task. As he believed the monuments memorialized the most heinous period in our nation’s history, Landrieu did not abandon his search for a contractor. Eventually, contractors from outside of the state took to the task, receiving multiple death threats, and even having their cars firebombed.
Moreover, Landrieu referred to institutional racism as a “structural inertia”, preventing black and brown individuals from actually attaining the rights and privileges the law ostensibly promises to everyone. I thought about the role of institutionalized racism in what is increasingly being referred to as the black maternal health crisis. In a recent Slate article, researchers, controlling for factors such as socio-economic and educational status, found that prejudicial assumptions regarding black women can create a “toxic work environment”, leading to additional stress and health-related issues. In fact, the article claimed that discrimination may at least be partially responsible for the black, non-hispanic infant mortality rate, nearly double that of the the white, non-hispanic rate. Moreover, black women are “two to three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication.”
Throughout Landrieu’s discussion of institutionalized racism, I thought about its relationship to implicit bias, a frequently mentioned concept among the women with whom I have conversed. Drawing parallels between Landrieu’s call for a nation-wide recognition of institutionalized racism, Dr. Brenda Armstrong’s call for a university-wide, mandated implicit bias test; and Professor Keith’s call for a “cultural competency” course to be implemented in the legal curriculum; I wondered whether a conscious, educational effort to both recognize and address our implicit biases will also help ebb the pernicious effects of institutionalized racism. Moreover, I wondered if many of those who were not present at the lecture were those who most needed to be informed of Landrieu’s prescription for a united nation.