Structural Racism

I must confess I knew little and chose to know even less about “structural racism” or “institutional racism.” That was until I went to prison. I got to see first hand the fruit of institutional racism. It showed up in several ways. First, per population, 70% of the offenders in prison in America are people of color primarily African-Americans or Latino. They are not 70% of Texas population or the national population. Additionally, in Texas, reading and writing skills were poor at best. It would not be an exaggeration to say most of the offenders were at some level of illiterate. The last two years I was in the mental health department I made an astounding discovery. We have in the prison system a mental health diagnosis of “malingering.” Basically what it means is someone is faking symptoms where none really exists. Now, those diagnoses were not just given, they were validated by standardized tests. We only gave one. The In Patient facility gave the same one — the PAI — the Personality Assessment Inventory. It was shorter than the gold standard MMPI because well, it was cheaper. So many offenders were labeled as “malingers” because their scores were invalid. About two years before I left Polunsky, I followed a hunch and before administering the test, I ask the offender to read the first statement to which he was to give an answer. He could not. He could not read. Yet, time and again, in In Patient, he was labeled as a malingerer. When I started that simple test before administering the test, I discovered that my clients could either not read or could not understand the question. Few offenders would acknowledge they could not read or comprehend what they read. Tracking back through their mental health history, so many of them never finished school. Even with Special Ed they fell so far behind that between 9–11 grade, many dropped out. They were too far behind. There is a powerful correlation between the inability to read or write and criminal behavior.

The second structure I encountered was the justice system. The African-American or Latino are often given public defenders who are not invested in representing their clients. So these men and women who cannot afford legal representation are assigned legal representation. All of this is tragic but perhaps is most tragically demonstrated in the defense of those who are condemned to death for crimes they “allegedly” committed. I don’t remember when I began to give out the contact information of the “Innocence Project” but I did not believe some of my clients had been represented fairly. Perhaps it was the social expectation of most African-Americans they would go to jail or prison at some point, or believing some of the stories I heard. In our 3,000 offenders I had already notice the absence of the rich, the well connected, or the powerful. The one exception was drug dealers. Beyond that, there are few wealthy and well connected persons in prison — especially men.

The third structure I encountered was law enforcement. I am a deep supporter of law enforcement. My brother had a career in law enforcement and my oldest son is in law enforcement. I made myself available as a counselor to law enforcement, fire fighters and other first responders because I believe we are better because of their commitment to keep us safe. However, at least in the South, I am aware the history of law enforcement has been to suppress the slaves, and then the emancipated slaves and then to be the long arm of racial suppression that continues to this day. It is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. Too many men of color are killed without the requisite “officer in danger” or “people in danger protocol.” The most recent George Floyd death and response from the Black community is simply the reaction of another pointless death at the hands of the police. Do I support rioting — of course not. Do I support the burning of structures — of course not. However, I must be clear, it is time for this carelessness with the lives of people of color to end. It is also time, past time for Christian pastors especially of evangelical concern to step up and say this institutional racism is real and must end.

One of the lessons I took away from the prison was the rise of the Muslim faith and my conviction it was entirely a result of the failure of the Christian Church to stand courageously and declare racism must end. I saw the Muslim faith as a religion that “baptized” Black anger and allowed it to have a voice.

The fourth structure of which I became aware was the Christian church and it’s capitulation to the “way things are.” I must commend the Black Church in America for it’s commitment to walk with believers through the reality of their lives. To that end, some pastors are fiery revolutionaries who describe the social evils as they are. If I remember correctly, Barack Obama was a member of such a church in Chicago. Others take a more measured and pastoral route to help people within the congregation with life. I have no quarrel with either. My quarrel is with the silence of the largely white church which is blinded by the plight of fellow believers who chafe under the racism of the structures of this country. We should be ashamed for our lack of courage. We should be ashamed for our lack of dealing with the critical issues of our times.

