Gears of Racism

Dr. Tricia Rose Speaks as 2020 D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Speaker


Ava Robinson

Photo from the Speaker Series with Dr. Trisha Rose, taken by Ava Robinson, daughter of D’Rita and Robbie Robinson.

By Jacob Boxerman, Francis W. Parker Junior/High School

From a book-lined office on Monday, December 7, Dr. Tricia Rose, this year’s D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Speaker, addressed topics of systemic racism in her talk titled “How Systemic Racism Works in an Era of ‘Racial Equality,’” held on Zoom.

Rose spoke for an hour to an audience of nearly 500 about her analysis of the deep issue of systemic racism facing our country through her “five gears of focused research” —wealth, education, housing, criminal justice, and media––and how they connect to form what she refers to as a “tremendous and flexible and crushing, frankly, apparatus.”

Rose is the Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, Associate Dean of the Faculty for Special Initiatives, and the director of Brown University’s Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. She is a scholar of “post civil rights era black U.S. culture, popular music, social issues, gender and sexuality,” according to her personal website. Rose has a BA in sociology, as well as a Ph.D. in American Studies, and has spoken on a number news outlets, including PBS, CNN, and NPR.

Rose hosts a podcast, “The Tight Rope,” and has published three books, including “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America,” which the publication “Diverse: Issues In Higher Education” named one of the top books of the 20th century.

In her talk, Rose explained her “five gears” methodology for analyzing and discussing systemic racism. “It connects one sphere of society to another to another to another. That is to say, the police cannot alone be responsible for systemic racism. They would be one piece of the puzzle if and when they are participating in a discriminatory way,” Rose said. “And so understanding systemic racism … requires not only grasping the details of the specific discriminatory practices and the inequalities in one area of society, but also knowing how they work in interlocking ways.”

Rose used the “gear” of housing as an example to demonstrate the interconnected nature of systemic racism. Beginning with the history of redlining, with a special focus on Chicago, Rose explained how home lending and appraisal descrimination begin to affect not only generational wealth but also educational funding.

Properties in Chicago, Rose explained, that were deemed more desirable by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s gained far more value over time, compared to property that received a “D” rating due to their high Black populations. “And what else goes up,” Rose said, “are property taxes. So what happens over time is these values go up, up, up. But what property taxes do, is they fund our public educational system.”

Rose continued by connecting underfunded public education to the criminal justice system, speaking about racial disparity in school punishment, especially in schools with fewer resources. “Schools that struggle with resources and with students who are facing lots of challenges have a highly punitive model,” Rose said. “What we see is a culture of punishment for behavior that would in other settings … not be considered terribly dangerous or problematic.”

The statistics Rose shared from the U.S. Department of Education and non-profit racial justice organization the “Advance Project” showed that, despite evidence that both white and Black students misbehave at the same rate, Black students are expelled at four times the rate of white students, and also account for 42% of referrals to law enforcement. “These disparities are what push kids out of school, punishes them, and sends them a strong rejecting, criminalizing message.”

The talk also touched on topics such as how systemic racism is made invisible by insisting on the existence of a true meritocracy, or by “not seeing color.”

The D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Speaker series, established in 2018, previously featured speakers such as writer and commentator Charles Blow and University of Pennsylvania professor Howard Stevenson, and focuses on discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Rose was initially contacted by former Assistant Principal Ruth Jurgensen prior to her departure at the end of last year. “She had known of Dr. Rose’s work, and thought, obviously, quite highly of it, and pursued it and made those arrangements,” Principal Dr. Dan Frank said. 

“Part of the takeaway is to facilitate educational understanding for students and adults … we’re all students of America, and we have a lot to learn,” Frank said. “I’m very grateful to the Robinson family for having established this as an ongoing learning experience for all members of our school committee and beyond.”

One attendee was Parker parent Mosea Harris. Harris, who is Black, said that while much of the information was not new to him, he enjoyed Rose’s talk and appreciated the empirical evidence and Dr. Rose’s “five gears” approach.

“For me, for a lot of people, I would assume that we know something is going on, and we don’t stop and dwell on it,” Harris said. “You just keep working, and you just keep doing and maintaining your sense of hope, and humanity … But there’s an issue. It’s real good the way she was able to present it and clarify and show examples, and show what it really means.”

Harris also thought Rose’s discussion was particularly pertinent in 2020. “The term systemic racism is something that was part of the discussion over the last few months of political discussion. I heard some politicians come out and say, well, there is no systemic racism,” Harris said. “But with the kind of work that she did, it shows that there is something within the system that has these adverse effects.”

Frank hoped that other audience and Parker community members would also find value in the talk.  “For Parker to have the ability to have such compelling thought leaders like Dr. Rose, to speak to our community is really quite lucky,” Frank said. “It’s really clear why she was selected. …  Just the depth of understanding that she has about our society, and the key and vital issues about race and equity and justice are really compelling.”

Rose closed her presentation with a final discussion of the metaphorical gears of systemic racism. She suggested that one could “slow down this process by jamming in some kind of screwdriver or wrench,” and that by slowing down one gear, the whole system might be slowed.

“If we can find the pivot points, if we can find these intersections … we stand a chance at reversing the gears,” Rose said. “We can slow them down and perhaps begin to turn them the other way, so that we’re in the business of producing systemic opportunity.”

This story was originally published on The Weekly on December 18, 2020.