Racism and Inequality: A look into modern history and beyond

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Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Racism — a word so divisive yet familiar, has plagued almost every channel of news media in the last few days in the wake of Georg Floyd's death. Thousands of protestors and demonstrators took to the streets across cities in the U.S. and around the world to stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. While the 21st century is supposed to be the most progressive era in human history, with the ideology of racial domination being a thing of a past and the inequality of racial gap closing up, in reality, it seems like we are still a far cry from the egalitarian world we have envisioned.

The birth of Racism

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Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Racism, the idea that there is a direct correspondence between a group’s values, behavior and attitudes, and its physical features, is one of the major social problems confronting contemporary societies. [1]

The prominence of Racism can be traced to the sixteenth centuries during the rise of European capitalism, and subsequently the development of the highly controversial Atlantic Slave Trade. It was estimated that well over twelve million African slaves were being shipped over three centuries from Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America amid the demands for cheap agricultural labor, like in cotton and tobacco plantations. The oppression and discrimination against these traded slaves, where their freedom denied and very often treated inhumanely by their masters gave rise to what we know today as Racism. Thus, Racism commonly refers to the belief of superior-inferior social relations whereby a “supposingly” supreme race looks down on a subhuman and inferior race.

Direct or indirectly, Racism has played a role in genocides around the world such as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and colonial projects like the European colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia as well as the Soviet deportations of indigenous minorities. Some states sponsored policies were also drawn up almost entirely based on racist politics, notably the apartheid in South Africa, the White Australia policy down under, the anti-Chinese legislation in Indonesia, among many others. Although most of these policies are no longer valid as of today, the legacy of Racism is still pretty much very alive in most cases.

More than just Racism

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Photo by Carlos Jasso on Reuters

Social scientists typically analyze racial inequality as imbalances in the distribution of power, economic resources, and opportunities. [2]

While Racism itself is antagonistic but it does not end there as just a matter between races, its perilous effects have prevented the marginalized groups from climbing up the societal and economic ladders. Statistics show racial inequality still persists on many levels in housing, education, criminal justice, employment, income, wealth, and almost every facet of our society. I could have very well cited all the statistics here, but what I want to emphasize is to look deeper into the root cause of the problem. Why, despite all the efforts, racial inequality still exists today?

Modern attempts have been made by policymakers around the world to enact legislation in pursue of a free and equal society, but the root of all evil is still the racial stigma we live in and can hardly move on from historical prejudice. The haphazard policy process brought affirmative action to life and only made it so far, without any structural or meaningful change in the belief of Racism. Discrimination, no matter how subtle and unconscious, can still be felt in day to day life. In my personal experience, I have been asked on multiple occasions (given my Asian appearance) — if I eat dog meat? The fact is I am not even Chinese; even if I were, eating dog meat in China is merely a stereotype, as only a very small percentage of Chinese do.

The death of Georg Floyd (and all other victims as the results of police brutality and Racism) should serve as the awakening call that real change and progress are what we really needed. It is also important to acknowledge that systemic Racism is not only a unique problem to African Americans in the U.S., but to all marginalized communities in the world.

Fight Racism — Starting from You and Me

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Photo by Slow Factory on Instagram

What can we do to fight Racism? We can view Racism in four hierarchical dimensions and at the base of the stack it says “internalized”.

Fighting racism starts from inside, within YOUyour belief, your feelings, your behavior, your action, practically everything about you as an individual.

This requires us to improve our self-awareness and mindfulness on sensitive racial issues. If you were born privileged, the best thing you can do is to acknowledge it then practice empathy and put yourself in others’ shoes. Being born privileged does not simply guarantee you an express ticket to success, but it may grant you a head start over people who were not born privileged.

For the underprivileged (although I hate to say this word), don’t feel ashamed of yourself and make yourself be heard. There might be times that one feels unseen, unheard, and even threatened, don’t let that fear engulf you but to stand up and speak up. It is not a waiting game when the world will be equal, because that is not going to happen overnight with one president or one vote. So you’ve got to find that empowerment from within to feel visible and to be heard.

