DEFINITIONS MATTER

A number of recent letters and discussions have focused on racism. This subject and its effects must continue to be explored and acted upon. Key to this discussion is the very meaning of the word racism. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”  But part of the second definition reads: “a political or social system founded on racism.”
It was this second part of Webster’s definition that prompted Kennedy Mitchum, a recent Drake University graduate, to urge Merriam Webster to expand its definition. It seemed to Ms. Mitchum that most people who read Webster’s definition notice only the first part, about “superiority,” and overlook the important second part, about “a political or social system founded on racism.”
For Mitchum, who is black, “it’s about hurdles that I had to jump over because of the color of my skin and the systems that are in place.” She argued that the definition of racism must address the issue of institutional, systemic racism more fully. The day after Mitchum sent her request, Merriam-Webster’s editorial manager responded that he agreed with her, and promised an updated second definition that will clarify the role of systemic or institutional bias.
System and systemic are the key words here. Our history tells us that the European people who “discovered” and colonized many lands, including our own, established a system designed to work in their favor. Select property-owning men could use the laws they made, and traditions they defined, in order to thrive at the expense of others: indigenous people, enslaved people, certain immigrants, and women of all races. And so, these laws and customs became a system that handed down certain privileges such as access to capital, education, property ownership, career advancement, and voting rights. As Randy Lewis reminded us at Leavenworth’s Black Lives Matter march, we live on land once occupied by Wenatchi Tribal people who were forced off the land they believed belonged to no one, and to everyone. 
Much of the system we have inherited has changed for the better. But our country, like those around the world, still lives under a system founded on racism, and sexism. 
A letter to the Chelan-Douglas Health District Board in the June 10 Echo underlined this fact. The letter’s authors, a coalition of Latinx leaders and immigration justice activists, pointed out the much higher rate of COVID-19 infection for Latinx people than for the general population in our two counties.
The authors continued, “We could look at economic disparities and cultural customs to explain these numbers; however, we cannot ignore the systemic factors” that leave Latinx and other communities behind. The pandemic “has clearly magnified unjust practices and policies currently in place.”
The systemic factors and policies cited have largely to do with agricultural workers, whose issues include enforcement of safety measures, promoting bilingual and bicultural communication, accurate and even reporting of positive cases, and sharing in decision-making.
As we in North Central Washington, and our nation, cope with increasing numbers affected by COVID-19, the letter’s authors urge against “rushing back to a ‘normal’ where some thrive while many barely survive.”
They conclude: “Let’s create a new community, together.”
We must listen to their voices as we make our way through grave new challenges and work to change old systems.
 
Susan Butruille
Leavenworth
 

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