The fifth structure is the begrudging support or safety net offered the Black family. Frankly, in Texas, we don’t like poor people. So our state leadership is always finding ways to narrow the benefits which go to help families in need. There is a reason why COVID-19 is decimating the lives of people of color. At higher rates than Caucasians. They are at the bottom of receiving adequate medical care, adequate mental health coverage, adequate educational assistance, and jobs that pay enough to support their families. While Black families are not exclusive to poverty, sadly, too many find themselves there. When we adopted our last son at the age of 10, we were unaware of the state’s willingness to cover him with Medicaid until he was 18. However, accessing appropriate care was hampered by how few medical professionals and mental health professionals accepted Medicaid. The reimbursement were declining while their costs were escalating. Texas government had chosen to pay obscene rates to large corporations to operate their Medicaid program. So insurance executives got richer while professionals who accepted Medicaid saw their reimbursements shrinking.

Sixth, public education in Texas struggles to help the Black family. Many families are single parent, often the mother who is working several jobs to provide for the kids. Men are often not in the picture in terms of support or presence. I shall never forget the offender I did a mental health assessment for. I learned to ask, “Have you ever been married?” If they said “No,” I learned to assume that was not the whole story. So I would follow up with, “Do you have any children?” This offender who previously said he had not been married, smiled and said, “I have 11 children — all with different women.” Now you might get on your high horse and pass judgment. However, you should understand this could well be a lasting influence of slavery. The slave’s family was of no consequence. Like the mare, the male could produce more slaves which would in term enrich the owner of the slaves. So family was not important and the effects of that linger today. It may be a coarse analogy, but I believe is appropriate to the situation. Many of my Black singe parents had no expectation of a man staying around.

The seventh structural racism is health care. For so many single parent families, medical care is “urgent care” or the ER at a local hospital. The kind and quality of options for health care, for nutritional information, of quality food choices are all driven by poverty or near poverty. Carbohydrates are less expensive, nutrition is easily sacrificed when the cheapest food is not a healthy choice. Without medical insurance, one serious infection can decimate a single parent’s finances especially when there is no insurance.

The eighth structural racism is power. For over 30 years, Republicans have tried to dilute the voice of People of Color. They have done this in redistricting, in running candidates, and major pushes to silence the voice of minorities. Voting legislation especially in the South has a single focus and goal: make it hard for minorities to vote. In Texas, State leaders are currently fighting mail-in balloting. This issue has risen because of the uncertainty about where COVID-19 will be in November and the President’s continue conspiracy theory that millions have voted illegality. So,State leaders are fighting the idea. Why? They will tell you because it opens the door to voter fraud. However, it is a non-issue. I was alerted to the Heritage Foundation(Conservative Think Tank) and their voter fraud project. Most recently they have documented 1,235 cases of voter fraud around the country. 1,235 documented cases. These folks have sifted, examined, collated, and documented 1,235 cases. While every case of fraud is criminal, trying to suppress voters and votes by restricting voting eligibility is dishonest and is more like what you would expect in a “Banana Republic” down in Central or South America. But sadly, there is more, voting laws in the South require picture Ids. You may ask “What’s the problem with that? Speaking from a Caucasian perspective, offering a picture ID is not a problem because I have either a driver’s license or a passport. However, if you don’t drive, or cannot afford to drive depending instead on public transportation, you may not have that most basic form of ID. You are also unlikely to have a passport. Unless mail in ballots are allowed, standing in long lines making one more susceptible to infection of COVID-19 is our future. I find it troubling we are more concerned about someone voting illegally than Russia interfering in our elections.

This is not an exhaustive list, but for me, it is a beginning to see what I have dismissed in the past.



Licensed Professional Counselor since 2002 Former Mental Health Manager for Allan B Polunsky, Maximum Security Prison which housed Texas Death Row, FormerPastor

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Michael Chancellor

Licensed Professional Counselor since 2002 Former Mental Health Manager for Allan B Polunsky, Maximum Security Prison which housed Texas Death Row, FormerPastor