Only those fundamental changes at grassroots have the potential to make any real progress. As more individuals start to embrace diversity, the interpersonal belief of inclusiveness and equality will assimilate into the newborn culture. Then it moves up to people making decisions at the institutional level, where Racism starts to dismantle itself, giving way to new bonafide egalitarian policy.

What to listen, watch and read

It is almost impossible to not be able to find any materials to educate yourself on Racism in this digital age. From cherished pastimes and amusing artifacts to spoken, visual, and written representations that make us guffaw one moment and shed our tears the next, popular culture is woven deeply and often very intimately into the fabric of everyday life. Thanks to various avenues in pop culture artists, activists, and politicians have tried to address Racism via different channels to make us aware and ponder about the existential problem of Racism. Here are some of my favorites:


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This is America” Single by Childish Gambino

Released in 2018, “This is America” is a 4-minute song meticulously curated to represent Racism against black Americans, in parallel to problems like gun violence and social injustice. From the song’s lyrics to the music video, Childish Gambino cleverly used the combination of musical and visual experience to deliver a clear message on the discrimination of black people. You can read more about the hidden meanings behind “This is America” music video on Research Gate or watch it on Youtube.

Documentaries and Films (available on Netflix)

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Brief overview:

  • The Birth of a Nation: A retelling of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. A literate slave and preacher, after witnessing countless atrocities — against himself and his fellow slaves — Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom. The revolutionary violence was thought to awaken the attitude of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding.
  • 13th: The documentary explores the history of racial inequality in the U.S. by focusing on the magnitude of the massive incarceration of African Americans as a result of social and criminal injustice.
  • Late Night: The comedy-drama provides an alternative view from a person of color (of Indian descent) into discrimination in the modern workplace based on the backdrop of the entertainment industry. It challenges the status quo of a white- and male-dominant corporate world by asserting the elements of diversity and feminism.


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Brief overview:

  • Twelve Years a Slave: A memoir capturing the life of a free black man, Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped as an adult and sold into slavery. The book vividly explains the penal system of torture and the threat that all slaves endured. The book has also been adapted into a major Hollywood film, winning several awards.
  • Becoming: Described by Michelle Obama as a deeply personal experience, the book talks about her upbringing in Chicago to balancing her role as a mother of two and the First Lady in the White House, the first African American to serve that role. The book establishes herself as a powerful advocate for black people, women, and girls in the U.S. and around the world to pursue a more active voice in society.
  • White Fragility: When it comes to talking about “Racism”, many whites quickly become uncomfortable or worst try to avoid the topic at all, a phenomenon known as “color-blindness”. The book discusses many different aspects and manifestations of white fragility that Robin DiAngelo personally encountered and offers tips to overcome the “white defensiveness” in real life.

We must recognize that Racism is an ongoing struggle, not a trending issue. The worst one can do is sitting on the sidelines and not do anything. The success of the anti-racism movement will demand years of work — from all corners of society. Even by sharing an anti-racism post on social media or sign a petition against Racism can make a difference to reach a wider audience and raise awareness. Educate yourself is perhaps the best tool to learn about Racism and how we can bring meaningful change in society. Some of my recommendations above on music, videos, and books can be a good starting point.

When the stories surround Georg Floyd and the protests fade from the news — which they will — we need to stay on track and continue to be as concerned about Racism and inequality as we are now.

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Famously quoted by several notable activists, including Rosa Parks and Jane Elliot.

p/s: All earnings from this article will be donated to NGOs addressing #racism #inequality and #humanrights, so remember to share to help reach a wider readership.


[1] : Kuper, A. (2004) The Social Science Encyclopedia. Routledge.

[2]: Shapiro, T.M. and Shapiro, P.C. of L. and S.P.H.S. of S.P. and M.T.M. (2004) The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. Oxford University Press.

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A Bitcoin aficionado, a tech enthusiast, an engineer, an entrepreneur wannabe, a world traveler. Find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jack-yee-tan-13221196/.

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