Fact check: “systemic racism” is not racism

Fact check: “systemic racism” is not racism June 22, 2020


Remember when Pluto was demoted from planetary status and given the name “dwarf planet,” confusing everyone for whom the name implies that it is indeed a planet, albeit a small one?

OK, maybe I betray my age.  But it was a peculiar sort of label:  “yes, it’s a dwarf planet.  No, it’s not a real planet.”

Or on my Forbes site, I write about social insurance, and I say that it may have the word “insurance” in its name, but it is not actually insurance, and that’s confusing as all heck.

And the same is true of “systemic racism.”  It does not mean “very bad levels of racism,” nor is it the same as “systematic racism,” that is, racism that is organized and structured systematically.

Instead, near as I understand, “systemic racism” is used to mean the following:

a state of affairs in which, in a given country/locality, individuals who have been historically discriminated against are now disadvantaged and experience disparities with respect to such metrics as income, accumulated wealth, educational attainment, incarceration rates, health status/life expectancy, and so on.

(Do I have a source document for this?  See “What is Systemic Racism?” by the Catholic Bishops, which doesn’t spell this out directly but makes the meaning clear from the overall text.  Can a state of systemic racism exist in a country in which there is no history of racism, for example, because an immigrant group arrives and, while not directly discriminated against, is poorer because they are less educated?  I’m not sure.)

“Racism,” is, of course, different, referring as it does to direct mistreatment of individuals due to their race/ethnicity/skin color and/or the holding of the opinion by individuals (individually or in an entire community) that another race/ethnicity/skin color-group is inferior/should be subjugated.  This can be in the form of the extreme racism of the Nazis (because the term “race” doesn’t mean “as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau” but “as defined in the mind of the individual racist,” and the Nazis did indeed see the Jews as of a different race), or of the “unconscious bias” sort, to the extent that this is real (because, in fact, the Implicit Association Test itself is bogus).

Here is the “official” definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1 : 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

2a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3 : racial prejudice or discrimination

I suppose one might claim that the American political system is “founded on racism” but that’s been disputed, in the first place, in the various authors who have countered the claims of the “1619 Project” (see, for example, Lyman Stone’s essay, “Slavery In America Did Not Begin In 1619, And Other Things The New York Times Gets Wrong,” especially the section, “America’s Story Is of Increasing Refusal to Tolerate Slavery”), and in any case, it is an absurdity of a definition to claim that any “political or social system founded on racism” continues to be racist in perpetuity (not to mention the grammatical mess of this definition).

So what do you do with this differentiation in concept?

Consider the example of the “schools to prison pipeline”:

To the extent that black boys are being disciplined at a greater rate, and as a result they are more likely to end up incarcerated or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system and impeded from success in life, that’s one constituent part of “systemic racism.”

But is this because teachers make different choices in classroom management for their black and white students, due to actual racist actions and attitudes on their part?  Or are black students more likely to misbehave?  And if teachers/administrators dialed back on their discipline, would this have further unintended consequences, such as the chaotic classrooms being reported in schools which have declared the answer to be the ending of such disciplinary procedures?  The concept of “systemic racism” identifies this as a part of “systemic racism” because of the disparate outcome, regardless — and that’s the case for all such disparities — are greater incarceration rates of black men due to their greater propensity to commit crimes or the greater vigor with which police pursue crimes committed by black, vs. white, men, and, if the former, is it due to lack of fathers in the home, greater poverty levels, or something else?

Once you acknowledge that “systemic racism” and “racism” are two different concepts, then you also know that the demand being made of Americans is not “change your racist way of living” but “agitate politically for changes that will bring about equality of conditions, or at least vote correctly for those who will do so.” (Yes, activists like to use the word “equity” which means, in practice, “the set of conditions which produce an end to these disparities.”)

And activists are increasingly insistent that measures which try to remedy disadvantages, such as federal or state funding for poor schools, are insufficient, that far more drastic measures must be undertaken. For some, this means restoration of affirmative action where it had been eliminated (e.g., in California) and expansion everywhere (such as a recent opinion column in the Chicago Tribune which argued that affirmative action was opposed because people “didn’t want to give up the preferential treatment they received in every aspect of American life”). For others, this means reparations, cries for which are growing (e.g., in the form of a new bill in California), especially recently as, I suspect, a result of notions of money-printing so that one can imagine generous sums of money being directed at descendants of slaves, while imagining that it comes from no where in particular rather than from the taxes of Americans. For yet others, this means the extensive expansion of the social welfare system: government paid health care, tertiary education, etc. If, for instance, black families have less in the way of retirement savings that white families, then the proffered solution is for the government to provide more cash to retirees across the board.

But consider reparations:  when Ta-Nehesi Coates whatever wrote about redlining, I said at the time that this is the best-argued case I’ve seen — but, at the same time, whatever restitution-payments the government might owe should therefore be directed at those harmed by the practice, not every single resident of the country who descended from slaves.  (I later commented that claims that the United States as a whole profited from slavery made no sense to me, since the South, despite its slaveholding, was far behind the North in terms of development and, as a result, lost the war, but that any such claim is at any rate not contingent on others benefitting, as the federal government did not benefit financially from interning the Japanese during World War II.)

At the same time, if one speaks solely in terms of justice, the best case for reparations-for-slavery would be made against individual states.  The Northern states gradually freed slaves.  The United States as a country was not indifferent to the question of slavery but instead there were ongoing conflicts over the question, including such issues as whether non-slave states might be admitted to the union despite the effect on the balance of power between slave and free states, and whether the federal government had the power to compel Northern states to cooperate with slave-catchers.  There was no such thing as a federal government policy on slavery.  At the same time, slave states actively supported slavery, for instance, by restricting the degree to which slaves could buy their freedom or slave-owners could set them free, restricting their education because that would endanger they system, and the like.  And, of course, Jim Crow laws were entirely at the state level and perpetrated injustices to a far greater degree than the federal government.

Why don’t reparations-supporters agitate for Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, etc., to pay reparations?  Presumably, for the same reason as the bank robber robbed the bank:  because that’s where the money is.  For a small number of states, already mostly poorer than average, to be faced with such a bill payable to some portion of its population as well as outsiders whose ancestors had formerly lived there, would be enormously divisive and destructive — and that thought experiment demonstrates that the concept itself is flawed.

And, again, consider the statement of Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich,

We do not need a study of the causes and effects. Those answers can be found on the shelves of government offices and academic institutions across our burning nation. No, we need to take up the hard work of healing the deep wound that has afflicted our people since the first slave ships docked on this continent. And we need to start today.

This simplistic approach, that “we know what we need to do” and need only put that knowledge into action (paired with, “if we can put a man in space . . .”), grates on me.  It makes a demand that any legislation that claims to fight poverty must be agreed to because to fail to do otherwise is itself racist and, when coming from men like Cupich, turns policy disagreements into sins.  And I can’t go along with this.

And none of the foregoing is meant to say that a society/economy/polity with such disparities between one class of people and another is in any fashion acceptable.  But — again — there’s no simple solution.

But the key point, again, is this:  understanding “systemic racism” as “a state of affairs in which there are disparities” regardless of cause (whether because they are kept back by continued acts of racism by white people, or by dysfunctionality in high-poverty communities, or yet other causes) is a helpful reframing (for me, at least), insofar as it is a reminder that, regardless of one’s opinion on the path taken to get there, Americans do, by and large, have the same point of view on the current status (“disparities are bad”) and the desired end state (“disparities are eliminated”).

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