Kansas state senator rails against talk of systemic racism at tense and confusing hearing
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand is chairman of the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight. (March 15, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The exchange was tense and confusing, taking up several perplexing minutes during a Sept. 22 hearing.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, chairman of the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight, heard something he didn't like during the day's testimony, which focused on maternal health.

“That terminology of racism is being thrown around way, entirely too much," he said. “If you have information that they are doing this, we need to know this and correct it. But if you're just basing that assertion off of data, and saying it has to be systematic racism causing this outcome, that is not accurate."

Information presented at the hearing, as reported by Kansas Reflector's Noah Taborda, showed stark racial disparities for our state's moms. According to the 2020 March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card for 2016-18, Black women had a premature birth rate that was 51% higher than for all other women, at 13.6%. The Kansas Maternal Mortality Report for that same time showed Black women suffered 14% of pregnancy-linked deaths, but they were responsible for only 7.1% Kansas births.

Compelling figures apparently weren't enough for Hilderbrand to see systemic or institutional racism at work.

“I don't want research studies," he said. “I want, if you're going to accuse somebody of being racist, I want a specific instance of a (managed care organization) treating someone in a racist way. That way this committee can act on that, because there's no place for that type of action. And there is no place to be calling someone racist when they're not. There are two steps. If you cannot provide specific data on this, please, in the future, do not just call somebody systematic racist."

In other words, he doesn't want data. He wants data instead.

For some, the word racism may summon up visions of robed Klansmen, burning crosses or crowds protesting school integration. But discrimination against people based on their color or ethnic origin doesn't require violence, and it doesn't require individual bad acts. Indeed, racism remains pervasive throughout society because too few Americans are willing to see the systems they're part of and how they perpetuate inequitable outcomes.

The definitive Diversity Style Guide, sponsored in part by the Society of Professional Journalists, defines institutional racism in this way: “When policies and practices put people who are not of the dominant race at a disadvantage. This happens in government, business, education at all levels, news and entertainment media and other systems. Housing policies that turn away single parents, parents with more children or people with lower incomes can be forms of institutional racism. Hiring and promotion patterns can reflect institutional racism. … When people say an institution is racist, they may not be referring to intent, but to the structures and policies of the institution."

If one group of Americans is raised in lower-income neighborhoods and has less access to high quality education or health care, those Americans are going to struggle more. If another group of Americans make more money, live among other well-off people, and go to the finest schools and see the top doctors, they are going to succeed more. That's just common sense.

All of this can be seen through a simple tool from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation. Type in your address, and you can see your likely life expectancy. We are products of our surroundings, both in our early years and as adults.

Most importantly, we don't create these outcomes as individuals. No single person is a “systemic racist."

None of us set out to make one place worse than another. Most of us don't build our neighborhoods or create their schools. We don't conjure up others' family backgrounds or economic prospects. We don't decide whether a family has access to healthy food or prenatal care. All we have to do to allow injustice to continue is what we're already doing: Sit back and let events take their course.

That's modern injustice. That's why so many white folks today are complicit in allowing our fellow human beings to suffer.

More striking examples came from the Reflector's senior reporter, Tim Carpenter, last week. His story about the state foster care system spotlighted striking racial differences. Nationally, 53% of Black families face abuse or neglect investigations, while only 28% of white families do. Black kids in Kansas go into the foster care system at twice the rate of white kids. Experiences are different even inside the system, with Black kids moving more frequently and less likely to reunite with their families.

Let's make some obvious statements. Black people are not less fit parents than white people. Black mothers are not more likely to risk their own health or their infants' health. Black people want the same success in life as everyone else.

If these things are true, then how can we explain the stark disparities in the data? If we can't call these disparities what they are — dark threads of racism sewn into the fabric of our state — how can we hope to make positive change? We have to look at the information and call it what it is to summon the courage it takes to eradicate such shameful legacies.

The uncomfortable exchange at the KanCare meeting included attempts to educate Hilderbrand, a Republican from Galena, but he was less than eager to learn.

“Then in (the) future, as long as I am sitting as a chairperson, if you present testimony calling someone a racist, an organization a racist, anybody else a racist, you will not be allowed to testify," he said toward the end of the dialogue.

That would be a shame. Understanding and calling out systemic and institutional racism is essential for creating a state where everyone benefits. No one person created this situation, and no one person can end it. We have to work together, with clear eyes and open hearts.

That includes state senators.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.