It is a term we have heard a lot since the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers last month.
But what does the term actually mean in real time?
Here is a real time personal experience I had with systemic racism.
In 1973, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola,” was under immense pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to integrate the prison. At the time Angola was known as “the bloodiest prison in America.”
Irvin “Life” Breaux, a New Orleans African American inmate serving a life sentence, and myself were chosen by fellow inmates—and accepted by Justice Department and prison officials—to lead the integration of the prison, beginning with the “Big Yard” complex where most of the violence was taking place. We were given one week to integrate the Big Yard on a voluntary basis or face the forced integration of the prison by an armed National Guard if necessary.
Life and I picked four other inmates, two white and two black, to help us with the one week grace period we had to complete the integration.
Although the overwhelming white, redneck guard staff opposed the integration process, the prison warden, at the encouragement of DOJ attorneys, gave me and Life unrestricted access to all the 60-man dormitories on the Big Yard. We met with the inmate population, cajoling, convincing, pressuring, negotiating with them, and even bribing white and black inmate power brokers to accept the integration deal we were proposing.
Life and I spent 18 to 20 hours a day in this negotiation process, sometimes in heated, near-violent confrontations. We had to quell rumors, allay paranoia, and constantly appeal to the power brokers’ vested interests. It was no easy task.
But our efforts paid off. We successfully integrated the Big Yard without a single fist fight, without one drop of blood being shed, and even with black and white power brokers coming together to make it work. It was one of the greatest achievements in my life.
But then systemic racism reared its ugly head.
The redneck guard staff, enraged by the unprecedented way we had integrated the prison, set me up by planting three tabs of LSD in my personal property. A redneck disciplinary tribunal placed me in solitary confinement where I spent the next two years. It was the only major disciplinary infraction I would receive during my 40-year confinement.
Several days after I was placed in solitary, Life was brutally stabbed to death by two brothers in a knife fight engineered and orchestrated by the same redneck staff that framed me.
Systemic racism led to the two setups.
I was placed in lockdown and Life was murdered. Life was killed because the redneck guards wanted to send a racist, violent message to the black inmate population: “you live only if we let you live.”
Years later as an award-winning co-editor of the prison newsmagazine, The Angolite, I was the recipient of the 1980 American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, the ABA’s highest honor, for an article I wrote about Life’s killing.
In real time, Life gave me one of the best friendships I’ve ever had; and in death he gave me the honor of being able to write about the horrible wrong done to him and for both of us to be nationally recognized for it.
Together, Life and I bridged systemic racism under the worst of conditions for a brief period and paid dearly for it—he so much more than I. Life to this day, with his indomitable will and incredible courage, remains a hero from the darkest period of my life.
I am alive and well in the Texas Hill Country because I am white while Life is buried in a lonely New Orleans cemetery because he was black.
That is systemic racism in real time.